Shoplifting and What You Can Do About It

U.S. Small Business Office of Advocacy: The Small Business Economy 2009: A Report to the President

From “Vienna [West Virginia] police are searching for organized teams of shoplifters who looted about $25,000 worth of merchandise from two stores at the Grand Central Mall in a single day.” Their haul at Victoria’s Secret and Aeropostale included about 400 bras and 350 pairs of panties worth about $23,000 as well as more than $2,000 worth of T-shirts. That’s a lot of cotton and spandex to move out the door. How do they get away with it? They do it by planning, personnel and the right technology. 

Planning. The check out the store ahead of time, casually looking around, noting places where floor personnel generally are, who circulates around the store, who stays at the register, where the manager is – that sort of thing. They are also looking for security cameras, alarms, hidden areas, loaded displays, the locations where their preferred merchandise can be found. The idea is to know where to go and how to best evade detection. 

Personnel. The lone shoplifter is probably an amateur and is certainly a low-volume affair. One person, after all, does not steal 400 bras in one trip through a store. Shoplifting on this scale takes a team, some to distract the employees and others to actually take the merchandise. The math is simple: The more people on the team, the bigger—and faster—the haul. 

Technology. The thing to look for here is a stiff, flat bag, especially one that is very square and not from any nearby stores. Bags of this sort in the hands of a shoplifter are usually lined with aluminum foil and duct tape in an attempt to foil the anti-theft sensors on the items being stolen. Police believe that this was the method used in the Vienna robberies. 

According to the San Diego Police Department, there are a number of things you can do to protect your store. Their tips include: 

Protective Measures

  • Make the shoplifters feel watched.  Elevate the cashier’s platform.  Install mirrors that enable cashiers and sales people to see over and around displays.  Install one-way glass in offices to enable employees to see into the store without being seen from the floor.  Install and monitor surveillance cameras.
  • Post signs warning against shoplifting.  Emphasize that you will prosecute.  The best way to discourage shoplifters and keep your business from being tagged as an easy mark is to take a get- tough attitude and prosecute on the first offense.
  • Encourage checking parcels on entry.
  • Require receipts for merchandise returns for cash.  Require a photo ID and signature for returns without a receipt.  And then just give merchandise-only vouchers.
  • Take an inventory of returned merchandise against receipts on a regular basis to catch false returns, i.e., ones without returned merchandise.

Display Strategies

  • Minimize the shoplifter's access to merchandise without inconveniencing customers.
  • Keep display and clothing racks away from entrances and exits to discourage "hit-and-run" thieves.
  • Alternate hangers front-to-back to prevent thieves from quickly grabbing bundles of display clothing.
  • Keep small and expensive items out of reach or in locked display cases.  Have sales people show only one item at a time from a case.
  • Use good locks and laminated or “strong” glass in cases that contain expensive items.  This will help prevent smash-and-grab attacks.
  • Arrange merchandise neatly to make it easier to detect missing items.
  • Take daily or weekly inventories of expensive items.

Fitting Room Security

  • Keep fitting room doors locked when not in use.
  • Install cafe doors to allow staff members to monitor fitting room use.
  • Limit the number of items allowed to be taken into the dressing room.
  • Post a sign that directs customers to see a sales person before taking items into a fitting room.
  • Issue color-coded tickets and tags to indicate the number of items taken into fitting rooms.
  • Use a return rack for unwanted items.
  • Post signs in fitting rooms warning against shoplifting.

Preventing Ticket Switching

  • Use tamper-proof gummed labels.
  • Attach tags with a hard-to-break plastic string.
  • Use preprinted, not hand-written, price tags.
  • Use concealed multiple price tags. 

Train your sales people to:

  • Watch for people with loose or baggy clothing inappropriate for weather, and people with large bags or other props, such as newspapers, strollers, briefcases, or umbrellas that can easily conceal merchandise.
  • Pick up stray receipts around the store. 
  • Be aware of shoplifter’s tactics to confuse and distract you.  For example, when working in teams one shoplifter will create a disturbance, e.g., complaining loudly, staging a faint, or knocking over merchandise, to draw attention away from the other who is doing the lifting.
  • Be attentive to people in your area.  This helps legitimate customers and deters shoplifters.  A simple "Can I help you?" or "I'll be with you in a moment" warns shoplifters they are being watched.  Keep a close watch on people who seem nervous or refuse assistance.
  • Cover their entire area of responsibility, even blind spots.
  • Have another sales person cover your area when you leave the floor, e.g., to check for items in the stockroom.
  • Be especially alert at when the store is crowded.  Shoplifters often operate when sales people are busy helping legitimate customers.
  • Watch for shoppers walking with short or unnatural steps, which may indicate that they are concealing lifted items.
  • Watch customer's eyes.  If they are looking at you they may need assistance or are thinking about shoplifting.

Train cashiers to:

  • Check the lower racks of shopping carts, watch for switched labels, look inside items that can also be used as containers for lifted items, e.g., tool boxes, jacket sleeves, waste baskets, etc.
  • Check for factory seals on boxed items.  And look inside if the boxes are not sealed.
  • Staple receipts to the outside of packages.
  • Check for and remove or desensitized electronic tags.
  • Be familiar with the store prices.  This can help prevent price switching. 

Have supervisors:

  • Keep employees alert by holding periodic review sessions on store shoplifting policies.
  • Discourage socializing on the sales floor.  A group of employees in one spot usually means inadequate coverage somewhere else.
  • Schedule hours so that an adequate number of sales people are working at all times.
  • Watch for customers lingering in one area, loitering near stock rooms or other restricted areas, or wandering aimlessly through the store.
  • Watch for customers who consistently shop during the hours when few people are working in the store.
  • Watch for customers who visit the store frequently, but make only token purchases.
  • Be alert for disturbances that distract sales people and cashiers.

Stopping a Shoplifter

If you suspect that someone may be considering lifting something, approach the person and ask "Can I help you?" or "Can I ring that up for you?"  If you suspect someone has lifted and concealed something, keep him or her in sight and notify a manager or security personnel immediately.  If you are working alone, request the assistance of another worker.  Plan a "buddy system" for your own safety and as a witness. 

It all boils down to this: Make the shoplifter’s job as difficult as possible. This is done through vigilance and professionalism, through arranging the physical space to make stealing difficult, by providing good and active customer service, and by using best practices when it comes to returns, receipts, tags and dressing rooms. This won’t guarantee you will never have merchandise lifted, but it will make you a much tougher target, one that shoplifters would avoid in favor of easier pickings down the street.