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Shoplifting in retail clothing outlets: an exploratory research.


Shoplifting is the fastest growing larceny in the country[1]. Consumers shoplift about $12-$26 billion-worth of merchandise annually from American retailers[2,3]. This form of petty thievery can account for up to 40 per cent of all stock losses a retailer suffers. These stock losses must be compensated for. Therefore, retail prices must be set high enough to cover shoplifting losses[4]. Shoplifting losses and the cost of added security increase retail prices by an average of two to three cents per dollar[5].

According to Thornton[6], consumers are affected by shoplifting. An average family of four would save more than $1,000 a year if all shoplifting suddenly stopped. Many consumer goods hold higher prices because shoplifting has caused problems for retailers. The retailers must compensate for the loss in profit. The loss is often pushed on to the consumer.

Retailers are outraged by having to up-charge products to consumers because of shoplifting. Because of this outrage, many retailers lawfully have begun to impose fines on shoplifters when they are caught in an attempt to slop the losses they face. They feel they must punish the act that often goes unpunished. Store owners in 43 States can impose these fines ranging from $40 to three times the actual damages[7].

Shoplifting is one of the most troubling and least understood aspects of consumer behaviour[2]. Surprisingly, the literature on shoplifting is very limited. In fact, the consumer behaviour literature produced only live studies on shoplifting from 1973 to 1989[8]. Typically, this research is directed towards explaining shoplifting by isolating broad categories of potential costs and benefits. For example, Cox et al.[2] focused on three factors driving adolescent shoplifting behaviour: experiential, social and economic. In doing so, they followed the existing work of early authors. Belson[9] and Klemke[10], for example, suggest an experiential motivation based on the perceived excitement associated with shoplifting. Social and peer motivations for shoplifting were recognized by Johnson[11] and Moore[12]. Not to be overlooked, an economic motivation was mentioned by Kraut[13].

Shoplifters fall into two general categories. The first category contains the amateur shoplifters who steal to satisfy a physical or psychological need. The amateurs include juveniles, housewives, kleptomaniacs, vagrants, alcoholics and drug addicts. The second category is the professional shoplifters who steal for a living. However, if given an opportunity or an excuse, people from nearly any customer group will shoplift[14]. Shoplifting occurs in every socio-economic and demographic group[15]. Anyone may be a shoplifter[16]. Ninety-seven per cent of the time, shoplifters are not caught[1]. Out of all the occurrences of shoplifting, only one in five shoplifters are professionals[17]. One-half of all arrests for shoplifting are teenagers[6]. Many shoplifters work in groups. Both juveniles and professionals use the group approach in order to conceal merchandise[18].

A survey of shoplifters was initiated by Carolin[19] in order to understand why a shoplifter steals from the point of view of the actual shoplifter. The results of Carolin's survey showed that most thieves stole because they liked the merchandise, not for economic reasons. Also, the survey showed that many shoplifters feel deterred from shoplifting by security or selling measures. Carolin's survey pointed out that most shoplifters knew that shoplifting was wrong and would not advise their children to shoplift.

Facilitating factors that tend to produce shoplifting behaviour include temptation, ability to rationalize and perceived risk of the act[2,20]. The manager who is in charge of loss prevention must understand the community in which the store is located, what items are shoplifted most, how competitors are affected by shoplifting and the history of shoplifting in the area. These must be known before any decisions may be made on which deterrents and preventive devices to use[21].

Our study will build on previous research on shoplifting in retail stores and attempt to give the reader an insight into the shoplifting problems currently facing clothing retailers. The primary purpose of the present study is to examine managers' attitudes towards shoplifting in some detail. Moreover, relatively few academic articles have suggested how marketing managers might use our current understanding of these subjects to build an actionable approach to shoplifting. The secondary purpose is to identify coping strategies that can be used by retailing managers to deal with shoplifting.

Survey Methodology

A prototype questionnaire was developed and modified with inputs by several professional marketing managers to investigate the state of shoplifting in retail clothing outlets. The final version consisted of 29 self-administered questions designed to elicit a wide range of shoplifting issues. For ease of response, most questions were closed ended, requiring the respondent to circle a choice. Space for some open-ended questions was also provided. After pilot testing and subsequent revisions were completed, the questionnaire and cover letter were taken to one manager of each clothing store in our sample. Completion of the questionnaire was voluntary. The cover letter stated that the results were confidential and anonymous, and that the manager's participation in the survey was appreciated greatly. The respondent was assured that a summary of the results would be available, if requested, and all results would be reported only in aggregate to protect individual privacy.

Simple random sampling was used to identify 158 clothing outlets from five metropolitan areas in North Louisiana and East Texas. The survey instrument was conducted in September and October 1993. Of the 158 clothing outlets in the sample, 98 complete interviews were conducted. The co-operation rate for this study (the ratio of the number of completed interviews to the number of completions plus refusals) was 62 per cent or 98 out of 158. The reasons for non-responses may be due to inability for managers to release information dealing with loss, and managers' time constraints. The respondents were asked to supply information about their retail outlets and their shoplifting problems.

Survey Results

First, the percentage distributions for responses to the outlet characteristics are described in Table I. The majority of the customers of the retail outlets surveyed are female (61.2 per cent). This statistic is common for clothing outlets, which are predominantly shopped by women.

The income level is approximately normally distributed. Fifty per cent of the customers fall within an income level of $10,000 to $25,000. The next highest ranking is at the income level of $26,000 to $40,000 (30.6 per cent).

The average number of employees in the retail outlets surveyed was 12.5. Different sizes of outlets were surveyed. They included department stores with more than 100 employees to small owner-run outlets with two or three employees. Chi-squared analysis was used to test for a difference among the outlet characteristics. The outlet characteristics tested were gender of customers, income level of customers and employee size. The test of the null hypothesis indicated that the null hypothesis could not be rejected. Therefore, no differences were found among the outlet characteristics.
Table I.
Outlet Characteristics of the Sample

Characteristics                                %

Gender of majority of customers
  Female                                      61.2
  Male                                        29.6
  Both                                         9.2

Income level of customers
  Below $10,000                               11.2
  $10,000 to 25,000                           50.0
  $26,000 to 40,000                           30.6
  $41,000 to 55,000                            5.1
  Over $55,000                                 5.1

Location of register
  Front of store                              17.3
  Middle of store                             51.0
  Back of store                               27.6
  Department                                   4.1


Average employee size in the retail outlets: 12.5

n = 98

Table II reports the distributions of responses to the six general questions regarding shoplifting. The questions from the survey included in this table are those concerning the demographics on shoplifting, both of the shoplifter and the retailer.

Issue One: Layout Design

As suggested by French et al.[22], store layout can be designed to reduce shoplifting. In the majority of outlets the registers are located in the middle of the store (51 per cent). Some retailers surveyed said the placement of the registers in the middle of the store acts as a deterrent against shoplifting. If the registers are in the back, some respondents believed that shoplifters will take merchandise from the front. If the registers are in the front, the back of the store is not properly safeguarded against shoplifting. However, by placing the register in the middle of the store all areas of the store are easier to watch. Secluded areas or areas that do not lend themselves to observation by store personnel are open motivations to shoplifters[23].
Table II.
Percentage Distribution of General Shoplifting Items

Do you have a problem with
shoplifting? (n = 98)

Yes                                              57.1
No                                               42.9

How many items, on average,
are shoplifted per day? (n = 98)

0-3                                              87.8
4-6                                              10.2
7-9                                               0.0
10 or more                                        2.0

Who shoplifts more from your
store, men or women? (n = 98)

Men                                              22.4
Women                                            73.5
Both                                              4.1

Are most shoplifters you catch
employed or unemployed (n = 92)

Employed                                         16.3
Unemployed                                       83.7

What age are most of the
shoplifters you catch? (n = 95)

Teenage and under                                25.3
20-30                                            62.1
31-40                                            11.6
41-50                                             1.1
51+                                               0.0

What is the price of the average
items lifted from your store? (n = 96)

$10 or under                                      6.2
$11-30                                           27.1
$31-50                                           35.4
$51-70                                           16.7
$71 or more                                      14.6

Issue Two: Magnitude of the Problem

Of those outlets surveyed, 57.1 per cent said they did, in fact, have a problem with shoplifting. Many respondents feel shoplifting is a no-win situation that will never end. They feel no solutions can be found to end the shoplifting problems they face.

Most retailers surveyed responded that they lose between zero and three items per day owing to shoplifting (87.8 per cent). Only 2 per cent of those outlets surveyed lose ten or more items per day. The amount lost is normally distributed with most values falling between $11 and $70. Thirty-five per cent of those surveyed lose $31-$50 each time an item is stolen from their store. Shoplifting is very expensive to the retailer, as shown in Table II. It can be a huge loss to an outlet if not handled properly.

While males commit a higher level of almost every crime[24], including shoplifting[2], there is some controversy/over retail clothing outlets. Reports of female-dominated shoplifting typically have come from stores in which most shoppers are female[18]. According to the survey results, women shoplift more than men, since women make up the biggest proportion of the customer base of retail clothing outlets. Our survey finding is consistent with the popular view.

The majority of the outlets surveyed agree that most of the shoplifters they catch are unemployed (83.7 per cent). Many reasons account for this. First, many shoplifters are vagrants and drug-users who steal for money to buy food and drugs. Second, professional shoplifters are to blame for a large amount of shoplifting activity.

Sixty-two per cent of the respondents answered that the age of most of the shoplifters they catch is between 20 and 30. This group includes college-age adults, which many retailers expressed is a problem for them. Three of the five areas surveyed contain universities. College-age students are more likely to participate in consumer fraud than older adults [12,25]. The next prevalent age-group is teenage and under (25.3 per cent). Teenagers tend to shoplift because of deviant social influence from their peers[10,25] or because they want to retaliate against their parents[12].

Attitudes were measured using five-point scales (1 = agree strongly, 2 = agree somewhat, 3 = neither agree nor disagree, 4 = disagree somewhat, 5 = disagree strongly). Table III shows the means and standard deviations of the shoplifting attitudes.

Issue Three: Prosecution Efforts

The respondents considered shoplifting a serious offence but were not in favour of prosecution, even if the retailer has a policy of prosecution. Most of those surveyed feel irate when someone steals from their store (mean = 4.64). Some retailers commented that stealing from their store is like stealing from their home. To detain a shoplifter legally while avoiding a lawsuit is a difficult problem. The retailers surveyed averaged in the middle with a mean score of 2.67. They did not agree or disagree very much (standard deviation = 1.67). Many of the retail managers surveyed said that their companies do not handle the lawsuits locally and they have no way of knowing whether or not holding someone is difficult. This inaction may be caused by the time and costs involved in prosecuting shoplifters. Another possible reason for the inaction may be a belief that no severe punishment would be obtained.
Table III.
Descriptive Statistics for Shoplifting Attitudes

Questionnaire item                           Mean        SD

Shoplifting is a significant
problem in relation to other
problems in your company                     2.62        1.46

How do you feel about people
shoplifting from your store?                 4.64        1.02

To detain a shoplifter legally
while avoiding a lawsuit is a
difficult problem                            2.67        1.67

In your experience, how much
does the recession have an
impact on shoplifting?                       3.03        1.48

How do customers feel about
shopping in your store because
of the deterrents you use?                   1.84        1.18

How successful are the deterrents?           3.92        0.99

The training of my employees in
shoplifting deterrents and
preventive devices is significant
in lowering shoplifting in my store          1.51        1.03

With the question about the recession, many respondents fell in the centre. They neither agreed nor disagreed that the recession has an impact on shoplifting. One respondent said that shoplifting occurs at any time. There is no good or bad time for shoplifting. With or without the recession, shoplifting would be a problem. However, one respondent said they have more people shoplifting luxury items now than ever before.

Issue Four: Detection and Prevention Considerations

Although, in some instances, preventive devices conflict with merchandising practices[26], our respondents believed that most customers are comfortable shopping in stores with the deterrents they use. Most stores surveyed, however, do not use the high-tech equipment that tends to scare customers away. In fact some managers expressed a concern about using these devices. They believed that the devices are an expensive way to provide a false sense of security. In many situations the devices do not work or shoplifters have figured a way around the devices. In addition, many traditional devices of combating shoplifting tend to increase the environmental hostility within the store[26]. LaBurtis[27] concludes that overt security practices were not associated with reduced shoplifting losses.

Many of the outlets focus on customer service as their number one preventive device against shoplifting. Because of this many customers are not alarmed when entering the store and will actually feel welcomed by the added customer service. By using customer service as a deterrent most stores are confident that their deterrent is successful (mean = 3.92). Almost every respondent surveyed listed customer service as a deterrent. The managers also believe the training of their employees in shoplifting deterrents and preventive devices is significant in lowering shoplifting in their stores (mean = 1.51).

An open-ended question was used to find out the range of different deterrents managers use in their stores. Customer service is the deterrent used most by those surveyed (73.5 per cent). Many managers believed an employee should create no opportunity for shoplifting to occur. Employees should use customer service so as to not give the shoplifter a chance to shoplift. Another respondent is quoted as saying: "Customer service is the best defence for shoplifting".

Unfortunately, employee training regarding shoplifting prevention, detection and apprehension is not widespread in the respondents. This lack of training is somewhat understandable. Many retailers experience high turnover rates in their personnel, and therefore are discouraged from incurring additional training costs.

Some of the stores use security devices to ward off shoplifters. However, this also makes the shopping experience more unpleasant for honest customers. The atmosphere of a women's fashion department can be adversely affected when guards, mirrors and TV cameras are highly visible[4]. In some instances the systems do not work correctly and cause confusion for the employees. The problem caused by using the systems is one reason why customer service is valued more highly than other devices.

Other deterrents of those surveyed included cameras, employee training programmes, security guards, mirrors, prosecution signs, lowered shelving and locking up certain higher-priced items. Rearranging merchandise to remove blind spots may help to reduce the shoplifting problem. Warning signs are another deterrent device used in some retail outlets. A few of those surveyed take packages from the customers to avoid shoplifting.

Conclusions and Implications

If the results of this research are replicated, expanded and supported, they may prove useful to retailing managers. In sum, despite its exploratory nature, several significant conclusions emerged as a result of this study. First, shoplifting continues to be a major concern for clothing retailers. Most managers believed that shoplifting is an important issue, but awareness and implementation of shoplifting prevention strategy are generally thought to be low.

Second, in explaining these findings, we conjecture that supply-oriented factors (for example, size, location of registers and attitudes) may establish the preconditions for development of a shoplifting prevention strategy, while demand-oriented factors (for example, strategic need) may motivate development of a shoplifting prevention strategy where preconditions are met.

Finally, store employees can be the retailer's most effective tools against shoplifting. Most of those managers surveyed use customer service as their number one deterrent. By using proper customer service, retail managers will give shoplifters little chance to shoplift. This deterrent also costs less than any other mentioned.

Clothing retailing is a people business and, as such, is subject to people problems. With the emphasis on personal services it would seem that effective training programmes would be the clothing retailers' forte. Employees need to be trained to be aware, visible and alert to potential shoplifting situations. Effective training for store employees includes both structured and on-the-job learning experiences. During the structured programme, newly hired employees are taught the basic skills, company policies and knowledge that they will need to prevent shoplifting. The next training phase emphasizes on-the-job training. New employees are assigned a job, given responsibilities and coached by their supervisor. Managers may create innovative approaches to training new employees. One strategy for coping with training in clothing retailers is to appoint mentors -- experienced workers -- to work with newer, inexperienced employees over a period of time.

Although some of the findings from this study may not be generalizable to other retail outlets, they may have some relevance to previous observations about shoplifting problems. Our findings are based on static self-report data, and the analysis is correlation in nature. While the present study provides insights into managers' attitudes towards shoplifting, more research needs to be conducted if a good understanding of how the prevention strategy is to be developed.


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15. Guffey, H., Harris, J. and Laumer, J.F., "Shopper Attitudes towards Shoplifting and Shoplifting Preventive Devices", Journal of Retailing, Fall 1979, pp. 75-89.

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21. Adler, S., "Has Your Store Had a Checkup?", Security Management, April 1993, pp, 61-2.

22. French, W., Crask, M. and Mader, F., "Retailer's Assessment of the Shoplifting Problems", Journal of Retailing, Vol. 60, 1984, pp. 108-15.

23. Marguardt, R.A., Makens, J.C. and Roe, R.G., Retail Management: Satisfaction of Consumer Needs, CBS College Publishing, New York, NY, 1983, p. 234.

24. US Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform Crime Reports for the US, Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1988.

25. Johnson, S.L., Sommer, R. and Martino, V., "Consumer Behaviour at Bulk Food Bins", Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 12, June 1985, pp. 114-17.

26. Geurts, M. and Johnston, E., "Shoplifting - Deviant Consumer Behavior", Retail Control, Vol. 41, March 1973, pp. 43-50.

27. LaBurtis, M.A., "A Study of Retail Store Security with Regard to Shoplifting in Metropolitan Savannah, Georgia", unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Arkansas, Department of Business Administration, 1975.
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Author:Lin, Binshan; Hastings, Deborah Ann; Martin, Christopher
Publication:International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management
Date:Nov 1, 1994
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