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How to Stop a Thief

Monday, September 01, 2008
9 Tips for Thwarting Shoplifters
By Phillip M. Perry

It’s a quiet crime. Sometimes the only evidence is a missing pair of jeans or a vacant display shelf. Shoplifting, though, can do a big bang on your bottom line.

“If your store runs at a 10-percent profit margin and someone steels a $5 item, you have to make $50 in sales to recover the loss,” says Doug Rector, president of Northwest Loss Prevention Consultants in Renton, Wash.

Shoplifting is bound to increase, given the current difficult economic environment and the approaching holiday season.

Although you can’t eliminate shoplifting, you can reduce it. Here’s how.

Tip 1: Interact With Customers
The best way to reduce shoplifting is to chat with your customers.

“Shoplifters want to maintain low profiles,” explains Rector. “They 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 overlook.

Tip 2: Watch For Telltale Behavior
Shoplifters often give themselves away by their actions. Rector suggests you quickly approach and offer some friendly assistance to any shopper who:

  • Remains in one aisle for a long time
  • Repeatedly glances left and right, as if to spot observers
  • Wears a heavy coat in warm weather
  • Repeatedly returns to the store without buying
Tip 3: Balance Merchandising With Security
Here’s a way to eliminate shoplifting: Lock up your goods in glass cases. Too bad your sales would go south fast. Your legitimate shoppers want self-service, and they want it now.

“There is always a battle between ‘I want to sell it’ and “I don’t want to lose it,’” points out Howard Levinson, president of Expertsecurity.com in Norton, Ma. “But the smart retailer will keep both merchandising and security in mind when changing the layout of a store and setting up new displays.”

Levinson offers these tips for balancing attractive merchandising and safety
  • Keep display racks at eye level. Tall ones create hiding places for thieves.
  • Mount mirrors to provide sight lines into hidden areas such as blind alleys in the back of the store.
  • Adjust lighting to eliminate shadows that are attractive to a thief.
  • Position items by size. Put big ones on the perimeter of your display room where you have the least surveillance. Display small, expensive items within sight of the cash registers where you’re usually present.
  • Be neat. Unkempt aisles tell shoplifters you don’t care about your inventory. And keep dressing rooms clear of abandoned goods that offer the sharks a real feast.
  • Finesse security issues. Got a colorful rack of dresses near the cash registers? That’s great for sales but bad for security. A thief can do what’s called a grab and go by picking up a handful of hangers and running out the door. Solution – rather than move the display to a less desirable area, reverse the direction of every other hanger.
Tip 4: Look 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. Another is to open each box at the cash register to make sure the contents match the label’s description.

Tip 5: Hire Temporary Help Carefully
Come the holidays, most retailers end up searching frantically for temporary and part-time workers. Caution often takes a back seat to necessity.

That stranger on your staff, though, might be a career thief. Consider running pre-employment background checks on people you don’t know, advises Rector.

“Most such checks can be completed within 24 hours,” Rector says. They are also fairly inexpensive, with the simplest ones costing as little as $25.

Consult with your attorney, though, to make sure your background check doesn’t violate federal or state privacy laws. You must only check what you need. If the hired individual will not be handling money, for example, you might run a criminal check but not a credit check.

Finally, don’t give new hires free rein.

“If you end up scrambling to get bodies like many retailers, consider limiting their responsibilities,” says Los Angeles-based security consultant Chris McGoey, who hosts the Web site www.crimedoctor.com. “Maybe you grant them access to the sales floor but not the stock room or the registers.”

Tip 6: Try Technology
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. Google “security cameras” to find sources.

On a budget? Pick up some dummy (nonoperating) 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 your merchandise. An alarm goes off when shoplifters attempt to carry stolen items through your front door. Complete systems start at under $2,000. Google “security tags” to find suppliers.

Tip 7: Respond Appropriately To Shoplifters
So you have a shoplifter in your store. 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 don’t do anything that will violate federal and 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.

Tip 8: Get Professional Help
You can get outside assistance to help you put together a shoplifting reduction plan.

Start with feedback from your town’s police force.

“Make friends with your local crime prevention officer,” advises Levinson. “An investment in a relationship with your police pays rich dividends. They can alert you when shoplifting rings hit town, for example.”

You can also have a private investigator visit your store and do a survey of your needs. Fees vary by locality but typically start at $75 an hour.

Tip 9: Use Your Secret Weapon
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 McGoey. “The only thing that’s changed is the new technology for helping deter thefts.”

Despite the advent of fancy cameras and electronic tags, the secret weapon in the war on shoplifting may well be a smile and a friendly greeting.

“The best way to stop a thief is customer service, just like the good old days,” McGoey says.




Author Phillip M. Perry, whose first job was store detective, wishes all retailers the best in reducing their losses from shoplifting.

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