How to stop shoplifters

Written by Nate Hendley

Do you spend considerable time and effort trying to stop theft at your store? You can’t afford not to. Shoplifters steal roughly $1 billion worth of goods from Canadian stores every year, says the Retail Council of Canada.

The good news is, employing a combination of tried-and-true methods and newer techniques for stopping theft can really make a dent in your problem, says Bob Tilley, president of Bob Tilley & Associates International Inc., a loss-prevention consultancy in Uxbridge, Ont.

Tilley offers the following tips:

Train your staff

Excellent customer service is the single best way to prevent shoplifting.

When you hire new employees, make it clear that their job has as much to do with preventing theft as with making sales.

To prevent theft, clerks should make eye contact, give an acknowledgement or a greeting and make an offer of service to every customer who enters their store. Even a hackneyed phrase such as “I’ll be in the next aisle over if you need assistance” can deter thieves. It lets them know they haven’t slipped into the store unnoticed and that they are being watched to a certain extent.

Don’t rely solely on technology

Shoplifters know to scan stores for video cameras and monitors. For this reason, surveillance tools are only a small deterrent against theft. That said, cameras are useless if clerks ignore customers and don’t keep their eyes on the monitor.

Likewise, electronic article surveillance (EAS) systems are useless if the human factor is less than adequate. Because they trigger so many false alarms (usually because employees neglect to remove the tags from purchased merchandise), the alarms are often ignored and potential thieves are allowed to leave. In other cases, clerks turn off the systems so as not to annoy customers.

EAS systems might also lull business owners into a false sense of security — a bad move if professional shoplifters are targeting your store.

Beware of the pros

Professional shoplifters are out there. Fortunately, it’s not too hard to spot them if you know what you’re looking for.

“Look for someone coming in with a funny looking carrier,” suggests Tilley. “Professionals tend to make home-made bags, lined with Velcro or aluminum foil. The coating inside the bag shields the product [from the EAS system].”

Something else to watch for: customers who focus not on your merchandise, but on you. “Professional shoplifters keep their eyes on employees rather than the products, adds Tilley. “They are not the slightest bit interested in checking or examining the product. They have their eyes on the cashier or sales clerk.”

So what do you do if you notice a shopper eyeing you instead of the goods? Approach them as you would any customer. Again, good customer service is the best way to ward off professional shoplifters: if you let customers know you’re watching them, they will be less likely to steal.

Brighten up

Bright lighting does more than create a pleasant ambience in a retail environment; it takes away the anonymity on which shoplifters thrive.

Dim lighting, by contrast, offers good cover for fast-fingered thieves.

Hire an extra pair of eyes

In some cases, hiring a security guard is a good solution to loss prevention. A uniformed guard offers a reassuring presence and might deter shoplifters from even entering your store.

On the down side, the presence of security guards could serve as a red flag to would-be thieves. Says Tilley: “Guards indicate that your store has a lot of problems” with shoplifters, which is not the message most store owners want to convey.

Plainclothes security guards might be a better way to prevent theft.

Watch for a mob

Be wary of packs of people that suddenly barge into your store, making noise and wreaking havoc. Quite often, members of the pack will deliberately act up to distract you whilst their comrades lift items from your shelves.

That said, if a mob enters your store, neither you nor your staff should confront them. “If it’s a really threatening situation, call 911,” says Tilley. “There’s really nothing else you can do.”

Read other pointers on How To contribute to your business success!

© 2004 Nate Hendley

Originally appeared on