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Guide No. 11

2nd Edition (2012)

by Ronald V. Clarke and Gohar Petrossian

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.α


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

Main Offender Groups

As mentioned above there are three main offender groups:


β See Klemke (1993) for a comprehensive review.

γ 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

δ 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.η 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.

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:

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.


η 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."


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,ε 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.
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

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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.
Photo Credit: Ronald Clarke

The acronym CRAVED captures the essential attributes of these "hot products" which are Concealable, Removable, Available, Valuable, Enjoyable, and Disposable.9, ζ 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.
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


ε 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.

ζ See the forthcoming Problem-Solving Tool Guide, Analyzing "Hot" Products for Theft, for further information.

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:

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.
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.


† 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).

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:

"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.

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:

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.


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:

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.


For all shoplifting:

For organized shoplifting:


For all shoplifting:

For organized shoplifting:


Conditions Facilitating Shoplifting

Current Responses

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:

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.

Responses to the Problem of Shoplifting

Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to address the problem. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem. Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do: give careful consideration to others in your community who share responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it.
The response strategies discussed below are drawn from research studies and police reports. This section reviews what is known about the effectiveness of these responses in dealing with shoplifting. Unfortunately, the information is severely limited because few of the common preventive practices have been evaluated. Retailers have been reluctant to undertake the necessary studies, and to share the results of any studies they do complete. Government has funded little research in this field, generally regarding it as the private sector's domain.
In the absence of research, you cannot assume that retailers have learned through long experience what does and does not work. For example, hiring store detectives is a staple response to shoplifting, but as will be seen below, their effectiveness is questionable. Hiring them usually seems to be an economic choice dictated by the need to do something about shoplifting.

General Considerations for an Effective Response Strategy

Police can do little on their own to prevent shoplifting, and you will have to persuade the retailers themselves to act. You may have to explain why police can achieve little through more patrols, and why heavier court sentences are of limited value. You may want to explain how the store's goods and sales practices may be contributing to the problem. You may have to convince retailers that they cannot ignore the problem, due to the costs to the community and, in the long run, the stores themselves. Finally, you will have to offer them guidance on preventive measures they can take to reduce the problem.
It is important that shoplifting responses be selective and based on a thorough understanding of the risks. For example, the highest-risk goods should be given the greatest protection, and dealing with organized shoplifters will demand a wider set of measures than those needed for petty shoplifting. You must therefore think carefully about the nature of the risk, which varies greatly with the kinds of offenders, the nature of the store, and the goods offered. These factors also determine the nature of the remedies. The security approach required for a self-service supermarket is quite different from that required for a jewelry store. Department stores with huge turnovers of expensive goods can afford to spend much more on security than small retailers can. In all cases, you must appreciate stores' need to make a profit. This determines selling practices and how much money is available for preventing shoplifting.
Even when shops can afford more for security, they are likely to resist this expenditure. In making your case, you may need to do the following:

Specific Responses to Reduce Shoplifting

Effective shoplifting prevention depends on well-rounded strategies encompassing good retailing practices, appropriate staffing, carefully articulated shoplifting policies, and selective technology use. The measures in the final group are particularly addressed to defeating organized shoplifters, which responses are over and above those for defeating petty shoplifting.
For All Shoplifting

Retailing Practice

Good management is the first line of defense against shoplifting. Managers must ensure that stores are properly laid out, have adequate inventory controls, and follow standard security practices.

1. Improving store layout and displays. Store layout and displays must make it easier for staff to exercise effective surveillance. This includes the following:


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Properly placed mirrors like this "fish-eye" mirror, allow staff to keep watch over customers and goods that might otherwise be hidden from view
Photo Credit: Kip Kellogg

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Cluttered merchandise displays make it harder for staff to monitor shoplifting
Photo Credit: Kip Kellogg

2. Tightening stock controls. Inventory-control procedures should permit shoplifting trends to be detected, and shoplifting to be distinguished from employee theft. Unfortunately, very few retailers have such controls in place, but the more widespread use of merchandise bar coding and point-of-sales technology at checkout is resulting in significant improvements in stock control. These improvements can be expected to increase with further technological developments.

3. Upgrading retail security. Standard security must make shoplifting more difficult. This may include the following:

"The simple step of approaching a customer and asking if they need help finding anything tends to inhibit criminal behavior among those who prefer to remain unseen and unheard." Brad Brekke, Vice President of Assets Protection, Target


4. Posting warning notices on high-risk merchandise. Many stores display signs reminding customers that shoplifting is a crime, and warning that shoplifters will be prosecuted, but it is doubtful that such warnings have more than a marginal deterrent effect on a few susceptible people. One early study showed that when specific merchandise was prominently marked with large red stars as being frequently taken by shoplifters, shoplifting was virtually eliminated. A more recent study showed that this deterrent effect was greater for items next to the items marked with a sign that read "Attention Shoppers! Items Marked with a RED RIBBON are Frequently Shoplifted!"21


5. Hiring more and better-trained sales staff. Stores should hire sufficient numbers of staff to properly oversee goods and customers, especially at high-risk periods for shoplifting. Stores should train staff to be attentive to customers and alert for thieves, and should also train them in procedures for dealing with shoplifting incidents. For instance, in order to sustain a prosecution, it is usually necessary to prove that the goods were not only taken away, but that there was intent to avoid payment. It is therefore always advisable to wait until the suspect has left the shop before apprehending them or they may claim they intended to pay before leaving.

6. Hiring security guards. Little is known from research about the effectiveness of uniformed security guards in any environment - and retail is no exception. Only one small study has been published, and it suggested that security guards had less value than electronic article surveillance (EAS) or store redesign in decreasing the theft risk; however, the study's small sample limits the findings' reliability.22


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Security guards who move around, creating an active, visible presence, are likely to be more effective at preventing shoplifting.
Photo Credit: Kip Kellogg


7. Hiring loss prevention and asset protection teams. Most large retailers invest in loss prevention and asset protection teams that investigate theft within the stores once it occurs. They perform various functions, such as checking receipts when customers walk out, and monitoring the surveillance systems inside a store to identify and stop shoplifters.23

Retailers in South Africa contracted with third-party companies ("Hot Product Controllers") to help stop the shoplifting of products that accounted for 80 percent of the shrinkage within their stores. These contractors focused on five key areas, which included securing delivery, fast tracking, securing storage, conducting daily counts, and conducting shelf replenishment. Their efforts resulted in a 61 percent reduction in shrinkage in all hot products, with the greatest reductions achieved in sugar and razor blades.24

Shoplifting Policies

Many stores routinely refer apprehended shoplifters to the police. For persistent offenders, this is clearly necessary. In the case of more opportunistic shoplifters, many of whom show shock at getting caught, it is doubtful that police arrest has any additional deterrent value. An inflexible policy of referring shoplifters to the police could result in reduced staff enthusiasm for apprehending them, and stores are probably best served by a flexible shoplifting policy that includes formal and informal avenues and, perhaps, civil recovery.
Belief in the value of prosecution is strong among many retailers and the general public and there is little chance the police will be relieved of this burden.†† Consequently, the arrest process should be made more efficient. Ways of doing so fall outside this guide's scope, but some police forces have developed systems whereby private security officers are authorized and trained to write criminal summonses themselves (after first checking with the police by phone for outstanding warrants and arrest histories). This obviates the need for patrol officers to process arrests, but still gets the cases into the formal criminal process.


† Sherman and Gartin (1986), in a randomized experiment, found that recidivism rates did not differ for two large groups of apprehended shoplifters: those released and those arrested.

†† Not only is shoplifter prosecution of doubtful preventive value, but also, practice in this area is fraught with difficulties: Merchants may see the police as being at their beck and call; private security staff may expect the police to take cases that are not "good," or that reflect a lack of discretion (e.g., a 12-year-old stealing a candy bar); and there are issues regarding obtaining proper evidence, identifying alleged offenders, using force, targeting minorities, imposing burdens on the criminal justice system, using statutes or ordinances/summonses or physical arrests, etc.

8. Using civil recovery. In nearly every state, retailers can use civil law to collect restitution from shoplifters, and many retailers take advantage of this.25 Civil recovery is designed to operate quickly, with little recourse to the courts. Civil recovery offers the retailer the benefit of recovering more than just the retail cost of the item stolen, requires a lesser degree of proof, spares the thief an arrest and conviction record, and relieves the burden on the criminal justice system.

9. Using informal police sanctions. In some jurisdictions first offenders are given the option, as an alternative to prosecution, of participating in programs in which they are instructed about shoplifting's harms. If the offender completes the program the initial charge is dismissed and, sometimes, upon petition, can be erased from the records, so that the person does not have a "criminal" record.††† In Britain, similar police programs are called "cautioning." One program introduced by the Thames Valley Police combines counseling modules and a formal caution, and claims to have substantially reduced re-offending among juvenile shoplifters. Counseling modules include meetings with store managers, sessions with youth workers about available leisure activities, and group work to learn about resisting peer pressure to offend.26


††† As an alternative to prosecution, police sometimes also refer first offenders to structured programs like the Stop Shoplifting Education Program, operated by the Better Business Bureau of WNY, Inc. (1993), which claims to reduce recidivism. In addition, stores themselves sometimes run first-offender warning programs, without extensive police involvement. Stores might check with police to determine whether the offender has been charged before and, if not, issue their own warning, without having an arrest made.


10. Installing and monitoring CCTV. Improvements in quality and reductions in cost have resulted in the widespread use of CCTV to prevent shoplifting. Few evaluations have been published, though one careful study of 15 clothing stores in England found that CCTV's value was directly related to the system's sophistication. Effectiveness was quite marked in the first few months after installation, but declined rapidly thereafter, which the researchers explained by arguing that "would-be offenders became progressively inured or desensitized to CCTV's deterrent potential."27

Little is known about CCTV's value in other kinds of stores, and there is "a raft of unanswered questions about its impact. These questions relate to the following:

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Surveillance cameras and CCTV are increasingly used to prevent shoplifting, but more study is needed to determine their effects.
Photo Credit: Kip Kellogg


11. Using electronic article surveillance. Electronic article surveillance (EAS) is often known as electronic tagging. Exit gates detect tags that have not been removed or deactivated, and sound an alarm. The tags have been made progressively smaller and the detectors have become more reliable. Increasingly, tags are now being included in the goods' packaging at manufacture (source tagging), which reduces the cost.29 Despite their widespread use, few evaluations have been published of EAS systems.30 The most comprehensive of these evaluations used comparisons between stores with and without EAS systems, and before-and-after studies, in a variety of retail settings. The authors concluded that EAS could reduce shoplifting and total inventory shortage from 35 to 75 percent.31 The considerable costs of buying and running EAS systems must be set against these benefits and the fact that sophisticated offenders are knowledgeable about ways to defeat EAS systems.


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Electronic tags affixed to goods activate alarms when passed through exit gates. Electronic tagging has demonstrated effectiveness in preventing shoplifting, although knowledgeable offenders can sometimes defeat the systems.
Photo Credit: Kip Kellogg


12. Attaching ink tags to merchandise. Ink tags attached to clothing are quite different from electronic tags. Rather than sounding an alarm when removed from the store, and thus increasing the offender's risk of getting caught, ink tags remove the rewards of theft by ruining the garments to which they are affixed when the thief tries to detach them. To date, only one rigorous evaluation has been reported: it concluded that ink tags might be more effective than EAS when used in the same retail environments.32 Devices are now available that combine both electronic and ink tags' advantages, but with the inevitable disadvantage of increased costs. Other devices not containing ink are also available, such as small clamps that cannot be removed from items such as jewelry or eyeglasses.

13. Using advanced surveillance electronic systems. These systems come in a number of varieties including the following:

For Organized Shoplifting

14. Establishing early warning systems. Merchants in some areas have found it useful to establish a same-day early warning system whereby they notify one another about the presence of mobile gangs of organized shoplifters, but there have been no formal evaluations of this practice. Although local police are mainly alerted to organized shoplifting incidents through retail investigators, they can also identify suspicious activities, for example, by the discovery of large quantities of retail merchandise during routine calls or traffic stops.

15. Forming task forces with other law enforcement agencies. Organized-theft groups rarely operate within one jurisdiction, and it is important that local police forge partnerships with state and federal law enforcement agencies. Several such partnerships have proven effective in dismantling some of the largest professional shoplifting groups in the country. Operation Greenquest was established by the U.S. Customs Service to target thieves who financed Al Quaeda and other terrorist groups.37 Operation Blackbird, mounted by a task force comprising investigators from local, state, and federal agencies formed by the Pasadena, California, Police Department, uncovered some large organized crime shoplifting operations.38

16. Forming partnerships and working with retailers and manufacturers. ψ Many partnerships have been established among law enforcement agencies, retailers, retail associations, and manufacturers. Successful partnerships of these kinds with local stores have been undertaken by the police in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina;39 Mesa, Arizona; Colorado Springs, Colorado;40 Portsmouth, England;41 and Boise, Idaho.42 In Boise, for example, a growing organized shoplifting problem was addressed in 2005 by the establishment of the Organized Retail Crime Interdiction Team. This took a number of preventive initiatives that included updating stakeholders on recent trends through regular monthly meetings, using email and text messaging to maintain an efficient intelligence flow between retailers and police, and responding immediately to in-progress incidents. These actions led quite quickly to a significant reduction in organized shoplifting incidents.

Notable partnerships that encompass wider areas and a larger number of entities include the following:


ψ See Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 5, Partnering with Businesses to Address Public Safety Problems, for further information.

17. Monitoring stores' goods suppliers.

Retailers might inadvertently buy goods that have been stolen by organized shoplifters unless they carefully monitor their suppliers.45

Some store buyers might also be bribed by these suppliers to buy stolen goods. To reduce these risks, the retailer's loss prevention team can conduct unannounced visits to the suppliers' warehouse(s) to look for clues suggesting that the goods may be illegitimate. These include the products' condition and the overall warehouse condition, as well as the presence of (a) cleaning stations and chemicals, (b) security tags and labels on the floors or in the trash cans, and (c) repackaging stations. Talking to other retailers who obtain their goods from the same suppliers might also prove useful. In addition, buyers should be trained to identify and report possible suspicious transactions, and they should be encouraged to report to police when a deal is "too good to be true."

18. Using social networking sites to gather information about shoplifting incidents. A 2011 survey of retailers found that about 70 percent of them use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn®, Craigslist, Myspace, Google, Foursquare, Pipl, Carnivore Lite, YouTube, and Flickr® to gather information about shoplifting from their stores. Using these networking sites they identify perpetrators, investigate connections between perpetrators and company employees, and identify premises where the stolen goods may be stored or sold. Retailers report "huge success" using Facebook to gather intelligence about past events and planned activities.46 When "view only" is selected, no direct contact is made with the subjects, thereby allowing the investigators to gather this information without their knowledge. Police, therefore, can use these social networking sites to gather similar information.

Responses with Limited Effectiveness

19. Hiring store detectives. Some stores rely on store detectives, despite research that suggests they may have only a limited impact on shoplifting. When researchers have followed random samples of people entering stores, few of those they have observed shoplifting have also been seen by the store detectives.47 A study in a large London music store, with four store detectives on duty at any one time, suggested that the store would need to hire 17 times this number to be able to catch all the shoplifters likely to enter the store - clearly not an economic proposition.48 Most stores do not advertise store detectives' presence, but some do. Advertising their presence may provide a greater deterrent, but it may also mean that shoplifters exercise greater caution. No research has evaluated these possibilities.

While it must be assumed that store detectives have some deterrent value, it is possible that they lower other staff's vigilance. It is also important that store detectives spend as much time as possible on the shop floor, and not have their time consumed in court attendance or police liaison work.

20. Arresting and prosecuting shoplifters. There is little hard evidence that apprehending, arresting, and prosecuting shoplifters results in reduced shoplifting by those arrested or by others who learn about the arrests. Studies of criminal sanctioning have consistently failed to show any clear deterrent effects. In regard to shoplifting, the chances of getting caught are so low, and the risks of severe punishment so small, that most researchers believe offenders pay little attention to the possible costs.49

21. Using shaming punishments for first-time offenders. Many retailers, especially those in California, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Texas, have increasingly used "shaming" as an alternative to prosecution resulting in jail time, fines, or other traditional penalties. Convicted shoplifters are ordered (sometimes by judges after consulting with the store's management) to wear a sign and go about in public declaring their crimes. Little is known about the effectiveness of shaming.

22. Banning known shoplifters.A related practice entails banning offenders from, and posting their pictures in, stores. Little is known about the effectiveness of this practice, but if it publicizes shoplifters' identity, it might have some limited value. However, where courts have not convicted those identified, both the merchants and the police engaged in the practice are vulnerable to criticism and legal challenge.

23. Launching public information campaigns. Some communities have launched media campaigns to inform the public about the shoplifting's harms, encourage people to report it, and increase knowledge about the consequences of apprehension. Posters, pamphlets, classes, and public service announcements have all been used to get the message across.50, ε Evaluations of these programs have produced little evidence that they reduce shoplifting.51


ε See Response Guide No. 5, Crime Prevention Publicity Campaigns, for further information.

Summary of Responses

The table below summarizes the responses to shoplifting, the mechanisms by which they are intended to work, the conditions under which they should work best, and some factors you should consider before implementing a particular response. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem.

Responses 1-13 outlined below address all shoplifting, while 14-18 deal specifically with shoplifting conducted by organized groups. Responses 19-23 are those with limited effectiveness.

# Response How It Works Works Best If.... Considerations
For All Shoplifting
Retailing Practice

Improving store layout and displays

Makes it easier for staff to exercise effective surveillance ....staff are trained and motivated to detect shoplifting May be relatively inexpensive, but some stores' basic design makes it hard to eliminate all opportunities for shoplifters to conceal their activity

Tightening stock controls

Helps managers to detect changes in amounts or patterns of shoplifting ....managers have incentives to reduce shoplifting Increases in source tagging and electronic point-of-sales systems will gradually lead to improvements in stock control
3 Upgrading retail security Makes it harder for shoplifters to operate ....staff and managers have incentives to reduce shoplifting Some security practices may be unpopular with staff and customers alike, and consequently have the effect of reducing sales; they sometimes carry costs in terms of staff time
4 Posting warning notices on high-risk merchandise Alerts potential thieves that identified merchandise may be subject to special surveillance

....the notices identify the most frequently targeted items

A low-cost measure; might alarm some innocent shoppers
5 Hiring more and better- trained sales staff Makes it harder for shoplifters to operate ....staffing levels are increased at high-risk periods Can be a relatively expensive way to reduce shoplifting

Hiring security guards

Provides a deterrent to shoplifters who might otherwise believe they could escape if apprehended by sales staff ....the guards are properly trained, are physically imposing, and have an active, visible presence Guard characteristics and behavior are extremely important: poor guards have no effect on shoplifting

Hiring loss prevention and asset protection teams

Improves strategic responses to prevent and deter shoplifting ....the teams are briefed about the specific concerns and guided to focus on certain key areas Some team functions may overlap with those already employed by store security personnel
Shoplifting Policies
8 Using civil recovery Provides retailers with a practical means of recovering some shoplifting costs; penalizes and deters apprehended shoplifters ....administrative procedures are clear and uncomplicated, and shoplifters are able to pay restitution May not be an option for small retailers who lack time and resources to pursue civil recovery
9 Using informal police sanctions Of unknown deterrent value, but saves time for retailers, police, and the criminal justice system ....combined with efforts to change offenders' attitudes about shoplifting Usually used only with first-time offenders; often limited to juveniles

Installing and monitoring CCTV

Increases surveillance of vulnerable merchandise and locations; can be used to identify offenders after the act and/or provide evidence for charges ....the CCTV cameras are located close to key areas (offenders can conceal goods elsewhere, such as around blind corners, in elevators, and in stairwells) Employees must be trained in equipment's use; equipment must be adequate to keeping close watch on suspicious individuals; staff watching monitors quickly become fatigued

Using electronic article surveillance

Detects shoplifters trying to leave store with concealed goods ....the tags are difficult to remove without damaging goods Fewer customers Staff may become complacent about other antitheft policies and procedures; not all merchandise can be easily tagged; an expensive option, but source tagging will reduce costs
12 Attaching ink tags to merchandise Removes the rewards of shoplifting by rendering stolen goods unusable ....combined with electronic article surveillance Not all merchandise can be easily tagged; ink tag security can be compromised by theft of tag-removal equipment
13 Using advanced surveillance electronic systems Advanced software programs appended to surveillance systems allow for immediate detection of unusual activity ....early warnings are attended to at once by monitoring centers or security personnel May be expensive to obtain or maintain
For Organized Shoplifting

Establishing early warning systems

Eliminates element of surprise that organized shoplifting groups often rely on ....systems are operated by stores whose merchandise is targeted by organized shoplifters A low-cost, sensible precaution for stores vulnerable to organized shoplifting
15 Forming task forces with other law enforcement agencies Enhances police intelligence about shoplifting incidents and groups ....large organized criminal groups are involved Law enforcement priorities may vary across jurisdictions, which may affect outcome of investigations
16 Forming partnerships and working with retailers and manufacturers Enhances shoplifting intelligence and improves theft prevention and offender apprehension ....retailers express willingness to work closely with law enforcement Roles and functions should be established to avoid confusion
17 Monitoring stores' goods suppliers Reduces retailers' risk of purchasing goods previously stolen by organized shoplifters and therefore disrupts market in these goods ....suppliers' premises are regularly inspected by loss prevention teams and store buyers are encouraged to watch for suspicious transactions Loss prevention teams and buyers need to be trained and be given incentives to identify and report suspect goods and irregular transactions
18 Using social networking sites to gather information about shoplifting incidents Enhances police intelligence about shoplifting incidents and groups ....monitoring helps identify and prevent future incidents Can be resource and time consuming and may not always yield useful intelligence
Responses with Limited Effectiveness

Hiring store detectives

Deters offenders, especially casual shoplifters ....the stores are large, so that detectives' identity does not become known, and detectives spend considerable time on shop floor May not be an effective deterrent to more determined or organized shoplifters who can spot store detectives
20 Arresting and prosecuting shoplifters Punishment deters shoplifters from offending again and deters other people from shoplifting ....the chances of getting caught for shoplifting are perceived to be high Risks of getting caught are so low that shoplifters pay little attention to possible costs
21 Using shaming punishments for first-time offenders First-time offenders learn how and why not to repeat their behavior ....the sanction is combined with some other informal sanction Uncertain effectiveness; may be more effective if used with young offenders
22 Banning known shoplifters Denies known shoplifters opportunity to steal

....the identities of those who have been convicted of shoplifting are publicized

May have some value in deterring shoplifting, but unless those identified have been convicted by a court, both merchants and police are vulnerable to legal challenge or public criticism

Launching public information campaigns

Informs public about shoplifting harms; encourages people to report shoplifting; increases knowledge about penalties ....used to advertise new anti-shoplifting measures Little evidence exists that these campaigns reduce shoplifting, but they might change community attitudes


[1] Farrington (1999).

[2] Dabney, Hollinger, and Dugan (2004).

[3] U.S. House of Representatives (2005).

[4]Palmer and Richardson (2009).

[5]National Retail Foundation (2011).

[6]National Retail Foundation (2011).

[7] Miller (2005).

[8]Hayes (2005).

[9]Clarke (1999).

[10] Ekblom (1986).

[11] Hayes (1997).

[12] Hayes (1997).

[13] Beck (2011).

[14] Ekblom (1986).

[15] Cardone (2006).

[16]Carmel-Gilfilen (2011).

[17] Parks (2008).

[18] Hayes (2005).

[19] Talamo (2007).

[20] Farrington (1999).

[21] Rafacz, Boyce, and Williams (2011).

[22] Farrington (1999).

[23] U.S. Government Accountability Office (2011).

[24] Dyball (2008).

[25] Bamfield (1998); Budden (1999).

[26] McCulloch (1996).

[27] Beck and Willis (1999).

[28] Beck and Willis (1999).

[29] Hobson (2001).

[30] Farrington et al. (1993); Handford (1994); DiLonardo (1996).

[31] DiLonardo (1996).

[32] DiLonardo and Clarke (1996).

[33] Woyke (2006).

[34] Parks (2007).

[35] Woyke (2006).

[36] Wyld and Budden (2009).

[37] Finklea (2012).

[38] Miller (2005).

[39]Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (2003).

[40] Colorado Springs Police Department (2009).

[41] Hampshire Constabulary (2007).

[42]Boise Police Department (2012).

[43] Palmer and Richardson (2009).

[44] U.S. Government Accountability Office (2011).

[45] Virgillo (2012).

[46] Retail Industry Leaders Association (2011).

[47] Burrows (1988).

[48] Ekblom (1986).

[49] Bamfield (1997); Burrows (1988).

[50] Klemke (1992).

[51] Sacco (1985).


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----- 1998. "Retail Civil Recovery: Filling a Deficit in the Criminal Justice System?" International Journal of Risk, Security and Crime Prevention 3(4): 257-267.

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Carmel-Gilfilen, Candy. 2011. "Advancing Retail Security Design: Uncovering Shoplifter Perceptions of the Physical Environment." Journal of Interior Design 36(2): 21-38.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. 2003. "The Home Depot Project." Submission for the Herman Goldstein Award for Excellence in Problem-Oriented Policing.

Clarke, Ronald V. 1999. Hot Products: Understanding, Anticipating and Reducing the Demand for Stolen Goods. Police Research Series, Paper 112. London: Home Office.

Colorado Springs Police Department. 2009. "Pikes Peak Retail Security Association: Decreasing the Level of Shoplifting Citywide." Submission for the Herman Goldstein Award for Excellence in Problem-Oriented Policing.

Dabney, Dean A., Richard C. Hollinger, and Laura Dugan. 2004. "Who Actually Steals? A Study of Covertly Observed Shoplifters." Justice Quarterly 21(4): 693-728.

DiLonardo, Robert L. 1996. "Defining and Measuring the Economic Benefit of Electronic Article Surveillance." Security Journal 7(1): 3-9.

DiLonardo, Robert L., and Ronald V. Clarke. 1996. "Reducing the Rewards of Shoplifting: An Evaluation of Ink Tags." Security Journal 7(1): 11-14.

Dyball, Matthew. 2008. "Using Hot Product Controllers to Manage Shrink: A South Africa Case Study." Loss Prevention Magazine 7(6): 70-73.

Ekblom, Paul. 1986. The Prevention of Shop Theft: An Approach Through Crime Analysis. Crime Prevention Unit, Paper 5. London: Home Office Crime Prevention Unit.

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Finklea, Kristin M. 2012. Organized Retail Crime. CRS Report to Congress. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service.

Hampshire Constabulary (U.K.). 2007. "Operation Kensington: Bringing the Business Community and the Police Together." Submission for the Herman Goldstein Award for Excellence in Problem-Oriented Policing.

Handford, Matthew. 1994. "Electronic Tagging in Action: A Case Study in Retailing." Crime at Work: Studies in Security and Crime Prevention, Vol. 1, ed. Martin Gill. Leicester, England: Perpetuity Press: 174-184.

Hayes, Read. 2005. Organized Retail Crime: Describing a Major Problem. Tallahassee, Florida: Loss Prevention Research Council, University of Florida.

----- 1997. "Retail Theft: An Analysis of Apprehended Shoplifters." Security Journal 8(3): 233-246.

Hobson, Katherine. 2001. "Hey, Security Tag Makers: You're It." U.S. News & World Report, May 14, p. 34.

Klemke, Lloyd W. 1992. The Sociology of Shoplifting: Boosters and Snitches Today. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers.

McCulloch, Helen. 1996. Shop Theft: Improving the Police Response. Crime Detection and Prevention Series, Paper 76. London: Home Office.

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----- 2007. "Keeping a Watchful Eye." Supermarket News, 55(43): 12.

Rafacz, Sharlet D., Thomas E. Boyce, and W. Larry Williams. 2011. "Examining the Effects of a Low-Cost Prompt to Reduce Retail Theft." Journal of Organizational Behavior Management 31(2): 150-160.

Retail Industry Leaders Association (2011). Crime Trends and Leading Practices Survey. October, 2011.

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U.S. House of Representatives. 2005. Committee on the Judiciary. Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security. Responding to Organized Crime Against Manufacturers and Retailers: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security of the Committee on the Judiciary House of Representatives. 109th Congress, 1st sess. March 17.

Virgillo, Amber. 2012. "Are Retailers to Blame?" LP Magazine (July-August).

Woyke, Elizabeth. 2006. "Attention, Shoplifters: With $30 Billion in Theft, There's a Revolution in Surveillance Systems." Business Week Magazine September 11.

Wyld, David C., and Michael C. Budden. 2009. "Upping the Ante: Using RFID as a Competitive Weapon to Fight Shoplifting and Improve Business Intelligence." The International Journal of Managing Information Technology 1(1): 1-10.

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