A Guide to Preventing Retail Theft or Shoplifting

How to Identify and Prevent Retail Theft

Well-dressed male shoplifting a book into his jacket pocket while he looks back over his shoulder

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The crime of shoplifting is defined as a customer taking merchandise offered for sale without paying. Employees can also steal merchandise which falls into the category of theft. No matter how big or small the retail store may be, all types of retailers are susceptible to the problem of shoplifting and theft.

Luckily, there are methods you can use to identify employee theft, shoplifters and shoplifting methods to create a less attractive environment for stealing your products. You can also implement shoplifting policies and procedures to protect your store against theft.

According to The National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, a nonprofit organization that is a leader in shoplifting research, more than $35 million worth of merchandise is stolen from retailers each and every day. Shoplifting has become a large part of retail shrinkage.

Clues to Identify a Shoplifter

In order to stop a shoplifter, retailers must first be familiar with the categories of shoplifters, common shoplifting methods, and know what to look for in customers who exhibit strange behavior. The main things to consider are visual cues. 

Most shoplifters use items to conceal their theft. There are those rare occasions when a thief will just grab and run, but that is not very common. Most have a plan for how they will remove the merchandise from your store. For example, a long coat in the middle of summer provides a great place to conceal merchandise. Female shoplifters often carry more than one handbag or purse or a very large purse. A purse is not something that catches your eye so it makes sense. However, more than one is unusual. 

Other places thieves tend to hide merchandise may include strollers, inside their clothing, umbrellas, even inside bags with items they have already purchased. Other giveaways include:

  • Paying more attention to the employees than is usual or customary
  • Picking up random items and "pretending" to look at them before putting them back down
  • Walking the opposite direction of employees and moving each time you move 
  • Taking multiple items into a dressing room
  • Adding additional garments to a hanger they are taking into a dressing area.
  • Causing distractions by knocking over items on displays or moving racked items requiring the employee to focus on straightening and not them

Using Preventive Measures Against Shoplifters

One of the most effective tools to prevent shoplifting is good retail store management. Retailers should also use store layout, adequate inventory controls and follow common security practices to combat shoplifting.

In your design, try to minimize the number of "hidden" places in the store. In other words, a place where an employee cannot see what a customer is doing. Not only is it a bad idea to block all views for shoplifting, but it also impacts your ability to provide service. Avoid overcrowding shelves so that you can still view across them.

A great way to prevent theft is through proactive customer service. If an employee is actively engaged with a customer, then it is very hard for the thief to steal. They know they are being watched. Use customer service to prevent shoplifting, it's your best weapon. Offer to take hung items to a dressing room for the client. Then check that garments are not double-hung.

Keeping your store merchandised well is a big help in the fight against shoplifting. If you have disorganized shelves, how would you know someone stole from you? Empty space on a shelf or display table should be a big signal something is wrong. But only if you are focused on merchandising. 

Stopping Shoplifters With Strong Policies

It is important to plan store policies and procedures for shoplifting early in the business planning process. You hope it will never happen in your store, but the truth is—it will. And when it does, retailers and their staff should be prepared to handle the situation.

Take the following into consideration when writing your shoplifting policies.

  • How do you approach a customer you suspect?
  • Is your policy to confront a suspect, and if so how do you confront them?
  • Who do you call or contact after an incident?
  • What documentation do you need after an incident and what information will it contain?

Make sure that you take the time to role-play with your employees on the proper procedures. This is not something they should "shoot from the hip." Train them well. 

Retailers are constantly struck by outside influences out of their control. And the truth is, the overwhelming majority of shoplifters are not professionals. But you can control your methods of loss prevention. Preventing shoplifting, stopping employee theft and reducing shrinkage can help ensure the retail store is keeping the most revenue possible.