I worked in a large new and used family-owned bookstore for more than 10 years, starting in high school. During my time there we learned how to deal with crazy people and belligerent transients, and developed procedures for dealing with shoplifters that helped us reduce shrinkage and keep staff and customers safe. We did this organically over a period of years, primarily as a collaboration between myself and one of the store owners.
I learned a lot about loss prevention, handling difficult---and sometimes dangerous---people, and how you can make your store procedures and guidelines safer and more effective. This post contains a variety of observations I've gathered from my experiences.
Successful shoplifter engagement is about ensuring the safety of yourself, your staff, and your customers. Secondary to this is recovering the merchandise. Lastly, and least important, is delivering a shoplifter into custody of the police. Any engagement must be structured to attain these goals in this order and, if safety is at risk, disengage.
Knowing your business is in part about knowing your neighborhood and the types of individuals you get in your store. My experiences with shoplifters were almost universally, with one or two scary exceptions, of the non-violent and definitely non-life-threatening sort. If your location or your customers do not fall into these categories, more involved advice is required than you will find in this article. Safety is the priority; no amount of money or merchandise is worth your health or your life.
Loss prevention technology
There are a wide range of tools available to retailers to help prevent and deter theft. I will cover a few of them and how they related to my experiences in loss prevention.
Mk. I Human Eyeball
Many of the tools that help prevent shoplifting are also excellent for customer service.
Shoplifters do not want to be seen; making eye contact and greeting every person who comes in the store is the first step. Simply being seen and seeing what's going on in your store will also have a massive preventative impact. This also offers you the opportunity to smile at and acknowledge customers, and offer assistance. Make sure someone is constantly moving through the store and observing what's going on.
The most powerful tool any emergency first responder has in their inventory is their radio. The radio can bring nearly any level of assistance or force to bear very rapidly with a single button press.
A retail environment doesn't have the same level of resources available, but communication is still a force multiplier in dangerous situations and can potentially defuse difficult situations or even prevent escalation in the first place.
Simple FRS radios are cheap and easy to operate. Bubble-pack radios can be purchased for $20-$30 per radio. MURS radios offers a slightly more expensive option, but those frequencies are usually less populated. More technically proficient users might consider one of the Chinese-brand programmable radios for use (Baofeng, being one of the cheapest), as long as one is careful to program the correct frequencies, as many come from the factory with emergency-use frequencies programmed by default. This Amazon review of the Baofeng BF-888Shas more details on the issue.
Most retail environments will benefit highly from using earpieces with their radios. It makes it easier for all parties to understand one another, keeps customers from hearing the radio transmissions, and generally offers a better user experience. It's best to treat the earpieces as disposable parts, however, and have several on hand as backups.
Staff training is an integral part of the process. Radios offer access to an intimate airspace with all employees, so superfluous broadcasts must be kept to a minimum and proper radio procedures should be followed as closely as possible. This minimizes confusion, and helps avoid the distraction of non-essential communication taking place in your ear while working with a customer.
Security cameras are a massive crime deterrent, and necessary for anyone operating in a retail environment. Cell phones offer another tool in your arsenal and leveraging their recording technology, both photo and video, in encounters will help you to provide identification and documentation for the police. Be careful not to escalate situations by aggressively sticking your phone in people's faces. Also be aware of recording consent laws in your state or municipality.
RFID or magnetic inventory tagging
A door alarm with RFID (better) or magnetic inventory tagging does three things:
- It deters shoplifters from attempting to shoplift in the first place.
- It alerts you to potential shoplifting activity when the alarm goes off.
- It establishes probable cause for detaining shoplifters.
The last is especially important if you want to prosecute shoplifters (and you should always prosecute).
You should establish a set of procedures and guidelines for what to do in various sorts of situations and ensure that everyone on the team is able to follow them. Some examples:
- The door alarm goes off, suspect runs.
- The door alarm goes off, customer has already purchased merchandise.
- The door alarm goes off, suspect turns around and re-enters store, but hasn't purchased merchandise.
- You witness a suspect placing merchandise into a backpack.
- Suspect tries to exit out a rear door.
Gaming these situations through in your mind and establishing guidelines for each will help you react quickly and appropriate in a high-adrenaline situation.
A lot of loss prevention is going to be making split-second decisions on relatively little information. Sometimes your first reaction will be wrong. There are two big things you want to avoid: putting yourself in unnecessarily dangerous situations and harassing innocent customers. You develop an instinct for these things with time and practice, but you should always lean towards caution if you're unsure. Experience helps a lot here.
Developing a sense for when you need to follow through all the way to putting someone in the back of a police cruiser is an important skill. Sometimes, either due to the individual or the context, it isn't worth it. It can take police several hours to respond to shoplifting calls during which several of you staff may be required to keep an eye on and detain a potentially dangerous individual. This is not worth it when it negatively impacts customer service or threatens the safety of anyone in the store.
It is difficult to function at all when faced with the sort of high-adrenaline situations shoplifters specialize in exploiting. Something as simple as dialing 911 becomes massively difficult in those situations. Practicing how you'll react to various situations to develop a muscle memory will go a long way towards increasing your ability to function in them. Set up shortcuts on your phones for police non-emergency and 911 services that require as few swipes and button presses as possible. Practice using them without looking at your phone.
Radios require very little effort to use, and it can offload the job of calling emergency services to another coworker while you keep your focus on a shoplifter or dangerous individual.
We spent a lot of time developing procedures for how to handle shoplifters. Our generic procedure looks something like this:
- Identify and engage shoplifter. Signal the situation with a brief, repeated message on the radio to summon assistance.
- Coax the shoplifter back into the building if they've exited it. Do not remove your eyes from the shoplifter.
- Use any tools at your disposal to identify stolen merchandise: door alarms, handheld scanners, etc.
- You should signal to another team member whether they should contact the police at this point, or not.
- Once merchandise is recovered, try to get a photo of the shoplifter's face, and their identification. Light implication that you'll let them go once you have both may be helpful.
- Detain shoplifter until the police arrive. If the shoplifter attempts to run and you have a copy of their identification, let them go.
The copying of the ID helps ensure police will be able to follow up with the shoplifter later; even if they manage to make a break for it.
Always follow through
If you decide to involve the police, always, always, always prosecute to the fullest extent. There's nothing worse for everybody involved than to summon the police, have them start filling out paperwork, and then changing your mind.
An officer told us a story about a contractor who had stolen thousands of dollars worth of power tools from Home Depot in 3 separate incidents over the course of a single day. Each time, store loss prevention had apprehended the contractor, summoned the police and had them begin paperwork, and then the store manager had elected to drop charges. This will not get the police or your team on your side. It won't help the shoplifter towards more productive behavior, either. Always follow through.
Safety is the primary consideration in dealing with shoplifters or any dangerous individuals. Secondary to that is recovering the merchandise. Last, is to put them into the back of a police cruiser.
Retail is a difficult business, made more so by bad actors. Fortunately there are a lot of tools available to retailers to help. I've covered only a few of them. Do plenty of research and figure out which options are best for your particular retail environment. Being educated on this subject is extremely helpful.