How to Identify Shoplifters

It affects all retailers, but you can try to prevent shoplifting.

Young girl tries to steal in an electric shop
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As most retailers are aware, shoplifting is the act of stealing merchandise without paying for it According to the National Retail Federation, close to $17 billion is shoplifted from retailers annually, accounting for more shrinkage, or loss, than any other source. 

All retailers, big and small, are affected by shoplifters, and it's a frustrating reality of doing business. Things like good store design and theft-prevention methods such as security cameras and alarms can help defray losses.

But it's a good idea to train store personnel on how to spot shoplifting before or while it's happening. 

Another method to prevent shoplifting is good store management. Retailers should also use store layout, adequate inventory controls and follow common security practices to combat shoplifting.

Shoplifters can be placed in one of two categories, professional and amateur. While both groups can be quite skilled at the art of thievery, professional shoplifters steal to make a living and may use force or intimidation. The non-professional shoplifter may be easier to spot.

Shoplifter Methods

Many of these thieves work in groups of two or more to distract the sales staff while they steal. Shoplifters learn to take advantage of busy stores during peak hours, or they may strike at times when employees are likely to be distracted, such as opening, closing and during shift changes.

Hiding merchandise is the most common method of shoplifting.

Items are concealed in the clothing of the shoplifter, in handbags, strollers, umbrellas or inside purchased merchandise. Bold shoplifters may grab an item and run out of the store. Other methods include price label switching, and attempting to short-change the cashier. Some especially bold shoplifters might even try to return stolen merchandise to a store to try to get a bogus refund.


Whatever their methods, it's difficult to determine who is or isn't likely to be a shoplifter.

Train Staff Carefully

The last thing a retail establishment wants is for a staff member to wrongly accuse a customer of shoplifting, so make sure anyone dealing with customers is properly trained. 

Most of the time, a store employee approaching a would-be shoplifter and asking them "Can I help you?" will deter a potential theft. But employees should be instructed to do so in a calm, polite manner. If an employee is concerned for his or her safety, he or she should seek a manager's assistance. Likewise if an employee sees someone take something, it's time to get a manager involved. It's never wise for store personnel to try to chase someone out of a store suspected of theft. That's the time to get the police involved. 

Spot the Shoplifter

Unfortunately, there is no typical profile of a shoplifter. Thieves come in all ages, races and from various backgrounds. However, there are some signs that should signal a red flag for retailers. While the following characteristics don't necessarily mean guilt, retailers should keep a close eye on shoppers who behave suspiciously. 

First, if a customer is spending a lot of time entering and exiting a store without purchasing anything, and seems more interested in watching a cashier or sales clerk, that's a red flag that they're up to something.

One particular area where a lot of shoplifting occurs is the store dressing room. It's really important to monitor how many items someone takes into a dressing room and how many they leave with. Groups of three or more people, especially juveniles, who enter a dressing room together might be worth keeping an eye on. The plan might call for one of the group to distract the dressing room attendant while others walk off with stolen clothing or other items.

When (Not If) It Happens to You

Retailers are constantly struck by outside influences out of their control. Rising cost of living, less consumer spending and increases in operating expenses erode profits. But what the retailer can control is its methods of loss prevention. Preventing shoplifting, stopping employee theft and reducing shrinkage can help ensure the retail store is keeping the most revenue possible.

However you handle it, chances are your store will fall victim to a shoplifter at some point. But alert staff and security measures can help curb the problem.