We can start with how the question was phrased, who was asked and—my personal favorite—how the interviewee interpreted the question. All of that fun happens long before the data is analyzed, which means that even the most honest, rigorous and methodical interpretation cant yield accurate results if the underlying data is flawed.
These thoughts come to mind as I look at a wonderful new survey from the National Retail Federation. The survey reported that 79 percent of the 99 retail execs surveyed in April said they had been a victim of organized retail crime in the prior 12 months.
Setting aside the gripe that it was 99 participants (for piechart purposes, it would have killed them to get one more?), lets look at that figure more closely. The other two answers might be even more illuminating: 12 percent said they had not been so victimized in the prior 12 months and 9 percent said they didnt know.
How does one define organized retail crime? More to the point, without any explanations, how would the surveyed retail folks interpret it? Is one shoplifter working alone an example of organized retail crime? Probably not. But what if that shoplifter is part of a 12-person team. Is that then organized?
If the retailers database is hacked, is it organized if its a 14-year-old boy fooling around? What if that 14-year-old is in Eastern Europe, sitting next to 40 other 14-year-old boys on PCs and they are all working for a modern-day Cyber Fagan?
Even more to the point, when a retailers database is violated, unless there is an arrest and conviction (a rare happening), how does the retailer have any idea how organized the attacker is? From their perspective, all they have is a data penetration by person or persons unknown.
This is all intended to say that we need to be careful putting a lot of faith into survey results like this. That said, such results do indeed reveal some interesting changes. Another survey answer, for example, had 71 percent of the respondents saying that they have "seen an increase in organized retail crime activity in the past 12 months." The interesting thing is that a similar group surveyed by NRF last year answered the same question "yes" only 48 percent of the time.
This begs the question: Did the surveyed focus on the word "seen" or the word "increase"? Theres little question that retail crime has, in fact, increased every year. But what has changed recently is that retailers are both noticing it and are starting to use the tools to identify it.
Historically, retailers have always known that a certain amount of merchandise doesnt end up getting paid for. That shrinkage can be caused by a frustratingly large number of items, from falling off a truck, to dropping behind a shelf to having been incorrectly logged to having been stolen by a shoplifter or swiped by an employee. Even worse, inaccurate supply-chain data left open the possibility that the "missing" products had never been sent or even possibly had never been ordered.
When improvements in retail technology in the shrinkage debate are discussed, its not merely technology to watch products in the store. Its helping to make sure that the retailer knows for fact how many widgets they started with.
Another intriguing detail from the NRF survey: 57 percent said "yes" when asked, "Do you believe [your] top management understands the complexity and seriousness of organized retail crime?" Thats even more frightening when you factor in that 43 percent said "no."
Reality check: How did the surveyed come to that conclusion? Have they had detailed conversations with their top management about this? Or is it based on lip service the top brass give in speeches? ("We must stop these attacks!" CEO Jones said, trying to look committed.)
For that matter, what would they have said had they been asked if their top management "understands the complexity and seriousness" of supply chain coordination? Multi-channel strategy? For that matter, "how to get the coffee machine to work"?
Scaling up the fright level is this Q&A: "Are you allocating additional resources to address organized retail crime in your company?" Well, given that this group concedes that crime is soaring, its organized and effective and that senior management understands it, we know what this answer will be. An overwhelming yes, correct? Maybe 96 percent? At least 89 percent, yes?
Reality check: The percent of respondents who said "yes" was 52 percent, with 48 percent saying "You expected something else, Mr. Retail Execs Put Their Money Where Their Wallet Is, Not Where Their Mouth Is?" (Kid, you gotta shorten that name if youre going to make it on Broadway.)
How is one supposed to rationalize that answer with the other answers? Yes, its bad and getting worse, but just about as many (given the margin of error) are not spending anything more to deal with it than those that are.
The only explanation is that chief financial officers still do not see a heck of a return on investment on security investments. Given the recent revenue boosts seen by TJX after the disclosure of their massive data breach, its hard to argue with the CFOs on a pure spreadsheet basis.
As long as consumers stand behind retailers with security perception problems, CFOs will have an almost impossible time justifying any kind of serious investment. There are a very finite number of dollars to spend and CFOs must stay true to a strict ROI analysis.
What could make a difference? Instead of having grabbed 46 million consumer records, if the intruders had instead grabbed 46 million pairs of bluejeans? Perhaps that might merit more than lip service.
Retail Center Editor Evan Schuman has tracked high-tech issues since 1987, has been opinionated long before that and doesnt plan to stop any time soon. He can be reached at Evan_Schuman@ziffdavis.com.
To read earlier retail technology opinion columns from Evan Schuman, please click here.