Shoplifting Facts: Retail Theft of Merchandise
By Chris E McGoey

Shoplifting is a crime and occurs when someone steals merchandise offered for sale in a retail store. To commit shoplifting one must "intend" to permanently deprive the merchant of the value of the merchandise. Shoplifting most often occurs by concealing merchandise in a purse, pocket, or bag, but can occur by a variety of methods.

Most shoplifters are amateurs. However, there are growing numbers of people who make their living by stealing from retail stores. Amateur shoplifters can be highly skilled, and some steal almost every day, but don't do it to make a living. Most amateurs are opportunistic, crude in their methods, and are detected more often than others. Professional shoplifters run the gamut from being highly skilled to thug-like. Some professionals work in teams or use elaborate distraction scenarios. The crude professionals sometimes use force and fear much like gang intimidation and often commit grab-and-run thefts. Being a professional means that they steal merchandise for a living, and like other trades, practice makes perfect. Thoughtful professionals are very difficult to stop in a society where retail stores openly display their merchandise.

Shoplifter Profile

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. Some shoplifters are compulsive, some opportunistic, and some are mentally ill and don't know any better. Some shoplifters are desperate from drug addiction, alcoholism, or from living on the street. Children and elderly persons sometime steal without realizing they are committing a crime. Most shoplifters try to rationalize their crime by thinking the large retailer can afford the loss.

In urban cities, it is not unusual to find a network of fences that send out teams of shoplifters into specific retail stores to shoplift specific items, much like filling an order for a customer. These fences only pay 10-20 cents on the dollar to the thieves, but sometimes pay their room, board, and provide training on how to steal and defeat the anti-theft technology. Some fences have been known to bail their workers out of jail when caught or provide for their legal defense. This creates a kind of strange street loyalty much like the tale of Oliver Twist.

Cost of Shoplifting

Theft from stores, including employee and vendor theft, cost retailers many billions of dollars per year. Independent retail studies* have estimated theft from retail stores costs the American public 33.21 billion dollars per year. Depending on the type of retail store, retail inventory loss ranges from .7%-2.2% of gross sales with the average falling around 1.70%. Whole retail store chains have gone out of business due to their inability to control retail theft losses. And worse yet, the cost of these losses are passed on to us...the consumer.

Shoplifting losses vary by store type, but can account for about one-third of the total inventory shrinkage. It is estimated that shoplifting occurs 330 - 440 million times per year at a loss of $10-$13 billion dollars. Nationwide, that equates to 1.0-1.2 million shoplift incidents everyday at a loss rate of $19,000-$25,300 dollars stolen per minute. When you factor in employee and vendor theft, this sum skyrockets to an estimate of over $33 billion dollars stolen per year.

Shoplifting Prevention

To combat these losses, merchants have had to take sometimes extreme measures to control shoplifting. Most large retailers employ plain-clothes floor detectives to observe customers as they shop. Many shoplifters are detained and arrested for their indiscretions. See our webpage on Shoplifting Detention and Arrest. Plain-clothes floor detectives alone are not enough of a deterrent because they are seemingly invisible. Many stores use video surveillance cameras and electronic article surveillance (EAS) devices attached to their products that cause alarms to go off if not deactivated by the cashier. Others secure expensive and high theft items like small leather items, perfume, cosmetics, tools, liquor, or cigarettes in locked enclosures. Other retailers use cables or hanger locks that require the assistance of a sales associate to unlock the expensive item of clothing before you can inspect it.

It is important for us to know these facts and be patient with stores that try to control their losses due to theft. It can be annoying when a store sales associate has to first count your items before you enter and after you exit the dressing room. It can be annoying when the item you wish to try on has an electronic security device attached to it and sometimes spoils the look of the item. It can be annoying when a sales associate appears to be "dogging" you within the department, seeming to watch your every move. If any or all of these tactics make you feel uncomfortable, imagine how the shoplifter feels. Shoplifters want product accessibility, privacy, and prefer stores with few anti-theft methods in place. It is unfortunate, but anti-theft procedures sometimes affect the shopping experience for all of us, especially if applied thoughtlessly.

Shoplifter Detention The practice of physically detaining and arresting shoplifters is not without risk. Besides the physical contact that is sometimes necessary to stop an aggressive shoplifter, a merchant has the legal risk of being sued for doing so incorrectly. In America, customers get outraged when they feel they are being watched or if they are questioned about a suspicious transaction. Many merchants have been sued by their former customers for allegations of false arrest, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, excessive use of force, and assault. See our webpage entitled, Shoplifting Probable Cause for more information on universally accepted shoplifter detention policies to limit the potential for being sued

Article by Chris E McGoey
Reprinted with the authorization of Crime Doctor

Chris E. McGoey, CPP, CSP, CAM is an internationally known author, trainer, speaker, and professional security consultant. He is an expert in the fields of security management, crime, and loss prevention.
Crime Doctor is a registered trademarks of Aegis Books, Inc.

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