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Fall 2011 Stop Thief!

Whether you have an inline store, a cart or a kiosk, certain security challenges apply to all. Here are some tips for keeping shoplifters at bay.

Shoplifting: Few problems can be as costly—and as upsetting—as this perennial nuisance of the retail world. Unaddressed, retail theft can take a chunk out of your bottom line. The numbers tell the tale: If a store runs at a 10 percent profit margin and someone steals a $5 item, the retailer has to make $50 in sales to recover the loss.

The threat is bound to increase, given the current difficult economic environment and the proliferation of new Internet venues such as eBay, where thieves can sell their goods more easily than at traditional sales channels such as back alleys and flea markets.

Here’s good news: Shoplifting is controllable if you take the right steps. And those are often simpler than installing expensive cameras and video monitors.

“Retailers often look for miracle cures or special devices that will reduce shoplifting,” says Howard Levinson, president of Expert Security Consulting, a Norton, MA firm which counsels retailers nationwide on reducing theft. “The fact is that the most effective steps are inexpensive and frequently free.”

What can you do? Here’s some advice:

Tip #1: Interact with customers

The best way to reduce shoplifting is to chat with your customers. “Shoplifters want to maintain low profiles,” explains Doug Rector, president of Northwest Loss Prevention Consultants, Renton, Washington. “Thieves do not want to be noticed. Train everyone on your sales team to approach all customers with a ‘Hi, I will be here if you have any questions.’ That will be an excellent deterrent.”

Sound simple? Maybe. But it’s easy to forget. “Too many times I walk into a store and all of the sales people are talking with each other or have their noses buried in paperwork,” says Rector. “That situation’s ripe for a thief. Store managers need to get their sales people out from behind the counters and into the store.”

Tip #2: Watch for tell-tale behavior

Shoplifters often give themselves away by their actions, says Levinson. “The shoplifter will often look around a lot and act in unusual ways, including movements that are too fast or too slow.” Watch for shoppers who repeatedly glance left and right, as if to spot observers.

Quickly approach and offer friendly assistance to any shopper who:

  • Remains in one aisle for a long time
  • Repeatedly returns to the store without buying

Other tell-tale signs:

  • Large bags and boxes. The latter may have false bottoms.

  • Baggy clothes. These are often used to conceal merchandise.

Tip #3: Eliminate hiding places

Make sure there are no hidden areas in your store where shoplifters can pause and conceal their goods. Mirrors are great tools for both merchandising and security. Position them to open up lines of sight into hidden areas.

Even mirrors in the ceiling can be very effective. The ordinary shopper looks up and pictures himself or herself with the merchandise. The shoplifter looks up and thinks security, and decides not to shoplift at your store.

Tall displays of merchandise often hide aisles from direct view of employees at the front of the store. If you can, keep displays low to keep your visibility maximized. These steps have a common goal: denying shoplifters their privacy. Of course, sometimes this is easier said than done. “Retail space is not cheap, and sales generally drive design decisions,” admits Levinson. “There is always a battle between ‘I want to sell it’ and ‘I don’t want to lose it.’ But the smart retailer will keep both merchandising and security in mind when changing the layout of a store and setting up new displays.”

In some cases you may decide to sacrifice security in favor of salability, but this should be a rational decision. Perhaps you figure additional sales from a snappy display will more than make up for a higher shrinkage figure. Says Levinson: “There is a big difference between ignoring security and making a conscious decision to fill the square footage and accept a risk.”

Tip #4: Block the “grab and runs”

When it comes to making a swipe, professional shoplifters often think wholesale. They will look for a whole box of merchandise that has been left out in an aisle, pick it up and walk out the front door with it. Or they will pick up an entire display of goods and walk out.

Encourage your staff to empty boxed materials efficiently. And position expensive merchandise near a register or main aisle, not back in a corner.

Bonus tip: While you may not want to lock up expensive items, you can lock some merchandise to fixtures so shoplifters will not be able to abscond with a large amount of goods.

Tip #5: Watch for ticket switchers

Thieves love to paste tags from cheaper items onto more expensive ones. “Look for torn tags at check out,” suggests Levinson.

A particular problem often arises with good-better-best selections. “Thieves will often put a more expensive item in a box with a cheaper price tag,” says Levinson. One solution is to seal all boxes with security tape which can be inspected at checkout.

Bonus tip: Clear your aisles of any empty boxes or other containers where shoplifters can temporarily stash merchandise for later retrieval.

Tip #6: Make technology your friend

Consider a simple network of several security cameras linked by wire to a monitor at your cash register. These systems can often be purchased for under $700. On a budget? Pick up some “dummy” (non-operable) cameras and mount them in key spots. These can be effective, particularly with novice shoplifters. If someone is in the aisle and asks himself ‘should I steal or shouldn’t I?’ the dummy camera can tilt things in your favor. Cost: Less than $40 each.

Consider applying radio frequency (RF) security tags to selected merchandise. An alarm goes off when shoplifters attempt to carry stolen items through your front door. Complete systems start at under $2,000.

Tip #7: Respond appropriately to shoplifters

So you have a shoplifter in your store. Just what should you do? Here’s a suggestion from Rector: “Sometimes the best response is a simple ‘Can I help you find anything else?’ That’s often sufficient to make the shoplifter drop the items and run out of the store.”

Anything more than that can be dicey. Seek counsel from your attorney to make sure you do not do anything that will violate federal or state laws. Done wrongly, confronting a shoplifter can spark a lawsuit for false arrest. You can also be sued if the person is hurt while fleeing. For these and other reasons, most retailers no longer arrest and prosecute shoplifters.

Remember that your goal is not to “catch shoplifters,” but to reduce the incidence of theft. “Shoplifting has been around as long as retailers have been in business and it’s not going away,” says Los Angeles-based security consultant Chris McGoey. “The only thing that’s changed is the new technology for helping deter thefts.”

Despite the advent of fancy cameras and electronic tags, says McGoey, the secret weapon in the war on shoplifting may well be a smile and a friendly hello. “The best way to stop a thief is customer service, just like the good old days.”

Phillip M. Perry

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

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