February 19, 2015

23 Ways to Prevent Shoplifting

Read more about Business

Are you doing enough to protect your business from shoplifting? Experts estimate that shoplifting costs retailers billions of dollars each year. Here are 23 ways to make sure that you're not on the losing end of the battle with retail thieves.

© Daniel Lobo (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

1. Pay attention to peak times for shoplifting

Just as there are high seasons for shopping, there are also high shoplifting seasons. According to the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, Wednesday to Saturday are popular days for shoplifters, and the afternoon and evening are the prime hours for shoplifting. Before the holidays and summertime are also high-risk times.

2. Recognize that anyone can be a shoplifter

When it comes to profiling the typical shoplifter, all bets are off. While you’re keeping a close eye on the group of rambunctious teenagers in the corner of your store, your most loyal customer could be hiding merchandise up his sleeve. A study out of the University of Florida covertly monitored 1,365 shoppers in a drugstore in Atlanta, and their data proved many stereotypes wrong. For instance, they found that men stole more than women, and that the majority of shoplifters were middle-aged, gainfully employed people. When studying the racial background of shoplifters, they found that no race was more likely to steal than any other. Identifying potential thieves based on stereotypes is harmful to your customers and your business. As a general rule, you should treat all customers with the same amount of respect and suspicion.

3. Build relationships with customers

Customers can be potential shoplifters or potential allies, depending on how you look at it. Getting to know your customers by name, building relationships with them, and gaining their trust should be something that all business owners strive to do, but doing so can also help you combat shoplifting. Many shoplifters steal from places that they frequent regularly, so learning your customers’ names may deter possible shoplifters because they’ll know you can easily identify them. The Handbook of Research on Retail-Consumer Relationship Development suggests appealing to customers’ sense of honesty and integrity; even if they are not shoplifters themselves, they will be more likely to report suspicious activity.

4. Keep a tidy store

Keeping your inventory organized will help you notice any anomalies or missing merchandise. For example, a person may switch the price tags on an item to pay a cheaper price, or they may move a product to a less visible part of the store so that they can make their grab when no one will notice. In fact, a messy store may actually attract would-be thieves. Caroline Cardone found that to be the case in her study; she determined that shoplifters seek out chaotic stores because their criminal activity is unlikely to get noticed (or when it is noticed, it will be too late for anyone to do anything about it).

5. Know the signs of shifty behavior

There are some obvious and not-so-obvious signs that someone might be planning to steal from your store, and both you and your employees should know how to recognize them. A person might wander around aimlessly without picking up anything to buy. They might appear nervous or look at employees to see if they’re being watched. They may carry large purses or objects for hiding merchandise. Train yourself on current trends just as you should continually train your staff. After all, training is a key tactic for loss prevention, according to organizational defense expert Eric N. Smith’s book, Workplace Security Essentials.

6. Give the illusion of running a tight ship even if you don’t

Keeping in mind that shoplifters target stores with cramped conditions because they provide good cover for their criminal activities, you should view tidying up as a high priority, particularly in highly visible areas. Always keep the storefront pristine, especially during closing time when potential thieves may be scoping out targets. The idea is to deter and discourage thieves, as if you are telling them to move along to another place when they see how orderly everything looks in your shop.

7. View your merchandise as a thief would

Take a look at the way you display your inventory. Say you have an electronics store and your stock of batteries is disappearing. Why continue to display them on the bottom shelf of the last aisle where thievery won’t be noticed? Rearrange your inventory so that the small, expensive, or easy to steal items are harder to snag (or better yet, lock them up in a display case). A study from Cambridge University tested whether moving inventory around and putting items in more visible and less accessible places had any effect on shoplifting. It turns out that the incidence of shoplifting immediately decreased, but over time reached the same level as before. Their study implies that rearranging merchandise does work, but it must be paired with increased vigilance from your employees.

8. Be wary of loitering groups of customers

While the lone wolf criminal may be the norm, some shoplifters work in groups. Be wary of groups of people loitering in one part of the store, or groups that split up upon entering your business. According to Smith, a common tactic for a group of shoplifters is to distract employees while another person commits the theft. The distraction can be in the form of a disturbance or a genuine question that requires an employee’s full attention.

9. Involve local law enforcement

As a business owner, you have to make hard choices to protect your business from shoplifting, and one of those might be calling local police. It’s a tough decision to make. Should you call the police for the 14-year-old who tried to steal a $14 pair of headphones? Or the stay-at-home mom who hid baby formula in her baby’s stroller? Partnering with local law enforcement can help you formulate a plan to protect your business, whether you choose to press charges against shoplifters or not.

One thing’s for certain – if you never involve law enforcement, you’re opening yourself up for repeat offenders and the reputation of being easy on shoplifters. A business in Mesa, Arizona, partnered with local police to solve their shoplifting problem, and it resulted in a 21% decrease in shoplifting. If your store has a shoplifting problem, you shouldn’t try to resolve it alone.

10. Always have more than one employee working

Even if you have a small store, having more than one person on the clock has its benefits. You’ll have more employees to clean the store, help customers, attend to the register, and serve as a disincentive to shoplifters. Researchers Carri Casteel and Corinne Peek-Asa compared studies that were conducted after liquor stores implemented robbery prevention methods. They found that stores with at least two people working, instead of just one, experienced a decline in robberies, sometimes as much as 65%. Although robbery is different from shoplifting (the latter being done secretly, while robberies usually include force), the study implies that having more people on staff can discourage would-be thieves.

11. Use shorter display cases to increase visibility

Tall displays may fit with the feng shui of your store, but it’s not doing you any favors where shrinkage is concerned. Tall displays obstruct your view of potential shoplifters, giving them ample opportunity to steal what they want. In the study by Cardone, shoplifters reported seeking stores with blind spots or aisles that were hidden from view. Experts suggest that aisle displays should be shorter so that everything is within view of the cash register, and displays along the wall should be taller for the same reason.

12. Move your cash register close to the exit

The interior design of your store can have a significant effect on whether your store will be a target for shoplifters. Criminologist C. Ray Jeffrey formulated a way to deter criminal behavior through environmental design, called Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design. One of the ways store owners can conduct informal surveillance is by putting the register close to the door, so that all customers must pass by store personnel upon exiting. Shoplifters may think twice if they know they have to worry about passing you on their way out the door with stolen merchandise bulging out of their pockets.

13. Install mirrors

Mirrors can help eliminate blind spots and ensure that employees can monitor customer activity from anywhere in the store. The retail chain Save Mart implemented a variety of tactics to reduce shoplifting that included many prevention methods on this list. The Australian Institute of Criminology studied their interventions and found that shorter display racks, wider aisles, and convex mirrors helped them decrease shoplifting incidents in their store by 21% over a one-year period.

14. Implement a locker policy

An effective way of reducing shoplifting in your store is to reduce the opportunities shoplifters have to conceal your merchandise on their person. While you can’t ban baggy clothes or umbrellas, you can require large bags to be checked by an employee and stored in a locker. A study by Paul Ekblom analyzed a London-based music store’s attempts at reducing shoplifting, and found that 29% of shoplifters used a bag to hide the stolen merchandise. Having a locker policy minimizes the places that a shoplifter can hide your merchandise and sends a strong message to possible thieves.

15. Use electronic article surveillance

Using electronic tags on your merchandise may seem expensive and labor-intensive, but it’s worth the cost. A group of researchers from Cambridge University conducted an experiment to compare three different shoplifting prevention methods. They found that using electronic tags decreased the number of stolen items by 20% over time. If you have a large inventory and a hard time keeping track of it, security tags will at least help ensure that your merchandise doesn’t leave your store without being paid for.

16. Install a buzzer for the store entrance

You know those annoying doorbells you hear when you enter convenience stores? They serve a purpose, and it’s not just to get lazy employees to greet a new customer. Law enforcement from all over the U.S. suggest that local businesses install doorbells because it helps employees monitor exits from any point in the store and may discourage shoplifters from taking off with your merchandise. Door buzzers alert you and employees of customers who are entering or leaving the premises, which can help you improve customer service and take note of any suspicious behavior.

17. Use shoplifting signage

Posting signs warning against shoplifting may seem redundant or outdated, but they’re still useful as a preventative measure. A study of a department store that posted warning signs in an area frequently targeted by shoplifters reported that shoplifting decreased moderately after the signs were posted, suggesting that signage should be used in conjunction with other preventative methods. Warning signs are exactly that – a warning to your customers that you take security seriously.

18. Require employees to monitor dressing rooms

If you’re in the clothing business and have unattended fitting rooms in your store, you’re providing shoplifters with the perfect environment to steal. Hidden from the prying eyes of fellow customers and employees, shoplifters have the privacy and time to remove any price tags and hide the merchandise where they want. Fitting room attendants are an integral part of offering good customer service. They can help customers who are there to shop (and pay) for your merchandise, and also catch possible thieves in the act. The School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University advises that store employees closely monitor fitting rooms, or better yet, keep them locked when not in use.

19. Implement a strict return and refund policy

Not all shoplifters are secretly hiding your merchandise in their coat pockets and disappearing into the night. Some shoplifters employ other methods of stealing from your business, such as price tag switching and refund fraud. The loss prevention consulting agency Jack L. Hayes International estimates that annual losses from fake returns or refunds total $16 billion a year. Fraudsters steal merchandise, then either attempt to return the product without a receipt or make a fake one on their home computer. Basically, a shoplifter who commits refund fraud is stealing from you twice! A strict return and refund policy, as well as unique receipts, can make it harder for thieves to steal from you and profit from it.

20. Improve customer service

Loss prevention experts claim that providing excellent customer service, such as greeting customers and asking if they need assistance, can scare off would-be shoplifters. Many shoplifters balk when they’re forced to interact with store personnel; they feel like they are being watched and it increases the chances that they will be identified later. Lloyd W. Klemke wrote in his book, The Sociology of Shoplifting, that poor customer service can create an angry customer, who in turn shoplifts out of frustration. Be nice and you can minimize the risk that someone will steal behind your back.

Tip: Make Customers Happy

21. Always keep tabs on your inventory

It’s hard to combat shoplifting if you don’t know what you’re missing. In a study from the University of Leicester of five major retail companies, researchers found that accurate data collection and weekly monitoring of inventory helped one company’s loss prevention team notice trends and minimize shrinkage. Your small business may not require a loss prevention team or possess a large inventory, but you should know your products and be able to account for them.

22. Never leave your store or cash register unattended

You know this one already, but your new hires may not realize the importance of it. There are many situations where you or another employee need to leave the sales floor or cash register to look for a product that’s not on the shelf, or even just take a break. The way around this gap is to make sure someone is always at the cash register, no matter the circumstances. Make it a policy if you haven’t already done so. Need some ammo to convince others this is a key point? Seventy-five percent of respondents in a shoplifting survey conducted by Michele Tonglet admitted that they might steal from a store without planning to beforehand if the opportunity presented itself. Your job as a business owner is to make sure shoplifters don’t have the opportunity.

23. Install security cameras and monitors

Shoplifters may be brazen enough to steal your merchandise from right under your nose, but they’re still cowardly enough to not want to get caught. The Casteel and Peek-Asa study also found that convenience stores that installed video cameras experienced a 54% decrease in robberies. Video cameras discourage shoplifting and robberies because they provide evidence that can be used to identify a thief and prosecute them if need be. Nobody likes to be watched, least of all when they’re breaking the law.

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