Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Understanding Your Local Problem

To develop an effective response, you must combine the basic facts reviewed above about shoplifting with more detailed understanding of your local problem. In most cases, your problem is likely to involve a group of stores, such as those in a city center, mall, or shopping precinct. Accordingly, your analysis is likely to focus on differential shoplifting risks among the stores in your group, and the reasons for those differences. In any case, the measures appropriate to deal with the problem will vary with the nature of the stores at risk.
It is likely that you will mostly be dealing with petty shoplifting, but in big cities, particularly those in the five high-risk states; Florida, Texas, Georgia, California, and New York, as mentioned earlier, you should determine if organized groups are involved. If they are, you might need the cooperation of state and federal agencies, as these criminal organizations often work within several states. An important indicator of organized shoplifting is whether large numbers of goods are stolen at one time.
Shoplifting analysis is made difficult by low reporting rates, and by the fact that police records rarely permit shoplifting offenses to be readily identified among reported thefts. There are other ways to gather information about your local problem, including the following, but these, too, have their difficulties:

  • Store apprehensions may provide some useful information, but the data tend to say as much about surveillance and apprehension practices as about the "typical" offender, or even the most targeted goods.
  • Observational studies - in which randomly selected shoppers are followed around the store - can produce some useful results, but they are labor-intensive and ethically problematic. If followed by police or security, those observed stealing would have to be apprehended; if followed by researchers, the police or the store might be criticized for permitting this approach.20
  • The most accurate way to assess retail theft is repeated systematic counting of items on display, but this, again, is labor-intensive. It is also difficult to determine whether losses are due to theft by customers or by staff, or whether they are the result of innocent clerical error.

In some cases, store stock-control records or staff may be able to provide information about items particularly vulnerable to theft. However, whenever possible, you should check such information by asking the kinds of questions discussed below. The effort required to obtain accurate information about problems is almost always justified by the improved responses that result.

 

† Researchers have developed an effective method of measuring theft (see Buckle et al. 1992). Small tags, color-coded by item, are attached to each high-risk item. An inventory of these items is taken before opening the store for business. When items are sold, clerks remove the tags that are then counted at the end of the day. The number of tags collected is added to the number of those items left on the floor. If the total does not match the initial inventory, then the residual number of items is presumed stolen.

Stakeholders

In addition to criminal justice agencies, the following groups have an interest in the shoplifting problem and ought to be considered for the contribution they might make to gathering information about the problem and responding to it:

  • Nearby stores experiencing a shoplifting problem
  • Similar stores, or stores in the same chain, not experiencing a shoplifting problem
  • Managers of nearby shopping centers or malls
  • Corporate loss prevention officials
  • Local chambers of commerce and other retail business associations

Asking the Right Questions

The following are questions you should ask in analyzing your particular shoplifting problem, even if the answers are not always readily available. The answers will help you choose the most appropriate set of responses. For some information categories, the questions are divided into those you should ask for all shoplifting problems and those that you should ask specifically for organized shoplifting.

Incidents

For all shoplifting:

  • How many incidents are detected?
  • How much is typically lost (goods' dollar value, lost profit)?
  • What proportion of shrinkage does shoplifting account for? Compared with employee theft or delivery fraud?
  • How do targeted stores' shrinkage rates compare with those of similar-size stores of the same type?
  • Which items do shoplifters target most frequently?
  • Do the goods stolen fit the CRAVED model? (See the "Factors Contributing to Shoplifting/Goods Sold" section above.) Are they sold or kept for personal use? If sold, how so?

For organized shoplifting:

  • How many times have victim-stores been victimized in the past week, month, year?
  • How many of these incidents can be classified as those carried out by "flash mobs"?
  • What is the average dollar value of goods lost during each incident?
  • How are the shoplifted goods fenced? Are they sold on the Internet?

Offenders

For all shoplifting:

  • What is known about offenders? Do they tend to belong to any particular demographic group? What proportion are juveniles?
  • What proportions of offenders are casual/opportunistic or determined/addicts? Are organized rings involved?
  • Do some types of offenders use particular shoplifting methods or target particular goods?
  • Are there repeat offenders?

For organized shoplifting:

  • How is the group organized?
  • How many people are involved in the group? What is the typical group size?
  • What is the task distribution among the group members? Who are the boosters, lower-level fences, higher-level fences, and illegitimate wholesale diverters?
  • What is the demographic profile of the members involved in the group?
  • Is the group local or from out-of-town?

Locations/Times

  • What is the nature of the surrounding neighborhood?
  • When do thefts mainly occur (time of day, day of week, month, season)? Are certain items more commonly stolen during certain seasons (e.g., batteries for toys at Christmas)?
  • Is the problem concentrated at particular stores, or does it affect a cluster of stores? If concentrated at particular stores, what do they have in common?

Conditions Facilitating Shoplifting

  • How large is the store? What type of store is it? What market segment does it target?
  • What are the store's hours? Is it open at night? Are nearby businesses open at night and on weekends?
  • Does the store have a security department or set of policies on apprehending shoplifters?
  • Does the store treat shoplifting as a business cost or does it invest resources in prevention?
  • Does the store report shoplifting incidents to the police?
  • How adequate is stock control?
  • Where are targeted goods located in the store?
  • Is lack of natural surveillance a contributory factor? Can thieves conceal goods without being seen?
  • After stealing, can thieves evade store employees?
  • Is there more than one escape route?
  • What security hardware does the store have? Mirrors? Electronic tagging? Closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras?
  • What other prevention measures are in place?

Current Responses

  • How do police currently handle shoplifting incidents?
  • Do police have a separate unit dealing with organized shoplifting groups?
  • Do police train or regulate private security forces?
  • How do prosecutors handle shoplifting charges?
  • What sentences do courts typically hand down for convicted offenders? Do offenders comply with the sentences?

Measuring Your Effectiveness

You should take measures of your problem before you implement responses, to determine how serious the problem is, and after you implement them, to determine whether they have been effective. Measurement allows you to determine to what degree your efforts have succeeded, and suggests how you might modify your responses if they are not producing the intended results. For more detailed guidance on measuring effectiveness, see Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 1, Assessing Responses to Problems: An Introductory Guide for Police Problem-Solvers,and Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 10, Analyzing Crime Displacement and Diffusion.
Potential indicators of an effective response to shoplifting include the following:

  • Fewer shoplifting incidents
  • Fewer repeat offenders
  • Increased identification and break-up of organized shoplifting groups
  • Increased number of fences and e-fences identified and disrupted
  • Decreased shrinkage
  • Increased sales
  • Increased profits

If you suspect that shoplifting is currently underreported to police, increased reporting might be a positive indicator of your efforts, at least temporarily. If you suspect too few shoplifters are getting caught, a temporary increase in apprehensions might also be a positive indicator. Ultimately, though, the number of reported thefts and apprehensions should decline as the number of actual shoplifting incidents declines.