Stopping Theft

Preventing Shoplifters from Stealing Your Profits

As far as Julie Hemmerling is concerned, preventing loss from shoplifting is pretty straightforward: it’s simply good service. “We do what we do. We greet customers, we say hello,” says the owner-manager of CJ’s Liquor Store in Whitecourt. “You watch the customers. You see if they’re looking for something, or you see if they’re shady. You watch their eyes. And you just kind of know.”

These days, she’s more worried about the spate of burglaries that has hit Alberta liquor stores, midnight smash-and-grabs that she blames on a faltering economy and the loss of jobs in the oil patch. Still, shoplifting is a major, and expensive, problem for all retailers and especially liquor stores. The Retail Council of Canada notes that retail crime costs Canadian store owners approximately $4 billion a year, and the Global Retail Theft Barometer reports that wine and spirits are the most likely items to be stolen in the food and beverage category.

Anyone can be a shoplifter. It’s just as likely to be the guy in the expensive suit checking out the single malts as it is the jean-jacketed kids horsing around by the beer cooler. As Hemmerling notes, “It’s surprising who steals from you. It can even be your regular customers, and one day they put a mickey in their pocket.” In fact, the US National Association for Shoplifting Prevention notes that one in every 11 people is a shoplifter, and they will very likely buy and steal your products in the same visit.

So how do you protect yourself and stop your profits from walking out the front door?

Retail crime costs Canadian store owners approximately $4 billion a year.
Canadian retailers are losing $10 million a day to shrinkage.


Loss Prevention by Design

Professional or amateur, shoplifters are most likely to target small items they can tuck in a pocket, purse, or backpack when no one’s looking. So someone has to be looking all the time. That’s not so easy when you have something blocking your view. Take a look around your store. Are there clear sightlines from the till? Do high shelves block certain areas? Are there shadowy corners you just can’t see? The first order of loss prevention is to get rid of those blind spots. For that you may need to install security mirrors, better lighting, and lower shelving units.

Also, keep your store neat and well-organized, with products lined up along the edge of the shelves so you can tell immediately if something is missing, suggests Los-Angeles-based security expert Chris McGoey, founder of the website Move small items away from the exits. Put them behind the cash register, lock them in a case, or use tethers, cables, or secure hooks that require a salesperson’s assistance to open. And make sure to place the checkout where every customer will have to pass it when exiting.

Putting Technology to Work

Technology offers a huge array of solutions for retail theft, some more effective than others. According to the Global Retail Theft Barometer, the most effective are electronic article surveillance (EAS) or radio-frequency identification (RFID) devices, which include labels, bottle locks and tags that will set off an alarm if the thief takes them through a checkpoint. True, some professionals have found ways to defeat these, but they will still deter most shoplifters.

Somewhat less effective, but still useful, are CCTV cameras. The American-based company Loss Prevention Systems Inc. notes that cameras are only reactive, not proactive, and shoplifters rarely worry about them because they know few stores have enough staff to monitor them. Cameras are, however, useful for deterring employee theft (which costs retailers more than shoplifting), and can provide crucial evidence in the rare instance that a theft or burglary results in an arrest.

Bring In the Professionals

Any security expert will tell you the same thing: Unless you are a trained security guard, don’t confront a thief. It’s not worth the risk. Instead, report the incident to the police. That’s not always so easy.

According to the US-based National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, on average, habitual shoplifters steal 1.6 times a week, are caught every 48th time they steal, and are only turned over to police half of those times. No wonder the corporate consulting firm PwC estimates Canadian retailers are losing $10 million a day to shrinkage (including external, employee, and vendor theft). Those costs are passed on to consumers at an estimated $200 per person, per year. Call it a theft tax.

Meanwhile, Canada is experiencing a growing problem with organized retail crime. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service has reported that approximately 950 organized retail crime groups are operating in this country. They get away with it because of low reporting rates and laughably small penalties (typically a fine or probation at worst, and exceedingly rarely, a two-year prison sentence for a repeat offender). This is why the Retail Council of Canada has long been demanding longer sentences for retail crimes.

Ironically, in some cases, penalties for reporting a crime can be worse than for committing one! Canada’s privacy laws place severe restrictions on what information retailers can share about criminals, and in the US especially, retailers have faced serious lawsuits for “allegations of false arrest, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, excessive use of force, and assault,” notes McGoey.

The solution, then, rests with prevention.

Provide Good Service

One of the best ways to prevent shoplifting is with attentive customer service. The online retail expert suggests that it starts by greeting each customer, so they are aware of your presence, and then ensuing that you have enough floor staff to help legitimate customers while watching others for suspicious activity.

It’s also a good idea to get to know your customers. According to the US Loss Prevention Research Council, slightly more than half of habitual shoplifters say they usually steal from stores near where they live or work. Chances are, they’ve been in your store before, and will be again.

McGoey reminds us that “Shoplifters come in all shapes and sizes, ages and sexes, and vary in ethnic background, education, and economic status. Some shoplifters steal for the excitement, some steal out of desire, some steal for need, some steal out of peer pressure, and some steal because it is simply a business transaction to them.”

But no matter why they steal, you don’t want them stealing from you. The time to stop it is now.

Loss Prevention Dos and Don’ts
These are the top tips for preventing shoplifting and other thefts, according to the Retail Council of Canada’s Retailer’s Guide Loss Prevention issue:

Don’t let crooks feel anonymous.
Do deliver in-your-face customer service.

Don’t hide your security.
Do let the criminals know you’re watching.

Don’t get flustered at the cash register.
Do take transactions one at a time.

Don’t drop your defences outside your door.
Do be vigilant when entering and exiting the store.

Don’t play the hero when confronting thieves.
Do follow safe loss prevention practices.

Don’t leave large amounts of cash in the register.
Do minimize exposed cash.

Don’t stereotype.
Do treat all thieves equally.

Most importantly, the Guide says, “Watch customers’ eyes as they enter the store. Normal customers look for sale items, flyers and carts, while thieves look for staff.”