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Shoplifting, 2nd Ed.

Guide No. 11 (2012)

by Ronald V. Clarke and Gohar Petrossian

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The Problem of Shoplifting

What This Guide Does and Does Not Cover

This guide reviews ways to reduce shoplifting (merchandise theft from the shop floor during business hours), which is a common crime that affects large and small retailers alike. Particularly at risk are self-service stores that sell small items that are easily concealed in clothes or bags. Several offender groups are responsible: (1) opportunistic thieves, not readily distinguishable from ordinary customers, who steal items for personal use (sometimes called petty shoplifters); (2) more determined thieves, usually operating alone, who steal small quantities of goods to sell, often to support drug habits; and (3) groups of organized thieves who steal large quantities of merchandise for resale (often referred to as professional or organized retail theft).

Shoplifting is just one of the crimes that occur in the retail environment. Other crimes requiring their own analyses and responses include:

Some of these related problems are covered in other guides in this series, all of which are listed at the end of this guide. For the most up-to-date listing of current and future guides, see www.popcenter.org.

General Description of the Problem

Though common, shoplifting is one of the least detected and reported crimes, according to (1) self reports, (2) observations, and (3) comparisons of marked items with sales of those items. Only about one in 150 shoplifting incidents leads to the offender's apprehension and subsequent police action.1

It is not surprising that shoplifting is so widespread. Shops contain new goods, temptingly displayed. Self-service provides ample opportunity for shoppers to handle goods (many of which are prepackaged) and conceal them in clothing or bags. People seem to have fewer inhibitions about stealing from shops than from private individuals. They also know they have little chance of getting caught, and, if caught, they can often produce plausible excuses, such as forgetting to pay. In addition, the stock control in shops is so deficient that few retailers know how many goods they lose to shoplifters or to their staff. So long as theft and damage of goods, known in the retail industry as shrinkage, does not rise above 2-3 percent of goods sold, retailers may pay little attention to shoplifting, especially when stolen goods can be taken as a tax write-off.

The guide begins by summarizing what is known about the main offender groups involved in shoplifting and by reviewing the police role in dealing with shoplifting. It then reviews factors that increase shoplifting risks and it lists a series of questions that might help you analyze your local shoplifting problem. Finally, it reviews responses to the problem, and what is known about them from research and police practice. It will be apparent that there are many gaps in knowledge, and that particularly lacking is information about the market for goods stolen by shoplifters.† 

† See Problem-Specific Guide No. 57, Stolen Goods Markets, for further information.

Main Offender Groups

As mentioned above there are three main offender groups:

1. Petty thieves. These shoplifters differ little from a store's regular clientele. Many of them seem to believe that shoplifting harms no one except an anonymous business. Stores that attract juveniles, males in particular, are more likely to experience shoplifting and some behavioral cues have been found to be characteristic of shoplifters, such as entering the store but making no purchase and tampering with packaging.2 Some research has claimed to identify psychological reasons for theft,‡ but this work has little relevance for policing strategies.
‡ See Klemke (1993) for a comprehensive review.
2. More determined thieves. Shoplifters who steal regularly to support a drug habit or to provide income show more evidence of planning, such as adapting clothing to facilitate thefts. They often work with lower-level fences, who dispose of the goods by selling them to higher-level fences or out of their own homes, in flea markets or taverns, on the Internet, or through gas stations, bodegas, and pawnshops that they operate.
3. Organized groups. Organized shoplifter groups frequently comprise immigrants (legal or not) from the Middle East, South America, or Asia, perhaps because they can sell the goods to fellow immigrants who run small businesses.† They concentrate their activities in particular states, including Florida, Texas, Georgia, California, and New York.3 Their arrival in a city might be signaled by a spike in reports of goods being shoplifted in large quantities.‡ Each group consists of members with distinct roles: "boosters" steal the goods; "handlers" sell the goods to fences; and others take care of transport and logistics. Boosters act either alone or in groups. They are often provided with a "fence sheet" of the items to be stolen and the quantities requested. They carry tools to remove security tags, they use foil-lined bags to defeat electronic tags, and they may use cell phones to communicate with other group members while shoplifting. They may change bar codes so merchandise registers at much lower prices at checkout ("ticket switching"). They may use stolen credit cards and use the receipts to return stolen goods to the store for cash. In some cases, they may brazenly wheel carts full of merchandise out the doors to a waiting getaway van. The stolen goods may be held in rented storage units before being taken to the group's home base. The goods are often sold to fences who clean and repackage them to look like new and who then sell them to wholesale diverters, who might mix them with legitimate goods for sale to retailers.

† They may make use of so-called "golden bodies," recent immigrants intending to return home after short stays in the United States with excellent credit who open store credit card accounts at department stores and at home improvement, electronics, and other specialty chains. Their credit cards are used by the professional shoplifters to make substantial purchases from these stores. In return, the individuals are paid $10,000 in cash upon return to their home countries (Hayes 2005).

‡ When this happens suddenly at a particular location, retail circles are using the term "flash mobs" to describe these organized shoplifters 

Harms Caused by Shoplifting

Stores may not take official action against shoplifters because prosecution takes time and effort, mistaken apprehensions can result in lawsuits, the store could acquire a reputation for crime if it continually reports shoplifting, and some merchants might fear retaliation. Some merchants are persuaded not to take official action when shoplifters claim it is their first offense, show fear or remorse, and/or agree to pay for the items stolen.

In addition, some retailers believe that the police can do little about the problem and may be unwilling to get involved. Others see the police role as simply to deal with thieves whom security staff or store detectives have caught. When particularly blatant shoplifting occurs, or when professional shoplifters are thought to be operating, merchants may call upon the police to take some kind of preventive action, usually in the form of increased presence or patrols. This may be of little deterrent value, since shoplifting takes place inside the store, away from police view. Consequently, this guide focuses on other preventive actions police might take. In many cases, their most important task is to persuade store-owners and managers to improve their security. This is difficult, because many retailers believe that the police should protect them from dishonest people and that people who steal should be caught and punished.† Others are content to ignore the problem until it seriously affects profits. Whatever the reasons, the police may have an uphill task convincing retailers that their sales practices and lack of security may be contributing to the problem.

† British retailers, in particular, have sought to avoid the term "shoplifting" on grounds that it suggests a less serious form of theft. They prefer "shop theft." 

Faced with these attitudes, it is tempting for police to wash their hands of shoplifting and let the shops bear the consequences. But there are many reasons why this may be shortsighted, including the following:

  • Shoplifting is often regarded as an entry crime, from which juveniles graduate to more serious offenses.
  • Shoplifting can be said to fuel the drug trade, because it provides the income some addicts need to buy drugs.
  • For stores in deprived neighborhoods, shoplifting can seriously erode profits and result in store closures. This can depress employment prospects and further erode the amenities in such neighborhoods.
  • Shoplifting can consume a large proportion of police resources in processing offenders whom the store has detained. In this regard, the police are at the mercy of merchants who may avoid changing their business practices in favor of simply relying on security staff and police to handle shoplifters.
  • Professional shoplifters are increasingly resorting to violence, putting the sales associates and customers at risk of being hurt.5
  • Many shoplifting groups are thought to have connections to organized crime6 and illicit profits obtained from professional shoplifting may be used to finance terrorist organizations.7

For all these reasons, police cannot ignore shoplifting. The challenge facing them is to conduct a thorough analysis of the local problem to put together a combination of preventive responses. 

Factors Contributing to Shoplifting

Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine good measures of effectiveness, recognize key points of intervention, and select an appropriate set of responses. Many of the factors contributing to a heightened risk of shoplifting are under management control, while others, such as seasonal and temporal patterns, are not; even in the latter case, however, knowledge of those patterns can assist in framing a preventive response.

Goods Sold

One of the main factors determining a store's shoplifting rate is the type of goods sold. For obvious reasons, furniture stores have much lower shoplifting rates than, say, convenience or drug stores. Numerous surveys have shown that the most common items stolen from retail stores in the United States include tobacco products (particularly cigarettes), health and beauty products (such as over-the-counter analgesics and decongestants,† popular remedies, and birth control products), recorded music and videos, and apparel ranging from athletic shoes to children's clothing, with an emphasis on designer labels. One item that is especially popular among professional shoplifters at present is infant formula, presumably because it is expensive and easily sold.

† Clarke (1999) notes that certain analgesics contain ingredients that can be used in making other drugs, and that decongestants help to produce a high when taken together with some illegal drugs. See Problem-Specific Guide No. 16, Clandestine Methamphetamine Labs, 2nd Edition, for further information. He also notes that some frequently stolen products, such as hemorrhoid remedies and condoms, can be embarrassing to buy. Self-checkout systems that allow customers to scan and bag their own goods might provide a solution.

Some items might be constantly stolen, while thefts of others may reflect the popularity of new product releases, such as movies, video games, and music titles. Also, the popularity for theft can be highly brand-dependent, so that, for example, only certain brands are stolen of razor blades, cigarettes, designer clothes or even, according to recent media reports, laundry detergent.8 

Image Name

Self-checkout systems such as the one shown on the right are a new alternative to the standard clerk checkout seen on the left and might reduce theft of products that some shoppers find embarrassing to buy. Credit: Ronald Clarke

The acronym CRAVED captures the essential attributes of these "hot products" which are Concealable, Removable, Available, Valuable, Enjoyable, and Disposable.9, † The last of these attributes—disposability—may be the most important in determining the volume of goods shoplifted. Those shoplifting for profit must be able to sell or barter what they steal.

† See Problem-Solving Tool Guide No. 12, Understanding Theft of 'Hot' Products, for further information.

The most vulnerable parts of the store to shoplifting are those that carry hot products. One study in a large music store in London found that the highest theft rates were in the sections carrying rock and pop recordings (nowadays, it would probably be rap or hip-hop). Equally expensive recordings in the classical music department were rarely stolen.10 

Seasonal and Temporal Patterns

Most shoplifting occurs when stores are busiest, with the majority of incidents occurring late in the week, between Wednesday and Saturday.11 Seasonal shoplifting corresponds with the demand for goods, which means that much shoplifting occurs during pre-Easter, pre-summer, and pre-Christmas periods. As mentioned, juveniles commit much shoplifting, and consequently, high-risk times include non-school days during the late mornings, and afternoons into the evening.12


Research does not provide a clear indication of the risk factors related to a store's location, but shoplifting rates tend to be higher for stores with the following features:

  • In city centers and other busy places, with a large number of casual customers
  • Fronting onto the open street
  • Close to highways that provide easy escape routes
  • Near schools, with many juvenile customers
  • In economically deprived areas, with large concentrations of impoverished or addicted residents

Retail Policies, Staffing, and Stock Control

Retail policies, staffing, and stock control are store management's responsibility, but these are heavily influenced by how competitive, profit-driven, and technology-dependent is the broader retail environment. For example, stock control is usually deficient because the effort needed to keep proper track of stock has rarely been justified by any reductions in theft and other forms of shrinkage. Similarly, it would be impossibly expensive for stores to abandon self-service and rely instead on armies of helpful, attentive sales clerks, even though this would substantially reduce shoplifting.† The savings in reduced theft would be greatly outweighed by increased staff wages and, possibly, by sales lost as a result of shoppers being unable to inspect goods at their leisure. Such marketing considerations might also limit the scope for tightening up return policies, which, if too liberal, can encourage theft of goods to be returned for cash refunds. For example, some clothing stores do not have changing rooms because the staff costs of monitoring them to prevent shoplifting may be too great. These stores have to allow the return of clothes that do not fit.

† Even so, retailers might be advised to take account of the finding that shoplifters do not think that "young, skater type teen" store associates are effective place managers because they "are kind of lax...and they really don't care" (Cardone 2006: 83).

However, increased competition is continually eroding retail profit margins, and thus the incentive to reduce shrinkage is increasing. At the same time, the sales environment is constantly changing in the search for increased profits. One current example is the increasing use of self-scan checkouts that reduce staff costs and perceived wait times for customers. However, self-scan presents new opportunities for shoplifting, despite security features that include cameras to monitor the transactions, and software systems to detect irregularities.13 Theft methods include scanning one item and including more of the same item without paying for them, using wrong item codes that are cheaper and putting unchecked items in strollers. With increasing use of self-scan, stores might find ways of closing these security loopholes. 

Store Layout and Displays

Research provides little guidance, but common sense suggests certain store layout and display features contribute to shoplifting.14 Most of these relate to the staff's ability to supervise shoppers, and stores at greater risk include large ones which make it easier for organized groups to hide among ordinary shoppers. Also vulnerable are stores with the following features:

  • Many exits, particularly where they are accessible without passing through the checkout
  • Passageways, blind corners, and hidden alcoves
  • Restrooms or changing rooms
  • High displays that conceal shoppers (and shoplifters) from view
  • Crowded areas around displays of high-risk items
  • Aisles that staff cannot easily survey from one end

"I'll find, like, the most unlikely place a customer's going to go, like the most boring items in the store, I'll go into that aisle and try to get into the packages as fast as I can...then I just keep the product with me...and just walk out the normal exit." – Pat15 

Goods on the ground floor especially near entrances are at greater theft risk because this is often where the newest products are displayed, because these areas receive least employee attention, and because shoplifters can dart in and out quickly. Other risk factors include the store's security measures, such as CCTV surveillance, security tagging, access control, employees' location, mirrors, and how well the hot products are secured.16

The Internet

As mentioned, little is known about how stolen goods are sold,† but one study undertaken in 2008 calculated that approximately 18 percent of all stolen goods were sold on the Internet.17 In some cases, goods are pre-sold on Internet sites before they are stolen from stores by organized theft groups.18 The profit on e-fence merchandise (approximately 70 percent of retail) is much higher than merchandise sold through a traditional fence.19 

† See Problem-Specific Guide No. 57, Stolen Goods Markets, for further information.

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