Tips on How to Stop Shoplifting: What You Can Learn from Shoplifting Statistics, Organized Retail Crime Facts, and Shoplifting Stories
A male shoplifting suspect has been coming into store #153 three times a week for as long as anybody can remember. Management has attributed this guy as a major cause of the store’s shrink woes. As the store’s LP agent, you have tried to stop him in the past, but it seems like you’re always one step behind him.
“Today is going to be different,” you say to yourself. You can feel it. Today he is finally going to get what’s coming to him, and, more importantly, your apprehension dry spell is going to end.
You have spent the last 10 minutes carefully following the suspect. You have observed him approach, select, and conceal multiple computer accessories worth over $200. He definitely still has the merchandise as he passes all of the registers. “He’s heading for the door…”
You decide that you are pre-stop requirements have been met and cautiously follow the suspect out to the sidewalk. You approach him and say: “Good afternoon, sir. I am an LP agent with this store, and I need to speak with you privately back in store, please.”
What happens now? How have you presented yourself? Were you professional yet firm? Were you nervous and unsure, or aggressive and confrontational? Does the shoplifter run, or does he return to the LP office willingly? Does he produce unpaid merchandise when asked?
The safety of the LP agent, customers, and the shoplifter, as well as thousands or even millions of dollars in potential litigation, are at risk and dependent upon the answers to these questions. If any portion of this scenario is handled incorrectly, the results could be inconvenient, expensive, or even tragic.
Worth the Risk?
Anyone who has worked in LP for more than 10 years has seen significant changes in processes and technology. We have seen evolutions from analog “still” CCTV cameras to digital PTZs, eas security systems, from dusty VCRs to DVRs with remote access, and from padlocks to RFID.
But one process that remains essentially unchanged is the shoplifter apprehension. Regardless of the technology or technique used to get to the point of detention, once LP agents are face to face with the suspect, the process is the same as it has always been: the agent is unarmed, unequipped, and often alone.
For years, we have hired LP professionals and provided them with rigorous training dedicated to the apprehension of external-theft candidates. We have embedded in their heads the necessity of observing the following steps prior to making an apprehension:
• Constant surveillance
• Passing all points of sale
• Exiting (in most companies)
We have warned trainees about the danger of the non-productive detainment (bad stop) and the potential dangers of engaging physically with a shoplifter. But there is a push for results are constant pressure upon LP agents every time they speak with their supervisor, send in reports, or talk with their peers, or even with other store associates (“Say, when are you going to catch that shoplifter who keeps stealing all of our Xbox games?”). So emphasized is the need for productivity that many companies base LP reviews and performance metrics at least in part on apprehension statistics.
Could this pressure lead to the LPA displaying increased anxiety or adrenaline-fueled behavior during the apprehension process? “Yes,” says Jason Scheel, LPQ, former director at Compass Loss Prevention. “I have seen the unfortunate side effects of LP agents feeling too much pressure to make shoplifter apprehensions, resulting in non-apprehension approaches [bad stops] or fights.”
Apprehensions Turning Violent
Even if the approach by the LP agent is “textbook” and professional, any number of variables could result in a “simple” shoplifter apprehension escalating to something more serious. For example, the subject could have an active arrest warrant, could be under the influence of a foreign substance, or could be feeling desperate with nothing to lose. In 2012, the National Retail Federation released results of a survey that included the statistic that shoplifting incidents turn violent 13 percent of the time.
Many LP departments were forced to drastically cut payroll with the economic downturn. This may have contributed to apprehension-related violence. In many retailers, departmental cuts have led to only one LP agent working at a time.
One former LP manager for a big-box retailer explained: “I remember when I first started in LP, I had about 448 hours of coverage per week for each of our superstores. The team was making shoplifter apprehensions with three people outside and one in the camera room. It was rare that someone would run, and even rarer for them to fight. Now it’s a different story. The teams are running at 80 to 100 hours per week, and people are making shoplifter stops on their own. We started the whole ‘no-contact’ thing a few years back, and it seems to be helping a bit. But it’s still scary to be out there by yourself.”
Even police officers do not have the opportunity to see a crime through from occurrence to detainment—at least not with the same frequency that LP agents do. Police officers typically arrive after the crime has taken place and are equipped with handcuffs, pepper spray, actual arrest powers, side arms, and plenty of backup. The LP agent intervenes during the crime and often has nothing more than a walkie-talkie or cell phone for backup.
Value of Shoplifter Apprehensions
Traditionally, loss prevention programs were built on the foundation of shoplifter apprehension. This function was leveraged as one of shrink reduction, not one of crime prevention or punishment. Earlier, without operational knowledge, data analysis, or predictive modeling capabilities, spending our time and resources on this function may have made sense. But does stopping shoplifters still have impact on shrink that we once thought? The answer is no.
In a recent poll, more than 70 percent of participants placed shoplifting at less than a quarter of their yearly shrink. Most agreed that shoplifter concerns vary with different retail models, but that the actual impact is a small fraction of yearly shrink compared to other causes. Add to this that we are only apprehending a small fraction of that small fraction, and questions can be raised about the necessity to focus on shoplifting at all.
According to the Jack L. Hayes 2011 Annual Retail Theft Survey, participating retailers showed a figure of approximately $10 billion in shrink for 2010, with an external theft apprehension recovery figure of just over $104 million. This comes out to just over one percent of total shrink! If this survey is accurate, this is a staggering statistic. Even with a substantial margin of error factored in, this data does not support the philosophy of any program that spends the bulk of its time and capital on shoplifter apprehension. When the high risks are thrown into the equation, it makes even less sense.
In analyzing a 2012 report developed by Merchant Analytic Solutions, if we credit shoplifting (external) as roughly 24 percent of yearly shrink, consider all of the associated control risk. Now look at the 76 percent of other losses. These represent the bulk of our concerns, and have the lowest risks associated with mitigation. Yet we allocate 70-80 percent of our budget toward the high-control risk, low-impact factor of external theft.