Indicators of Shoplifting

An Overview of Shoplifting

In today’s dynamic retail environment where competition is fierce and consumer demands are constantly changing, retailers have to continually keep pace with these demands, provide a relaxed and friendly shopping environment whilst at the same time ensuring that their merchandise are discreetly protected. This is a tall order in an era where shoplifting has moved from teenage leisure activities, the necessity of addicts and homeless to Organised Retail Theft (ORT).

In the past the majority of shoplifters lived within a five mile radius of the stores they stole from. They were mostly petty criminals and opportunist thieves. However, with the emergence of ORT, criminals now move from one community to the other; travelling far greater distances. As a result of ORT and the professionalism with which it is executed, it is becoming increasingly difficult for loss prevention and law enforcement officers to profile and track known shoplifters.

Profiling Shoplifters

Shoplifters come from all walks of life… social, ethnic and economic groups. They may be young, old, poor, rich, employed or unemployed. This sometimes makes it difficult to piece together a comprehensive profile of a shoplifter. Nevertheless, there are times when loss prevention personnel are able to spot a potential shoplifter based on their demeanour, appearance and movement. For example someone dressed in a winter jacket in the middle of summer, carrying an empty bag into the shop or entering an exclusive shop but not dressed to match the profile of customers that would ordinarily visit that shop are more likely to be looked upon as a suspect. However, professional shoplifters are aware of these facts and try to blend in with the crowd.

Traditionally men shoplift more than women and those under the age of 21 have a slightly higher tendency to shoplift.

The Motive For Shoplifting:

The reasons for shoplifting can be attributed to the following:

1) Personal benefit

2) Peer pressure

3) Economic need

4) Physiological need

5) Mental illness

Categorising Shoplifters

Shoplifters are generally categorised as follows:

Amateur Shoplifter:

An amateur shoplifter may not plan or intend on stealing. They might react to the opportunity or from peer pressure. Amateurs often appear nervous and uneasy.

Professional Shoplifter:

Professional shoplifters are generally highly skilled and difficult to detect. They are usually polite, very cautious and well groomed. They will abandon a plan if they sense any element of detection. They tend to steal portable, compact, high value merchandise that are easy to sell on the internet,  to a fence (receiver of stolen goods) or on the street. A typical fencing operation may sell stolen merchandise to small retail operations or through a flea market network.

Juvenile Shoplifter:

Motivated by peer pressure or temptation juvenile shoplifters often shoplift luxury or trendy items for personal use. They are usually amateur and work in a group to create distraction. Juveniles are occasionally coached and directed by professionals and adults who exploit the fact that the penalty for a juvenile caught shoplifting is less severe.


Kleptomaniacs are motivated by a psychological compulsion to steal. They steal due to the buzz/ excitement or because they view it as a challenge.

Vagrant and Drug Addict:

Vagrants and addicts are driven by the desire to survive or feed their habits. They often display erratic behaviour and may employ snatch-and-run techniques.

This group of shoplifters present the most safety concern to Loss Prevention (LP) personnel because of the irrational responses they may exhibit when confronted, particularly when they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. They are the most dangerous as their physical need for drugs at the time, might result in desperate or unpredictable behaviour.

Methods Of Shoplifting

Here are few of the ways in which shoplifters operate:

  • Shoplifters operate alone or in a group. If operating as a group, one person is used to distract LP personnel. When LP personnel focus on the person who appears and behaves like a shoplifter, the accomplice is able to carry out his/her act unnoticed.
  • They conceal  stolen merchandise in bags, newspapers, shopping bags, purses, clothes fitted with large/deep pockets, sewn inner lining of a coat, hooks sewn into coats or underneath clothing.
  • In changing rooms – They change to stolen clothes or shoes and leave their own clothing or put it over the stolen outfit.
  • Female shoplifters carry merchandise between tights, bras or hidden under long skirts, or  overcoats
  • Some shoplifters wrap clothes around their legs, or tuck stolen items into socks
  • Small items can be held in hands or gloves
  • Boxes with fake bottoms or products stuffed into an emptied-out box
  • In certain areas some shoplifters snatch merchandise and make a run for a waiting get-away vehicle.
  • Pushchairs or car seats in the shopping trolley’s are also used to conceal stolen merchandise

Times of Shoplifting Occurrence

Psychologists say that 90% of the things we do are habitual. From the time we get out of bed, the way we wash, dress or eat is the same daily.  Shoplifting is also a habit, therefore, not an exception to this rule.

Individual shoplifters tend to steal at a particular time of the day / week. In general shoplifters do not like being noticed, therefore they tend to carry out their acts mainly when the store is full with shoppers, which is at lunch time, between 12:00 noon and 6.00pm and on weekends.

For stores that operate a 24/7 service, shoplifters steal late at night or early in the morning. They see these as times when there will be fewer LP personnel and in any case those on duty tend not to be as vigilant as they would be at other times.

Indicators of Shoplifting

  • Inappropriate clothing i.e. overcoat on a hot day or a raincoat when it is sunny.
  • Someone carrying empty bags, boxes or even umbrellas that can be used to conceal stolen merchandise
  • Customer  taking merchandise to secluded areas of the store
  • A nervous-looking person who constantly touches the back of his/her head, tugging at sleeves, or adjusting socks, breaks into cold sweat, is flushed and  constantly moistening lips
  • Exceptionally fussy people who cannot seem to make up their mind about a purchase, or do not appear interested in purchasing an item they have been examining
  • Someone who revisits the same area several times without making a purchase
  • Constantly looking around instead of at merchandise on the shelf or in their hands
  • Frequent visitor to a store but never making a purchase
  • Lays a coat over merchandise in the trolley
  • Walks into the stockrooms or behind counters or other places that are barred to the public
  • An early or late night shopper
  • Someone monitoring the movements of employees
  • An empty shelf or hole in a shelf
  • Appears startled when approached by employees and other customers
  • Repeatedly sends employees away to look for products
  • Someone who enters or leaves the store quickly
  • Takes products into the toilet
  • Someone looking up for security devices especially CCTV
  • Removes product from packaging
  • An unaccompanied juvenile during school hours

Ways of Preventing Shoplifting

Shoplifting, like any crime, is impossible to eliminate. For some people, shoplifting is a profession, this is how they make their living, therefore, whatsoever, the perceived danger or difficulties they may encounter at a particular time, it is not enough to dissuade them from committing the crime. There are also some who see shoplifting as literally their only means of survival.

For drug addicts wanting to feed their habits, shoplifting provides the only means of obtaining the necessary resources. With this in mind, how can retailers prevent their store from being used by a professional shoplifter who sees it as a job or drug addicts who consider it their cash dispenser?

The first step is to understand that shoplifters will operate in an environment they perceive as easy.

It is therefore essential to ensure that your store is not perceived as an easy target. In many instances when a shoplifter takes up residency in your store, they never leave until the final curtain is brought down.

These are some of the measures that can be used to help combat shoplifting:

Trained employees. Employees trained in shoplifting awareness are a more effective tool in combating shoplifting than any other tool a retailer can deploy.

CCTV . Let me tell you what shoplifters do to test whether your CCTV is being watched, they will steal things right under the camera. A small thing that they know if they are caught they can pay for and the store will not be willing to prosecute them for. If they get away with it the first time, they will do it the second time by the fourth time they will increase the value of the item they take. Because now they know that they are not being watched.

Electronic Article Surveillance (EAS)

EAS tagging systems provide both physical and psychological deterrents to shoplifters. Even though some shoplifters are beginning to find ways of neutralizing the system, it is still an effective tool particularly against amateur and juvenile shoplifters.

Strategic Merchandising is also an effective tool against shoplifting. Merchandise must be positioned in locations that make them difficult to remove from the store. Furthermore high value merchandises need to be better protected either tagged or placed in a secure display. Basically strategic merchandising is ensuring that merchandise is sufficiently secured without portraying a negative perception to legitimate customers.

Exceptional Customer Service is another indispensable tool for combating shoplifting. You can never go wrong with extraordinary customer service. When approached by a member of the staff, a legitimate customer feels valued and appreciated. On the other hand a shoplifter may feel nervous and appear uneasy. The last thing a shoplifter wants is to be noticed. Therefore instead of appreciating exceptional customer service; they will run away from it!

The Legal Pitfall For Dealing with Apprehended Shoplifters

As we have stated previously, shoplifters come from all walks of life. Many professional shoplifters by their very nature know the law better than many poorly trained LP personnel. Some have been in court many times and listened to arguments made by their solicitors that they already know the limit of the store LP department.

Therefore, it is essential that LP personnel have a solid understanding of their legal boundaries before apprehending a suspect.

The following steps need to be followed to the letter before attempts are made to apprehend a shoplifter:

Step 1:

The suspect must be seen to have entered an aisle and remove an item from the store display. There must be certainty that the suspect did not bring the item with them into the store.

The suspect must be seen to conceal the item – The LP personnel should know what item and exactly where it is concealed.

Step 3

The LP personnel must maintain a constant and uninterrupted surveillance of the suspect from the time the item is concealed to the time the arrest is made.

Step 4

The LP personnel must observe the suspect walking out of the store without making any attempt to pay for the item.

Apprehending Shoplifters:

Accusing someone of an offence is riddled with legal landmines that LP personnel needs to be wary of. False arrest in retail cost retailers millions every year in law suits and legal fees. That is why it is imperative that the above steps are followed to the letter before an attempt is made to arrest the suspect.

When the LP personnel or employee is satisfied that he/she has fulfilled the above criteria, before attempting to institute an arrest, the following have to be considered.

  • Call for back up; never assume that you can handle the situation on your own, you might be surprised.
  • The back-up is not only relevant for safety reasons. It is important for legal reasons in the event the suspect resists and things got out of hand.
  • Observe the surroundings for any object that maybe used as weapon against you. If you have any reason to believe that a suspect is armed, do not attempt an arrest. It is better for the suspect to escape than to risk personal injury or injury to innocent bystanders. No amount of merchandise justifies sustaining an injury.
  • Make sure you are certain that they have the merchandise before attempting an arrest. If in doubt; let them go.
  • Introduce yourself and ensure you stand facing the suspect and you can see both hands.
  • Try as much as possible to avoid any form of physical contact, if the need arises keep contact to a minimal. If you are not trained in physical intervention and it gets physical it is advisable to retreat. Injuries to you, the suspect or a customer could have far reaching consequences… even as far as in a court.
  • If the suspect denies carrying any merchandise, be specific; name the item that was taken from the shelf and describe where it is hidden. Speak in a confident non-confrontational tone and do not intimidate, ridicule or embarrass the suspect.
  • The main objective is to recover the stolen item. If it is not possible at that point, obtain an acknowledgement of guilt before walking the suspect to the holding room.
  • If the suspect attempts to walk away, reposition yourself and attempt to minimise the incident and consequences and persuade him/her to corporate. Use non-confrontational hand gestures to guide the suspect in the direction you want him/her to go.
  • If it seems it is getting out of your hand, remember the objective is to retrieve the stolen item, therefore if you can persuade the suspect to give you the item and leave, it might be the best option. If that does not work! Let them go.

The Reasons for Recording Shoplifting Incidents

It is possible that a shoplifting case might drag on for years at which time the employee involved might have left the organisation or their recollection of the incident might have faded. This renders it imperative that a report detailing each and every aspect of the incident is recorded right after an incident.

The report needs to contain the reason for the initial suspicion, the actual theft, the stop process, time, date, witnesses and processing activities. If the shoplifter can be persuaded to make a written statement without duress, it is all the while better as this will make for a strong case in the event the case is taken to court.

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