Summer 2001
Stop, Thief!

How to Prevent Shoplifting

Statistically, you and every specialty retailer are positioned to lose big. That’s how it looks, according to the research. A 1999 survey of 11,202 retail stores, conducted by Jack L. Hayes International, reveals that survey participants nailed 717,055 shoplifters in a 12-month period and recovered more than $68 million in goods. Sounds good—until you discover that it’s only about four percent of their total losses of more than $200 million… and that for every dollar recovered, more than $23 is lost forever.

Shoplifting, plus other types of retail “shrink” such as employee theft and vendor fraud, can quickly erode the bottom line of any retailer. It can also stunt a retailer business’s growth: dollars that would have been reinvested in the business go to replacing stolen merchandise instead. Obviously, you can’t afford shoplifting. And you can’t afford not to prevent it.

The good news: you’re not at the mercy of thieves. Knowledge is power, and that knowledge needs to be put into action by means of a shoplifting prevention plan. According to experts, an effective prevention plan consists of these three elements:

  1. Know what to look for. You and your staff must know how to identify and detect potential shoplifters.
  2. Know what’s hot and how they get it. You and your staff must know which merchandise is likely to be stolen, and how it’s stolen.
  3. Know how to fight back. You must know—and use—proper counter-measures to minimize opportunity for shoplifters.

Shoplifters belong to all demographic groups, so it’s a mistake, and unfair, to single out any one group. However, “The 1996 National Retail Security Survey,” conducted by the Security Research Project at the University of Florida, found that while teenagers between 13 and 17 years old accounted for only about seven percent of the population in 1995, they were one-third of all apprehended shoplifters. At the same time, keep in mind that this group has a high level of disposable income and frequently shops at enclosed malls, so it’s important not to alienate them. And as the study shows, two of every three teenagers are not shoplifters. So how can you tell the good kids from the ones who might rip you off? And what if they’re not teenagers at all? Other age groups shoplift, too.

Start by looking at what they’re wearing. Oversized or baggy clothing (whether in style or not), large purses, backpacks, unseasonable outerwear (a coat or jacket in summer, for example), folded newspapers, strollers and umbrellas are some of the shoplifter’s tools of the trade.

Then look at who they’re with. Shoplifters frequently work in small groups-one person causes a distraction for employees, like asking questions to engage one-on-one attention, or staging an “accident,” while the others steal targeted merchandise. This tactic is a particular threat to common-area carts or kiosks. Also look for customers who spend more time watching you, your employees and other customers than they do at your merchandise: these aren’t likely to be shoppers. And watch for customers who hold items for long periods of time and then disappear into a remote area of the store or another part of the kiosk. Finally, keep an eye on vendors. Some have been known to conceal merchandise to steal at the same time they’re delivering goods.

What’s hot—and how

Knowing what kind of merchandise shoplifters want is a key element in minimizing your potential shoplifting-related losses. Studies show that shoplifters target a variety of products, such as: athletic footwear; cameras, film and photo equipment; CDs, DVDs and videos; cigarettes, cigars and tobacco; cosmetics and perfume; costume jewelry and accessories; logo/designer apparel (especially jeans) and underwear; novelties; over-the-counter medications and health aids; and sunglasses, eyeglass frames and other optical items. The items most frequently stolen at any given time tend to be those in high demand among the general population, which is what makes them all the more attractive to shoplifters.

How do they do it? They have many ways to take advantage of retailers like you. The most common way is to conceal merchandise on themselves (in a pocket or a shoe, for example), or in something they bring with them (like a stroller) or in an item they’re buying, like a cooler, a purse, or the box some other merchandise you carry is packed in. While you might think to look inside the cooler or purse, it might not occur to you to check that what’s in the box is indeed what’s supposed to be in the box. What happens is this: the shoplifter removes the contents of a merchandise box, stashes it where you won’t see it right away, replaces it with high-priced goods, and then buys the “box,” paying the price that’s on it. Interesting side note: whether they use this ruse or some other, research shows that many shoplifters do make a purchase and steal during the same visit.

Another interesting and unsettling fact comes from the “1997-1998 Retail Theft Trends Report,” compiled by Loss Prevention Specialists, Inc. Of the 166,259 shoplifting incidents submitted by 120 nationwide retail companies, the report reveals a relatively high percentage of them involved collusion between employees and customers. Just as it’s not unusual for an employee to directly steal from a retailer, it’s not unusual for an employee to facilitate theft by a friend. One of the most common ways this is done is at the point of sale: the employee rings a small fraction of the total cost of the goods the “customer” presents for purchase.

Changing or swapping price tags is another common practice, easy to do because it’s covert and quiet. It’s especially effective in retail businesses that hand-price individual items instead of using barcode systems. And finally, while it’s theft but not “shoplifting” per se, a common tactic is to grab cash out of the drawer while the employee is distracted. (Reminder: Never leave the cash drawer open if you or the employee isn’t right there to guard it!)

Also be aware of the existence of “boosters”—professionals who wear special “booster garments” (like special baggy undies, hidden coat pockets and the like) go into a clothing store, for example, and in a very short time walk out with undetectable bundles of goods stashed in those hiding places and/or wearing layers of clothes out of the store. These people are so good they’ve been referred to as “artists” by law enforcement.

At the other end of the professional spectrum are the “grab-and-go” thieves who specialize in high-end goods, usually designer clothing but also furs or jewelry. Working as a well-organized group, they enter a retail business and in a matter of minutes scope it out, silently signal each other, quickly grab huge armloads of clothing off the racks (hangers and all), and make a mad dash out of the store, out of the mall and, all too often, out of the area.

Taking control

Not surprisingly, retailers who sell merchandise like liquor and fine jewelry have the lowest level of shoplifting shrink because they tightly control access to their merchandise. And that’s a key element that every specialty retailer needs to adopt.

Counter-measures to prevent shoplifting begin with the design of your store, cart or kiosk, and your merchandise display. Ideally, experts say, shelving fixtures should be no more than 5′ high, so that they allow sight lines across the selling area. If you have aisles in your area, they should be clearly visible from the cash register. In fact, the cash register should be raised so that employees have a vantage point—a clear, unobstructed view of the selling area. You also need to eliminate any blind spots that might provide cover for shoplifters to conceal merchandise or change tags. If blind spots are unavoidable, install observation mirrors or even closed-circuit TV cameras. And don’t overlook the power of the posted warning. For retail carts and kiosks, posting signs that say “Shoplifters will be fully prosecuted” (or something similar) lets everyone know your eyes are open and that you’re serious. Finally, to discourage grab-and-go theft, make it a policy never to place valuable items near the entry or exit points or at the edges of a cart, and put small items of value in display cases.

Like most criminals, shoplifters want easy targets, and easy in-and-out. They tend to avoid situations that make them nervous or might constrict their movements, and will usually leave quickly to look for easier prey. For this reason, the most important thing you can do to discourage shoplifters is to train your staff to immediately greet everyone who comes to your cart or kiosk or walks into your store. The simple act of greeting them and making eye contact spotlights that customer from the very first. It’s personal attention that honest shoppers like—and shoplifters don’t. And the greeting not only calls attention to would-be thieves; it lets them know yours is a business that pays attention.

Equally important is to be adequately staffed at all times. It’s good business, of course—customers get the service and attention they deserve. But it’s also a smart defensive tactic against shoplifters, who need employees to be too few or too busy to notice them.

Because many shoplifters make a purchase at the same time they’re stealing from you, train your staff to check every item that could conceal merchandise, from small containers like purses and even eyeglass holders to larger ones, including those merchandise boxes mentioned earlier. For items in display cases, make it a policy to limit the number of items that can be removed from it at a time. That’s the one-at-a-time policy in action.

Plugging in

Many larger retailers choose to supplement these shoplifting prevention measures with a high-tech approach. The most common are electronic article surveillance (EAS) systems, like those made by Sensormatic (Boca Raton, FL), the largest company of its kind. You know EAS systems: electronic tags (or sometimes hidden stickers) that are attached to merchandise and can’t be removed without the proper tool, plus detection “gates” at the store’s exit that beep loudly if it detects an electronic tag going through. Dye tags are a similar device: attached to merchandise, the dye tag explodes (and ruins the item) if someone tries to remove them without the proper equipment.

Theft-busting

Know your state laws on dealing with shoplifters and how to handle the situation if it happens (or you suspect it’s happening) in your presence. Be sure your employees know what you expect them to do, as well—including safeguarding their own well-being. Law enforcement officials consistently point out that merchandise or money isn’t worth getting injured for. Finally, experts recommend that you always prosecute shoplifters, not only to see justice done, but to set an example for other potential thieves.

As a specialty retailer, you’re following a plan to make your retail business profitable. And a comprehensive theft-prevention plan needs to be part of it. These easy-to-implement recommendations are a good way to start taking every precaution. After all, you work hard for your profits. You want to ensure that shoplifters don’t cut into them.

Fred Delibero

Delibero is a regular contributing writer for SRR
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