December brings us to the biggest retail shopping season of the year. More money is spent during the Christmas season than any other time of the year. Stores are crowded, sales staffs are overworked, and there is near chaos in the aisles. It is the perfect time for shoplifters to strike. There are arguably more items lifted from stores via the five-finger discount during this season than any other time of the year.

Many retailers have had a very laissez faire attitude toward shoplifting. Retailers figured "shrinkage" was a cost of doing business, and the items stolen were used as tax write offs. Loss prevention was seen by many retailers as a costly endeavor, where one bad apprehension could result in a very expensive lawsuit.

Another reason that store managers rarely make a big stink about sneak theft is that they don't want their stores to be viewed as "crime-ridden" and thereby foreboding to the public.

Many retailers also believe that you won't do anything if they report shoplifting. They feel that you and your agency don't have the interest or the resources to address such a minor crime. Subsequently, shoplifting is one of the most common but least detected and least reported crimes.

But there are indications that retailers may be taking a different view of shoplifting. In light of the recent economic downturn, it is predicted that this may be one of the leanest shopping seasons in many years. The two- to three-percent of profits lost to shoplifting will not be tolerated during these harsh financial times. Retailers operating on a tight profit margin are going to be much less forgiving of shoplifters and have much higher expectations that you will deal with the shoplifting problem.

How Big is the Problem?

Most of the steps that can be taken to proactively protect a store's merchandise must be taken by the store itself. The most successful ways to impede shoplifters include closed-circuit television surveillance; hiring more sales staff, security guards, or detectives; and attaching electronic or ink tags to merchandise. These procedures are obviously outside the purview of a police department, but here are several things you can do to reduce or to apprehend shoplifters.

First determine the extent of the problem. How many shoplifting incidents are detected? Are they detected through apprehensions or through inventory procedures? Is the shrinkage due to shoplifters or employee theft? Do the stores report all shoplifting incidents to the police? If not, why not?

Using this information, try to determine what type of merchandise is stolen. Research on shoplifting reveals that items stolen run in cycles. Find out what the "hot" item is this season.

Remember, shoplifters favor items that meet the following criteria: concealable, removable, available, valuable, enjoyable, disposable (CRAVED). Smaller items that can be immediately enjoyed, such as CDs, jewelry, and small electronic devices, are popular with shoplifters.

Now ask yourself, what types of stores are victimized? Are they standalone stores or stores in a mall? Are there security guards on duty? Are certain stores repeatedly victimized?

Hardening the Target

As you work with store owners, the first thing you may want to do is conduct an inspection of the store. Are the store displays conducive for shoplifting? Aisles should be wide, free of clutter and obstructions. Expensive items should not be placed near exits, and the number of exits should be reduced. Some stores can use a system where only one of each item is displayed and customers can pick up an item at an exterior location after payment.

Help stores establish an early warning notification system. When one store is the victim of a large theft or apparently victimized by professional shoplifters, it should notify both the police and other stores in the area. This will put patrol officers and the other stores on higher alert.

The most common piece of equipment for a shoplifter is a large paper bag. One technique is to place the bag on the floor between the feet and drop items into the bag. Encourage stores to change the color of bags as the Christmas season approaches. If this proves to be impractical or too expensive, colorful decals can be added to the bags at checkout; the color of the stickers can change from day to day. This will help sales staff identify bags that have been brought into the store from previous purchases. Staff should also be trained to staple bags shut upon the completion of a purchase.

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Police Presence

It is generally agreed that extra police patrols have little effect on shoplifters. If you are on patrol, be alert to the indicators of shoplifting. Pay extra attention to any car parked in the fire lane, near an exit, or any car backed into a parking space near an exit, especially if the operator is present and the car is running. This may be the staging of one of the most common types of high-end shoplifting—the "grab and go"—where an opportunistic shoplifter spots valuable items in a store display, waits until the sales staff is distracted, then dashes in, grabs a handful of products, and runs to a waiting car. It often happens too fast for staff to respond.

You can proactively deter a "grab and go" by suggesting that high-end items be removed from the area near the door. If clothing is displayed near the door, recommend that the store alternate the directions of the hangers. This makes it impossible to grab a large number of garments in a short period of time.

Patrol officers will want to be aware of the tools of the shoplifter's trade. When making a motor vehicle stop or pedestrian contact, look for a shopping bag that is old, soiled, or wrinkled; anything that can be taken into a store for the sole purpose of concealment. Look for bags from stores out of the area or items in a bag that do not match the store on the bag. Be suspicious of anyone in possession of a baby carriage with no baby; many times baby carriages are altered to facilitate concealment.

Look for anyone overdressed for the season. Shoplifters love bulky clothes with numerous pockets to conceal loot. Also be aware that shoplifters will cut the bottom lining of jacket pockets to allow items to be concealed in the lining of the coat. Look for anyone carrying an umbrella in sunny weather. Umbrellas are strong, durable, and sealable. Many small items, such as electronics, jewelry, etc., can be concealed in an umbrella.

Most police treat shoplifting as a nuisance offense. Many times this is because the victim (the retailer) treats the offense as a nuisance, but a University of Florida study revealed that U.S. retailers lost $40.5 billion to shoplifting in 2006. At some point, retailers are going to consider those losses more than a nuisance. When the retailers look to us for assistance, we should be ready with a plan to reduce shoplifting.

Det. Joseph Petrocelli is a 20-year veteran of New Jersey law enforcement. He can be contacted through SAFECOPS.com.

Know Your Shoplifters

Shoplifters fall into three broad categories.

Thrill seekers—This is the largest category of shoplifters. These are the young, bored teenagers who hang around malls. They lack productive or interesting outlets for their energy. Whether it is boredom, opportunity, or peer pressure, these teens will pilfer smaller items that provide immediate gratification.

Professionals—Many times professionals commit their criminal acts in groups. They are well-trained criminal enterprises, where different members have specific roles, including distracting, staging, concealment, product removal, or driving. Their effects are devastating because they target high-end, expensive items.  

Street-level drug users and drunks—They steal to sustain their substance abuse habits. Members of this group are commonly apprehended because they are known to store employees; their clothing and hygiene differentiates them from other shoppers; or their stealing techniques are crude.

Determining which offender plagues a community will help you formulate a directed response to the problem.

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