Purple Haze: Ink-Squirting Tags Are Latest Anti-Shoplifting Device


"Warning. Tampering with this releases ink and could cause injury," promises a hard plastic disc attached to a dress.

Translation: "Just try stealing this." The warning is printed on an electronic security tag like the ones found clamped to apparel in specialty and department stores. The high-tech gadgets geegaws are the latest tools in reducing what retailers euphemistically refer to as "shrinkage." Most people call it stealing.

"The fact that it says `injury' and the word `warning' should keep (first-time shoplifters) from trying," says the 20-year-old manager of a Lakewood Center Mall store. Her shop is part of a national apparel chain that employs the ink-spewing devices in most of its 276 outlets.

"We've had known shoplifters leave, once they know we have these tags," she says.

In 1990, 155 of the nation's major retailers responded to a survey by industry analyst Ernst & Young that showed that retailers nabbed more than 436,000 shoplifters and lost an average of $20 million each to theft by employees and customers.

But retailers such as The Gap, The Broadway and May Co. hope to reduce those numbers with the help of the small, but messy, ally.

"Maybe (a shoplifter) will get it out the door, but we're going to ruin it for them," says Natalie Friend, of Security Tag Systems Inc., which manufactures a tag called "Inkmate."

The tags, about an inch in diameter, are made by a handful of companies. To remove the tags, sales clerks must use specially designed tools and keys.

Most models of the exploding ink tags contain two or four tiny, pressurized vials of indelible, ecologically safe, non-toxic dye that is released when the tag is forced or broken.

Before the ink-squirting tags were introduced into the market three years ago, retailers had only bulky electronic-sensor tags as their first line of defense. That system requires sales personnel to apprehend an offender, says Don Barnett, president of ColorTag Inc. in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

"There's no one to chase (a thief) down the mall. Certainly a $5-an-hour clerk . . . is (not) going to put their life at risk for a $50 item," he says.

The beauty of ink tags is the vindictiveness of their design, retailers say. Once the ink explodes, the pilfered goods are worthless. When the tags are broken, "there is a whole lot of purple ink," says the Lakewood store manager. "You wouldn't want to wear it. It gets everywhere.' In the past year, ink tags have been refined to include a sensor that trips a store's alarm.

Electronic or not, the tags are a deterrent, he says.

With national retailers losing up to 2.08 percent of their sales to "shrinkage," according to Ernst & Young, "loss prevention" is a major concern - especially for businesses such as department and specialty stores,, whose profit margins are slimmer than they were three years ago, says Jackie Fernandez, a retail analyst in Los Angeles.

"In times like these, shrink goes up because (retailers) cut back on labor, so there are less people watching. These kinds of devices are very important," she says. Regardless, shoplifters, 85 percent of whom are repeat pilferers, have already found ways to get around the ink tags, Ziegler says.

"There's an education; they're adjusting to the ink tags," he says. "When they start coming in with plastic baggies to put on the tag, then it's time for more technology." But that can be costly.

Recently made available to retailers is a tag that sounds an alarm if handled before it is deactivated, Ziegler says. But those tags cost $3 each - way too expensive for stores such as those owned by Ziegler's employers.

By contrast, devices like the InkMate cost 80 cents to $1.80 each, Security Tag's Friend says.