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Why the temptation?


SELF-SERVICE MERchandising means making vast amounts of merchandise completely available to the buying public - and presenting that merchandise with as few restraints as possible. By doing this, the potential customer can examine and touch the item, thereby increasing his or her desire to acquire it. While it is relatively easy to convince the customer that he or she should have the item, convincing the large number of people with low temptation thresholds to pay for what they take is another matter. The physical layout of stores makes it is easy for a shoplifter to find the necessary momentary privacy to conceal the item to be stolen.

Shoplifting is impersonal and can be easily rationalized by the perpetrator that he or she is not taking from or hurting a person but rather from a store or company. It is also easy to rationalize that there is no harm because the store charges high prices.

It takes no talent to be a shoplifter. A safe breaker, a second-story man, a bad check artist, or a con man have talent - negative as it may be. But shoplifting requires no talent. Anyone from small children to senior citizens can do it with ease. All that is required is the urge and a stroll to an isolated part of the store.

The chances of shoplifting successfully are quite good. Not many stores have the ability of protecting all their merchandise all the time. In order to ensure merchandise protection, labor scheduling is critical. When insufficient personnel are available, it not only makes safeguarding merchandise difficult but also frustrates honest customers who are trying to find someone to wait on them. In addition, shoplifting apprehension agents are expensive. The most productive agent rarely comes anywhere near recovering merchandise the value equal to his or her salary and expenses.

Electronic article surveillance (EAS) systems work well, and the technology is improving, but they are so expensive that they can be installed only in selected locations or departments. Conventional wisdom used to suggest that shoplifting is controlled by apprehending and prosecuting shoplifters. EAS systems are not offered as a means of apprehending shoplifters - they are offered as deterrents and as a way of recovering merchandise. These systems work when properly administered, but they are only as good as the training and motivation level of the personnel who operate them.

When a shoplifter is caught, there is a good chance that he or she will be released at the store level rather than taken to court. Few retailers prosecute all shoplifters simply because it is not practical - the courts simply cannot handle the load. Certain retailers claim that they do press charges against all shoplifters. However, these retailers may mean they do not apprehend a perpetrator unless they believe they can obtain a conviction if the case goes to trial. Such a policy would mean that many shoplifters would "walk" because some cases that justify recovery of the merchandise do not justify prosecution. Therefore, it would seem that the prosecution of all shoplifters does not eradicate shoplifting. The management question then is "What percentage of shoplifters prosecuted creates the greatest deterrent effect as compared to dollars spent for that purpose?" I do not believe there is any textbook answer to that question.

With the passage of civil demand and recovery laws in over 30 states(1) the retailer can punish the shoplifter through a civil law procedure permitting direct collection of monetary damages from the shoplifter instead of proceeding with prosecution through the criminal justice system. Payment of civil damages of $150 to $200 to the store may be a penalty to the shoplifter. However, the long-range effect of using that procedure in lieu of prosecution may increase rather than decrease shoplifting. If the retailer collects civil damages instead of prosecuting, the inconvenience and embarrassment of being booked and appearing in court, the cost of a defense attorney and a fine, and the potentially disabling effect of a criminal record are avoided by the shoplifter. The temptation on the part of the retailer to avoid the prosecution process is real because it is costly, time-consuming, complicated, and fraught with exposure to civil liability.

The deterrent value of apprehending and prosecuting shoplifters is arguably ineffective because retailers do not publicize their apprehension and prosecution programs. On the contrary, details regarding such programs are so carefully guarded that little or no information reaches the public. Because of this, there is little chance for a potential shoplifter to know the penalty paid by those apprehended previously.

Research shows that once apprehended the shoplifter appears to be deterred from further shoplifting in the store where he or she was caught. However, most loss prevention practitioners agree that only a small percentage of shoplifters are discovered and apprehended. Therefore, when the total number of shoplifters apprehended in a year's time is compared with the total number of customers who frequent the store during the same period, the result is inevitably a small percentage of the total. The large budgets expended to apprehend and prosecute a small number of shoplifters must be justified on the value received from deterring further shoplifting.

WHY DO PEOPLE SHOPLIFT? A Neanderthal who has not eaten in several days stands by the fire and watches as a better hunter cooks a chunk of meat. The good hunter turns to throw a rock at a howl he hears in the thicket behind them. While the good hunter's back is turned, the hungry one grabs the meat and runs the opposite direction into the forest. My attempt at parable is based on an interesting fact - agents agents who apprehend shoplifters in supermarkets say that it is an exception when the shoplifter does not have enough money to pay for what he or she has stolen.

Are kleptomaniacs the problem? I have heard kleptomaniacs described as people who steal, perhaps with the hope of getting caught, because of the attention they will receive - even though that attention is unpleasant. A true kleptomaniac might steal a pair of prescription glasses that would be of no use to him or her whatsoever. I do not believe there are enough of these people out there to make up the statistics we have on shoplifting.

Why do so many people shoplift? Is it stress? More likely, it is human frailty and agreed. The thrill and satisfaction of getting something for nothing in a materialistic society where the average person is bombarded with advertising messages extolling the gratification of the possession and consumption of goods is simply overwhelming. (1) Delaney J. Stinson, "Attention, Retailers: Civil Law Provides a Tonic," Security Management, September 1988, p. 129.

Roger Griffin, CPP, is vice president of Commercial Service Systems Inc. in Van Nuys, CA. He is a member of ASIS.
COPYRIGHT 1989 American Society for Industrial Security
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Title Annotation:preventing shoplifting
Author:Griffin, Roger
Publication:Security Management
Article Type:column
Date:Dec 1, 1989
Previous Article:Selling security.
Next Article:Eschew obfuscation!

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