By Bill Bregar
I have never been a fan of apprehending shoplifters.
It’s messy: Observing them covertly, following them, stopping them, searching them, then calling and then holding them for the police, who seem to take forever to show up. Actually, I started my career as a police officer.
I left that world early on and went into loss prevention and have been there for the last 35-plus years.
The reality is that unless you are absolutely forced to, your staff shouldn’t feel inclined to apprehend a shoplifter in the store or in the parking lot. It’s a losing game financially. It takes you away from your core business—selling. Also, the liability involved in possible injury or worse, isn’t worth the risk.
So what do you do to protect your property from threats of theft? How do you run shoplifters off without the help of authorities? Remember that the police aren’t there to prevent anything. They are there to react after the fact.
There are only two means to adequately shut down the threat of shoplifters. The first is something most retailers already know: customer service. Currently you use customer service as a tool to sell. What some c-stores should better understand is that customer service is also a weapon to combat shoplifters.
Over half of all shoplifters are “impulse” shoplifters. That means they only steal when a store employee provides them ample opportunity to steal store merchandise. Many reliable studies over the years indicate that if an impulse shoplifter is greeted when they enter your store, it’s likely that they will not carry out stealing merchandise at that time.
Just a cashier saying something like: “Welcome to (store name). How can I help you?” or “Welcome. I will be with you in a moment,” lets all of your customers know that the store staff acknowledge their existence in the store.
This lets the impulse shoplifter know you are aware of their specific presence and are alert and watching. The same studies have shown that this is enough to deter them from stealing during that visit. Think of it. Over half of all shoplifters can be deterred by simply welcoming all customers. That doesn’t cost you a thing except the good will that develops by greeting every customer.
BIRDS OF A FEATHER
The other segment of shoplifters fall into two other groups: amateur and professional. Amateur shoplifters usually steal mainly to keep the merchandise.
They have entered your store with the intent to steal, not for selling the items. Amateur thieves may give it to someone, but that is about the extent of the crime. While the amateur thieves category also includes the impulse shoplifter, who for whatever reason is compelled to steal merchandise, most amateurs are more determined than an impulse shoplifter.
Professional shoplifters make their living from stealing from retailers. They steal your goods and then resell them, usually to a middleman, for about 10 cents on the dollar, so volume is very important to them. Often, pros bring devices such as bags or clothing with them that are modified to hold your merchandise.
Many amateur and a few professional shoplifters are often deterred by the aforementioned greeting, but chances are a convenience store operator will have to apply a higher level of customer service. This will involve approaching them and going a step further.
Imagine this: You suspect that someone has concealed a piece of your merchandise. Let’s pick something common to a c-store like a few candy bars. Approach them and ask, “Would you like a soft drink to go with your candy?” If it’s a legitimate customer who picked up the items, he or she will acknowledge the employee without guilt and without trying to hide the merchandise.
Instead, the opportunity to upsell the customer may produce a real sale. How about: “We have a special on (fill in the blank) right now and that would be great together,” or something like that. Keep the customer service going and in the end, strategic communication will pay dividends.
But what happens if they are a shoplifter and they concealed the candy bars? In this case, just approaching shoplifters often makes them believe you saw them conceal the merchandise. Their mindset is theft and they know they have concealed merchandise.
So what happens? Well, they could bolt out the door. This is a good time to bring up something I was taught as a police officer. Always stay an arm’s length and a beer bottle away from someone in a potential adversarial situation. If he bolts, let him go. He knows you, he is a shoplifter with a blown cover and chances are he will not return. If he does, call the police and tell them what happed on the date he was last in the store. In this case, you may have lost the battle (merchandise), but won the war (shoplifting prevention).
The second way that you can shut down shoplifters is to use an Electronic Article Surveillance (EAS). This is a technological method for preventing shoplifting from retail stores. If you aren’t familiar with EAS, there are plenty of consultants in the field who can answer your questions.
You also need to understand a little bit more about the shoplifter themselves. About a quarter of all nonprofessional shoplifters (those who shoplift “to resolve personal conflict,” rather than for resale and profit) admit to being repeat offenders. A substantial majority of both adult and juvenile shoplifters say they never considered the possibility of being caught. And a majority of both adult and juvenile shoplifters admit that they did not plan to steal. Rather, the decision to shoplift occurred on impulse.
In terms of technological solutions, camera systems do very little to stop shoplifters in a lot of cases. Those who are brazen thieves sometimes don’t care that you have cameras. Chances are they will be gone by the time you see anything on a system. Camera systems are great for robbery prevention and looking at the suspects after the fact.