Cash Flow Solutions

Keeping Your Retail Store Protected: Inside Secrets of Shoplifters

How to keep your retail store safe from shoplifters

It’s funny in a way. Nobody wants to call it what it is. Shop owners use terms like “loss prevention” and “shrink,” while shoplifters say things like “lift” and “dip.” Police and researchers say “shoplifting.” But they’re all talking about the same thing: Stealing

According to the Global Retail Theft Barometer, this kind of crime costs retailers over $100 billion annually in lost revenue alone. That reflects only the value of the stolen items. It doesn’t include the costs of maintaining on-site security, or the taxes paid to support criminal enforcement and prosecution of shoplifters or reordering and re-stocking stolen merchandise.

Do encourage pro-active customer service. Shoplifters require anonymity to steal. The more face time they get with your staff, the less likely they are to steal from your shop. It also helps your staff keep track of who’s in your store and where they are. As an added bonus, good up-front greetings encourage sales and repeat business. It’s a win-win.

Don’t just watch the customers (and fake customers) who come into your store. A recent national study determined that 43 percent of retail “shrinkage” comes from employee theft, versus 36 percent from “traditional” shoplifters. This is a sad but absolutely true aspect of doing retail business.

Do optimize your shop’s layout for security. Keep fixtures low for visibility, and to leave potential shoplifters feeling exposed. Make sure everybody entering and leaving the store must pass right by the checkout counter. Use mirrors to eliminate blind spots. Keep merchandise organized and spaces clean so it’s easy to spot when something has been removed.

Don’t hide your security measures. Although it can be gratifying to catch a shoplifter in the act, most shoplifting is committed under social pressure or immediate impulse rather than by a professional thief or as a lifestyle decision. This means you get more benefit for your buck by having obvious cameras and staff to deter theft than from attempting to catch and punish would-be thieves.

Do keep up with national and international trends. For example, gift card fraud and return exchange schemes are fast overtaking simply carrying items out of a store as the most popular and costly (to the retailer) methods of theft. After all, it’s easier to sneak numbers onto a gift card than to walk past security with a stolen plasma screen.

Don’t overlook people who legitimately buy something. Purchased merchandise, and the bags it’s carried out in, are among the most common camouflages shoplifters use to hide what they steal.

Do invest in a few signs warning shoplifters that you will prosecute, and reminding people that stealing is wrong. Research has found these are actually effective – especially (and amusingly) signs that feature cartoons or real eyes. Signs can be as effective as on-site security, and you don’t have to pay them by the hour.

Don’t try to physically prevent a captured shoplifter from leaving your store. On the negative side, you might be technically guilty of kidnapping if you try it. On the even more negative side, some shoplifters are willing to assault shop owners and staff to get away – even a thousand-dollar necklace isn’t worth being hurt or killed over. Ask for the merchandise, and focus on remembering the thief’s face so you can describe him or her accurately to the police.

Do consider a coded message – spoken aloud in a small shop or over the PA in a large store – to alert all staff members of a potential shoplifter on the premises. Like all good code words, it should not include any references that disclose the true meaning. “We have a code red in Housewares” isn’t as suitable as “Mr. Jameson to Housewares please,” for example.

Don’t understaff your register, and do have a system for bringing extra help up front in a rush. Professional shoplifters will strike at the busiest parts of the day, and target harried cashiers to sneak past. Many have techniques intended to fluster and confuse already stressed counter help. Do everything possible to encourage thorough, systematic work at the register.

Do “Face” items when possible. “Facing” is placing a single specimen at the front edge of the shelf, leaving empty space behind. This makes it easy for staff to tell with a glance where items have been removed. It also cuts down on labor costs during inventory.

Don’t leave the register unattended, or store merchandise near the doors. This kind of opportunity not only makes things easy for habitual thieves, it encourages opportunity theft in those who would otherwise stay honest. Even if this means reorganizing some of your stock, it’s not worth the risk.

Do lock all portable, valuable merchandise in a cabinet. Simply requiring employee presence to access the high-ticket items not only restricts access by would-be thieves, it puts a knowledgeable salesperson in the conversation as a shopper considers making the purchase.

Don’t stereotype. The image of a young teen shoplifting for a thrill might describe about 25 percent of shoplifters, the other 75 percent are adults who come in dressed in everything from street rags to a three-piece suit. In fact, many professional shoplifters will dress up for the occasion specifically to take advantage of stereotypes.

Do have a researched, considered and written policy on shoplifting. Train your staff on it and expect them to abide by it, including receipt discipline and what to do if a shoplifter is caught. Post your policy visibly in the store, and in dressing rooms or other high-risk areas.

And above all do not accept theft from your store as an unavoidable cost of doing business. Sure, somebody’s going to walk out of your shop with something they didn’t pay for from time to time, but you can and should take low-cost measures to minimize your exposure.

It’s your merchandise. You worked hard for it.

Do you have a story about shoplifting to share with the American Express Business Blueprint™ community? Tell us about it in the comments below. We’re especially interested in community members who experimented with shoplifting as a teen and then learned the error of their ways. What insider insights can you bring to the table?

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