Preventing Theft: Shoplifters tell their secrets

I wish I had attended the shoplifting workshop at the University of Florida in Gainesville last year. I would have enjoyed hearing the panel of four seasoned shoplifters discuss how they got away with their crimes. The audience of retailers, executives, and loss prevention specialists were shocked to learn that despite the huge sums they spend to combat shoplifting, the most effective shoplifting prevention methods are decidedly low-tech. These low-tech methods are easily within the reach of most antique dealers. I list them below, but first let’s take a fresh look at our shoplifting problem.

Shoplifting Takes Center Stage

Cameras are a popular option for preventing thefts. However, what’s a shop owner to do if there isn’t money in the budget?

Antique dealers I speak with claim to either not have a problem with shoplifting, are unwilling to admit they have a problem, or aren’t paying attention. Some observe that preventing shoplifting is as pointless as attempting to drain an ocean with a teaspoon. And, they have a point: No matter what steps you follow, a determined thief is going to steal. Fortunately, most thieves aren’t that determined. Shoplifting is, in most cases, a crime of opportunity. However, reducing opportunity and increasing perceived risk are effective deterrents.

If your shop hasn’t been hit by shoplifters, you will be eventually; the statistics are overwhelming. Shoplifting losses go up every year. Currently, retail losses amount to almost $50 billion dollars annually. [http://ti.me/2tUdv7S]

Prosecutions are down. In the U.S. today, one in eleven people shoplift regularly; that’s 27 million people. In the past five years, more than 10 million people have been caught shoplifting. What’s particularly distressing about that number is that most shoplifters don’t get caught. Shoplifters say they are caught roughly one out of every 48 times they steal, and that they are turned over to the police only half the time. That’s about a 1 percent arrest rate. Who says crime doesn’t pay? The odds are in favor of the shoplifters.

Avoid Becoming a Mark for Theft

When it comes to protecting against shoplifting, antique stores are at a disadvantage relative to chain stores. They are less likely to have high-tech loss prevention systems, have fewer employees on the floor, and too often suffer from poor merchandising and store layout. It’s easy for a shoplifter to “case” an antique store by looking for cameras, tech deterrents, and employees who don’t pay attention. Malls are particularly vulnerable. Furthermore, antiques are easy for a thief to resell: They simply must drive to the next town and offer an unsuspecting dealer a “good deal” on the stolen merchandise.

Furthermore, the council of thieves described the characteristics of stores that were easy marks for shoplifting, and which ones they wouldn’t steal from. Here’s what they said:

The panel affirmed that they needed “alone time” in order to shoplift. When they were out-of-sight or unseen, they could steal without fear of confrontation.

The single most effective deterrent to shoplifting, panelists agreed, is attentive employees. When they are greeted, approached, engaged in conversation, and checked-up on, they become nervous about getting caught. Often an employee who stays nearby, roams around the sales floor, or has clear sight lines is enough to cause a thief to leave a store.

Inner Workings of Thievery

The group wasn’t overly concerned about security cameras. When “casing” a store, noting the number and positions of cameras is a shoplifter’s first order of business. If an item they wanted to steal was within camera view, the thief would simply pick up the item, move to a less visible area, and then hide the goods.

If there are no “less visible areas,” if an entire store is covered by cameras, mirrors, or clear sight-lines, thieves move on to another store.

In addition, no one was fooled by “cameras in use” signs if no cameras were visible. Such signs broadcast that a store isn’t secure and that no one is watching.

Note: If the cost of video security is prohibitive, dummy cameras with flashing LED lights can be purchased for under $10 each at Walmart, Amazon, and other retailers. Dummy cameras can be an effective deterrent, but actual videos are needed if a criminal is to be prosecuted. In my July 2012 Behind the Gavel column, I relate how a Virginia antique dealer used video footage to catch and prosecute a thief. [http://bit.ly/2DHqiyZ]

Employees: Best Deterrent to Theft

A shoplifter’s primary concern about being video-recorded is having the video show up on social media, television, or in a newspaper. Seventy-five percent of shoplifters are adults with jobs and families, and embarrassment and potential job loss are effective deterrents. Signs that threaten to post thieves photos on social media are much more effective than signs that read “cameras in use.”

Interestingly, panelists avoid shoplifting in stores where employees seem happy and engaged. Disgruntled employees won’t look up from their phones long enough to greet a customer, and don’t care whether they engage shoppers. Furthermore, said one panelist: “Partly it’s the customer service. It’s also that if someone has looked at me and talked to me, they can pick me out of a lineup.”

Stores that have tall central shelves, poor sight lines, small rooms, walled-off booths, and changing rooms are easy targets.

Ultimately, the elements that deter shoplifters are the same elements that result in higher sales: a well-laid out, well-lit store and attentive employees.

5 Tips to Avoid Thefts

What action steps can shop owners take to reduce shoplifting in your store? There are five:

• Review customer engagement procedures with your employees.
— Improve sight lines. Move tall shelves to the side walls and rear of the store. Install fisheye mirrors to cover blind spots.
• Improve the lighting. Shoplifting is best in the dark.
— Use real or dummy security cameras. In areas where high-end goods are on offer, use real cameras. A complete four-camera DVR system can be yours for a few hundred dollars. Dummy cameras can also boost the over-all deterrent.
• Add the phrase “Featured on YouTube” under your “Cameras in use” signs. Such signs are a “scarecrow” tactic meant to deter theft.

You might have trouble justifying the cost of mirrors and cameras if your shoplifting losses are less than the equipment costs. Furthermore, the other tactics – improved lighting, better sight lines, and more attentive employees – will increase your sales as well as reduce inventory shrinkage.

Ultimately, a determined thief is going to steal no matter what you do. The rest of the would-be-shoplifters face deterring from the above tactics.

Share Your Tips

Editors’ Note: Have a tip for deterring shoplifting/inventory losses? Share it with fellow Antique Trader readers through a Letter to the Editor and you may win a copy of Antique Trader Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide 2018. Mail letters to: Antique Trader Letters to the Editor, 700 E State St., Iola, WI 54990 or email ATNews@fwmedia.com.

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