Spring 2005
Six Ways to Stop a Thief!

Nothing makes a retailer happier than moving merchandise—but not when it moves by “customers” who don’t bother to stop at your cash register. Shoplifting, or “shrinkage,” as it’s often called, is a reality in the retail world. But the good news is that you can control and virtually eliminate it, if you take the right steps. And those steps are often simpler and cheaper than you might think.

Some shoplifters are “amateurs,” and some are pros, who tend to be fast, organized and skilled. In either case, the key to cutting shrinkage is to create an environment that potential shoplifters feel uneasy in. “The most important thing to remember is that shoplifters don’t want to be caught,” says Howard Levinson, president of Howard Services, a security firm with a nationwide retail clientele. “The shoplifter who feels uncomfortable will go to your competitors to steal. That means you become stronger and your competitor becomes weaker,” he says. “Retailers often look for miracle cures or some special device or equipment that will reduce shoplifting. Those are all well and good, but the fact is that the most effective steps are inexpensive and frequently free.” Here are the top shrink-busting tactics.

1. Watch for common warning signs.

Shoplifters exhibit certain common behaviors, according to Levinson. Nervousness is one of them. “The shoplifter will often look around a lot and act in unusual ways, including movements that are too fast or too slow.” Other tell-tale signs: carrying large bags and boxes (the boxes may have false bottoms), and wearing baggy clothes, especially in warm weather.

Approach shoppers that exhibit any of these signs and raise your suspicions. “One of the best ways to reduce shoplifting is to provide good customer service,” says Levinson. “Ask suspicious individuals if they need help.” When a salesperson pays attention to shoplifters, “they’ll decide that this isn’t the time or the place to steal, and will move on to a store where employees are few and far between.” And if that person wasn’t going to shoplift, you’ve simply provided the good service you’d give any customer.

Dr. Kathleen L. Farrell, a clinical psychologist and co-author of Shoplifting: The Antishoplifting Guidebook, says “The idea is to keep honest people honest.” Don’t come on like Big Brother, she says. Instead, “maintain as much as possible a friendly demeanor when you approach a suspected shoplifter… Unless you’re talking to a professional shoplifter—who will move onto another store—the amateur will stop and turn into a shopper.” Also pay attention to how your staff interacts with shoppers, she says, and teach them these techniques as well (see #6 for more).

2. Eliminate hiding places.

Make sure there are no hidden areas in your store (even a cart can have blind spots) where shoplifters can pause and conceal their goods. Strategically placed mirrors can open up sight lines into hidden areas and keep shoppers honest. “Mirrors are one of very best tools for both merchandising and security,” says Farrell. If they’re positioned correctly, they’ll enhance displays as well as communicate a security consciousness. “Even mirrors on the ceiling can be very effective,” she says. “The ordinary shopper looks up and pictures himself or herself with the merchandise, [whereas] the shoplifter looks up and thinks security,” and decides not to steal from you. Tall merchandise displays often block your views, so “if you can, keep displays low to keep your visibility maximized,” says Levinson. All of these measures have a common goal: denying shoplifters privacy and secrecy in your space.

Sometimes easier said than done, of course. “Retail space isn’t cheap, and sales generally drive design decisions,” Levinson says. “There’s always a battle between ‘I want to sell it’ and ‘I don’t want to lose it.’ But smart retailers keep both merchandising and security in mind when changing the layout of a store and setting up new displays.” Use lighting effectively to eliminate shadows, where shoplifters feel safer. And keep aisles and walkways clear of empty boxes, hanger bins and the like, where shoplifters could stash the stuff they’ve just boosted and retrieve it later. (And that’s just good storekeeping anyway.)

In some cases you may decide to sacrifice security for saleability, Levinson says, but it should be a conscious decision. Perhaps you figure additional sales from a snappy display will more than make up for a higher shrinkage figure. But he points out that there’s a big difference between ignoring or being oblivious to what you’re doing to make things easier for shoplifters vs. making conscious, potentially theft-friendly choices for your location and accepting the risk that may go with it.

3. Block the “grab and runs”

Professional shoplifters often think “wholesale.” They’ll look for a whole box of merchandise that’s been left out in an aisle, pick it up and walk out the front door with it. Or they’ll pick up an entire display of goods and walk out. Encourage your staff to empty boxes of goods efficiently. And if you have “expensive merchandise, position it near a register or main aisle, not back in a corner,” says Levinson. Keep those items in clear view. If you don’t want to lock up those items, you can lock the display to the fixtures so no one can just walk off with it.

4. Watch for switched tickets.

One of the more popular ruses is to take a price tag off a cheaper item, put it on a more expensive one, and pocket the other tag. “Look for signs that people have manipulated tags,” says Levinson. “A particular problem arises with good-better-best selections,” says Levinson. “Thieves will often put the more expensive item in the box with the cheaper price tag.” One solution to train all of your cashiers to open each box and make sure the contents match the description or picture on the box. (Another option: seal boxes with security tape that can be inspected at checkout). An overall solution to ticket-switching is a scanning system that identifies each item by SKU plus descriptive details like color and size.

5. Know how to respond.

What should you or a staffer do if they see someone stealing? How can they take action without putting themselves in danger, or sparking a lawsuit for false arrest. Laws vary by location, so it’s best to ask your local police department. An investment in a relationship with your police pays rich dividends, says Levinson. They can alert you when shoplifting rings hit town, for example. They can also train your staff on how to handle the situation while minimizing the chances of getting hurt or sued.

Should you go to court to prosecute the shoplifter, or should you settle for barring the person from your business forever? That’s a tough call, especially for small retail business owners. “It’s difficult to take time away from your work [and] you may need to show up in court as many as four times,” says Levinson. Even so, earning a reputation for prosecuting shoplifters can be a powerful deterrent. “Shoplifters love going to a store where they know they won’t go to jail if they get caught.” Which is why so many retailers put up “We prosecute” signs. Again, let your police department guide you on local customs and on what to expect if you go to court.

6. Make your staffers aware.

Employee awareness is one of the most important keys to reducing shoplifting. Your staffers need to know how to spot potential shoplifters, how to approach them, and what to do. “Very rarely do I come across a company that discusses shoplifting with employees,” says Levinson. But that’s a big mistake. Not only should they know what to do, but why it’s important: “You need to communicate to your staff how shoplifting affects their paychecks.”

Some stores develop incentive programs. If shrinkage drops below a certain level, the staff shares in increased profits. Security experts applaud this kind of a program because it empowers the staff and encourages them to invest psychologically in the business. “Employees need to feel they… have a stake in the business,” says Farrell. The fact is, staff knowledge and involvement in theft-prevention is more important than investments in fancy equipment.

Remember, your goal isn’t to “catch” shoplifters, she says, but to prevent the thefts from taking place. “It’s our obligation to prevent as much crime as we can.” Says Levinson: “Companies that have the worst problems are the ones who forget about the basics.” And now that you’re armed with them, yours doesn’t have to be one of them.

Phillip M. Perry

Perry is a freelance writer based in New York, NY.
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