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Businesses on guard for holiday season theft

Some businesses say
customer service can
prevent theft.
Sunday, December 5, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:13 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

As the holiday season approaches, local businesses are preparing for an increase in sales, as well as an increase in theft.

Arrests for shoplifting in December 2003 were almost 47 percent higher than in the previous month: 72 arrests were made in December up from 49 in November. And that only reflects the number of thieves who were caught.

Overall, the cost to business owners because of shoplifting has increased in recent years. In Columbia, $86,000 worth of merchandise was stolen from local stores in 2003 — about 39 percent more from the previous year. Nationally, the FBI reported more than 780,000 cases of shoplifting in 2003, a 1.3 percent increase from 2002. The agency estimates that the average amount stolen per shoplifting incidents is about $163.

Jennifer Perlow, co-owner of Poppy, a downtown craft and art store, said the best way to prevent shoplifting is to offer patrons good customer service. Perlow tries to keep as many associates on the floor as possible and will assist customers herself during busier times.

“If you’re watching the customers and paying attention, then they’re not going to be as likely to take something,” she said.

Perlow said her business gets its share of shoplifting, especially when customer traffic increases during the Christmas season and the summer Twilight Festival. Perlow declined to say how much her store has lost because of shoplifting but considers any theft to be significant. She said trinkets and lower-priced jewelry are the most frequently stolen items.

Courtney Faron, manager of Britches Clothing, 130 S. Ninth St., said the store uses sensor machines, dressing room monitors and good customer service to discourage shoplifters.

“People are going to be less likely to steal if you always work with the customer and develop a friendly relationship,” she said.

Faron said she expects the usual increase in shoplifting this month because “people get low on money during the holiday season.”

Darin Wohlbold, manager of Walgreens, 222 E. Broadway, said he notices a significant difference in the amount of shoplifting during the holiday season although the increase has not yet occurred this year. Wohlbold said in the past year he has called the police numerous times to report shoplifting incidents but hasn’t in recent months.

In past years, Walgreens has lost as much as $2,000 to $3,000 annually to shoplifters, Wohlbold said. The store will put more security tags on popular items such as film and fragrance gift sets to help combat theft.

Department stores at Columbia Mall declined to comment on how they prevent shoplifting.

Columbia police Officer Jessie Haden said that during the Christmas season, stores are more crowded, which makes shoplifters bolder and more confident that they can get away with stealing.

“It’s just so much busier with bigger crowds and temporary employees who may be inexperienced about watching for problems,” Haden said.

Among the reasons people steal are because they are embarrassed to ask for money, because it provides a thrill and because they think no one is watching, Haden said. She recommends that businesses prosecute all shoplifters, regardless of age and monetary amount stolen.

“We don’t want it to get out that a certain store doesn’t prosecute, making it easier for the bad guys to get away with stealing,” she said.

Arnie Fagan, owner of Cool Stuff, said he recently caught a customer trying to steal about $50 worth of toys.

“That’s a very significant amount of money, considering the price of our items,” he said. “When we catch them, we always prosecute.”

Columbia police offer business crime prevention programs throughout the year to help local businesses combat shoplifting, fraud and forgery and unruly customers.

“We would love it if every retail establishment had the department talk to them,” Haden said.


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