How to Identify Shoplifters

Young girl tries stealing from an electronics shop
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Shoplifting is a bane for retailers. Inventory shrinkage cost the U.S. retail industry almost $47 billion in 2017, which are the latest figures from the National Retail Federation as of February 2019, and much of that shrinkage was the result of shoplifting.

All retailers, big and small, are affected by shoplifters; it's a frustrating reality of doing business. Store design and theft-prevention methods such as security cameras and alarms can help defray losses. But it's a good idea to train store personnel on how to spot shoplifting before or while it's happening. 

Another method to prevent shoplifting is store management. Retailers should consider store layout, adopt adequate inventory controls, and follow common security practices to combat shoplifting.​

Shoplifters fall into one of two categories: professional and amateur. While both groups can be skilled in the art of thievery, professional shoplifters make a living by stealing and may use force or intimidation. The nonprofessional shoplifter may be easier to spot and apprehend.

Shoplifter Methods

Many professional thieves work in groups of two or more to distract sales staff while they steal. Shoplifters learn to take advantage of busy stores during peak hours, or they may strike at times when employees are likely to be busy, such as opening, closing, and during shift changes.

Hiding merchandise is the most common method of shoplifting. Items are concealed in the clothing of the shoplifter, in handbags, strollers, umbrellas, or inside purchased merchandise. Bold shoplifters may grab an item and run out of the store. Other methods include price label switching and attempting to short-change the cashier. Some shoplifters might even try to return stolen merchandise to a store for a bogus refund. Whatever their methods, it is difficult to determine who is or is not likely to be a shoplifter.

Train Staff

The last thing a retail establishment wants is for a staff member to wrongly accuse a customer of shoplifting. Make sure that all staff with customer contact are properly trained.

Most of the time, if a store employee approaches a would-be shoplifter and asks, "Can I help you?" this is enough to deter a potential theft. But employees should be instructed to ask this question in a calm, polite manner. Any employee who is concerned about safety should seek a manager's assistance. Similarly, if an employee sees a shoplifter, they should seek out a manager. It is never wise for store personnel to try to apprehend a suspected shoplifter. This is time to bring in the police. 

Spot the Shoplifter

Unfortunately, shoplifters have no typical profile. Thieves come in all ages and races and from various backgrounds. However, there are red flags for retailers. While the following characteristics do not necessarily imply guilt, retailers should keep a close eye on shoppers who behave suspiciously. 

First, if a customer is spending a lot of time entering and exiting a store without making a purchase and seems more interested in watching a cashier or a sales clerk, that is suspicious activity.

Substantial shoplifting occurs in store dressing rooms. Retailers should monitor how many items an individual takes into a dressing room and how many items they have on exiting. Groups of three or more people who enter a dressing room together might be able to distract the dressing room attendant while one or more of the individuals walk off with stolen clothing or other items.

It Will Happen to You

Rising costs of living, less consumer spending, and increases in operating expenses erode profits and are difficult for retailers to control. However, the retailer can control loss prevention. Preventing shoplifting, stopping employee theft, and reducing shrinkage can help to boost the revenues of retail stores. However you handle it, the chances are that your store will fall victim to a shoplifter at some point. Well-trained staff and security measures can minimize your losses.