Despite retailers’ best efforts, shoplifters find success

Experts say customer service is the best way to prevent theft.
Monday, May 14, 2007 | 1:21 a.m. CDT; updated 11:18 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008
Britches clothing store on Ninth Street uses sensors to prevent shoplifting. Some stores use radio frequency tags that can set off alarms, while others are using laser trips, invisible beams that can be used to catch a thief.

It’s hard to walk all the way to the back of the Buckle, a clothing store inside Columbia Mall, and make it back out without being offered help by a salesperson.

The Buckle is one of many stores at the mall where aggressive customer service is intended mostly to prevent shoplifting.

By the numbers

72 percent of adults and teenagers don’t plan to shoplift when entering a store. 74 percent of adults and 67 percent of teenagers don’t think about loss prevention when shoplifting $82,745: The value of stolen items in 2006 Source: National Association of Shoplifting Prevention, Missouri Uniform Crime Report

Although the number of recorded incidents of shoplifting in Columbia has decreased since 2005, the value of items stolen is the highest it’s been since 2003, totaling $82,745 in 2006, according to the Missouri Uniform Crime Reports. Part of that increase can be chalked up to a surge in the number of organized groups of professional shoplifters who steal high-value items to sell online.

“We have a lot of incidents,” said Capt. Steve Monticelli of the Columbia Police Department. “We have a lot more that go unrecorded.”

To reduce the number of incidents, retailers are employing new technology. But most say alert customer service is the key to locking up shoplifting for good.

“The most effective method (to prevent shoplifting) is associate interaction,” said Craig Shafer, store manager of the Wal-Mart on Conley Road. “When (shoplifters) notice that someone is looking at them, they are less inclined to want to steal.”

“People who steal like lousy customer service,” said Arnie Fagan, store manager of Cool Stuff. “They like to be ignored and stay in a corner.”

Monticelli said that the Police Department advises retailers that customer awareness is the most effective method of loss prevention. “You don’t want to be seen or bothered with sales people if you are shoplifting,” he said. “We tell them to use good customer contact.”

If shoppers steal something and don’t get noticed, other methods are in place to stop them.

Smart Security and Investigations supplies Gerbes and Petromart in Columbia with security devices. Bruce Reesman, the president, says that closed-circuit television systems are the most popular items today. They are cameras located throughout the store with wires relaying the images back to monitors inside the security office. These monitors can also be viewed via the Internet.

By zooming in on customers, retailers can monitor what they are doing and prevent any shoplifting from their stores. “Everything is now digital and allows for video enhancement,” Reesman said. “Digital is at the forefront of new technology coming out on the market.”

Monticelli confirms that video cameras are complementary to customer service when preventing shoplifting. “Good video surveillance is key,” he said. “(Shoplifters) want to get someplace where they can conceal the item.” By having cameras, a store can prevent blind spots and locations where shoppers can hide. Retailers can also use the tapes as evidence in court.

Another popular way of increasing security is with Electronic Article Surveillance. This system relies on small tags inside CDs or books — sometimes so small that they are unnoticeable. They have to be deactivated at checkout to not set off the alarm system when shoppers leave the store.

Most retailers have a physical security presence inside their store. The staff are often large and burly, clothed in black or navy blue, sporting some sort of official-looking silver or gold badge. “Nothing beats a good eye on the different products,” Reesman said. “If you have cameras but no one to stop someone if they take something, they become useless.”

Other, cheaper methods are also used for shoplifting prevention.

Claire’s, an accessory store in Columbia Mall, is equipped with 16 mirrors attached to the ceiling. They help employees see if a shopper slips a piece of jewelry into his or her pocket.

Sensor-activating tags are also popular with retailers, but less so with shoppers who have to navigate around the big, gray tags while trying things on. “They are loss-prevention tags that will discharge an ink all over the merchandise if you try and force it off,” explained David Overfelt, president of the Missouri Retailer’s Association.

Newer tags are finding their way into the market, notably radio frequency tags. They emit radio frequencies that are picked up by antennae in the store that can set off alarms. The advantage is that as the technology improves, the tags get smaller — so small that shoplifters may not see them.

Retailers are also now using laser trips, invisible beams that set off alarms when crossed.

“Retailers are starting to utilize the technology that you would only see in movies,” Overfelt said. “They use a lot of motion and sound alarms. There is a technological race, in some respects.”

Still, some stores resort to older, simpler methods, like shelf-pushers and lock boxes.

“We have security for the products on the shelf so that they are more difficult to take,” said Michael Polzin, a representative for Walgreens corporate communications.

Shelf-pushers force products to the front of the shelf and prevent customers from taking more than one item at a time. Not only do these make it hard for the law-abiding shopper to put a product back, they also stymie organized retail criminals who steal items in bulk to sell to a third party.

Organized retail crime represents a fast-growing subgroup in shoplifting. A Springfield couple who pleaded guilty in August to stealing almost $90,000 in merchandise is a good example. Their method was to print barcodes from their home computer and place them on expensive items in the store. The items would ring up cheaper, allowing them to sell the merchandise on eBay for profit.

Monticelli said that several organized retail criminals have come through the area in the past couple of years. He said he doesn’t suspect that there are any organized retail crime rings in Columbia.

“We try and balance security with making the product available,” Polzin said. “The new technology has helped.”

One example is the clear container that forces the shopper to open a door to access a particular product. A recorded voice says, “Thank you for choosing this product.” If the voice is heard too often, the staff is alerted that the door is being opened repeatedly. This could signal that someone is shoplifting.

With all the security measures out there, how do shoplifters still get away with it?

There’s the old-fashioned approach: stuffing something into a coat pocket in hopes that the sensors don’t detect it. More experienced shoplifters find ways to shield items so that sensors aren’t activated.

“The way they steal products that have electric surveillance is by wrapping it with aluminum foil so that the item goes undetected,” Polzin said.

Some shoplifters will carry empty boxes in bags into stores and go to the dressing room to fill them with clothes. “There is a need to have people counting items when they go to change,” said Monticelli.

Some shoplifters don’t care about what they steal. Their long-term goal is to get cash to buy things that might be too difficult to shoplift such as a TV, although the bulk of that item hasn’t stopped some from trying. In March, police responded to a report of someone shoplifting a 20-inch TV from the Wal-Mart on Grindstone Parkway.

“People might steal something from one store and then take it to a completely other company that sells the same thing,” Overfelt said. Customer service departments will unknowingly take back items that aren’t from their store. Shoplifters are then rewarded with cash or store credit to use as they please.

“That’s why some retailers require the original packaging,” Overfelt said. “Each store has its own policy on returns because of the abuse from trying to return stolen things.”

Shoplifters might not even bother leaving the store. Instead, they grab an item and return it, saying it was a gift. They then get cash and buy something they want.

Stricter return policies aren’t the only price that law-abiding customers pay for shoplifting. They have to absorb losses stores incur.

“There is no way that any retailer can absorb those costs and stay in business,” Overfelt said. “Pricing reflects those losses.”

The psychology behind shoplifting remains a mystery. Barbara Staib, the director of communication for the National Association of Shoplifting Prevention, said that around 72 percent of adults and teenagers do not plan to shoplift when they go into a store. It’s an impulse. “They don’t plan this stuff in advance,” Staib said.

According to a study conducted by the National Association of Shoplifting Prevention last year, 74 percent of adults and 67 percent of teenagers never even thought about the loss prevention technology when they shoplifted.

“This doesn’t bode well for retailers to put all their eggs in one basket when it comes to security,” Staib said

What this means is that until retailers can find a way to secure all of their items or perform some psychological feat to strike fear in all thieves, the Sunday police blotter will carry entries on shoplifters for a very long time.

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