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5 Steps to Training LP Practitioners to Be Better Shoplifting Observers

Loss prevention professionals are tasked with preventing shoplifting, and more often, with detection and apprehension of shoplifters. In the July–August 2020 print edition of LP Magazine, Dr. Read Hayes urged LP practitioners to use evidence-informed observation rather than profiling appearance to detect and detain shoplifters. Offender profiling that focuses on arbitrary features of shoplifters, such as sex, ethnicity, and age, is ineffective and costs retailers billions of dollars in loss from shrink and bias lawsuits. So, how can loss prevention personnel be trained to become efficient observers of theft-action behaviors?

Here is a five-step, situational-based training program as a preliminary phase in teaching LP professionals the shoplifting detection, surveillance, and apprehension skills needed to reduce external shrink.

Step 1: Identify implicit biases. Everyone has biases regarding gender, racial, ethnic, or cultural traits, whether they are explicit (obvious) or implicit (hidden). Thus, the first step in this program is to have the participants identify what these are so they can work on actively suppressing them through practice. A self-administered stereotype measure can be used in which respondents provide the appearance features of a typical shoplifter—age, sex, ethnicity/race, hair color and style, clothing style, and distinguishing marks. The format can be a simple checklist (check one: male__ female__) or some flexibility in the items can be included, such as allowing multiple checks (check all that apply: male __ female __) or asking respondents to provide proportions adding up to 100 percent (% male __ % female __). This assessment will allow the trainer to provide feedback and tailor the progress made by each trainee throughout the program.

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Step 2: Demonstrate how these stereotypes negatively affect decisions for identification, surveillance, and apprehension. Instructors should verify bias identified, and find other biases, if need be, that trainees did not reveal in Step 1. Incident records from the retail store or different branches of a chain retailer should be introduced, along with the recorded security footage. Records that show surveillance and apprehension based on appearance or behavioral indices along with the consequences—no items taken, apprehended and released, arrest made, lawsuit against retailer filed—should be used. The trainee should read the incident and determine independently which elements affected the LP person’s decisions, particularly whether biases were indicated. Then the group should discuss concrete elements of the observation that led the trainee to identify, surveille, and/or apprehend the alleged shoplifter.

Similarly, security videos displaying shoppers with different appearance characteristics should be used—one type should have a shoplifting incident and the other type should not. Trainees should be asked to identify potential shoplifters independently and to write down their rationale for their selections, such as behavior patterns, facial features, or other. Group discussion can focus on whether each trainee selected the same person or group of people and their reasons. This will be most important when the footage does not contain theft as the expectation that the film shows shoplifting may affect their beliefs regarding what they saw.

Step 3: Review actual behaviors demonstrated by shoplifters prior and subsequent to stealing. It is difficult for trainees to learn the shoplifting cluster behaviors that occur before the theft and afterwards. Phase one should be trainers demonstrating a set of suspicious and normal behaviors with trainees using a checklist to mark each time the former act occurred. There should be a checklist of suspicious behaviors shoplifters typically exhibit to aid trainees in their observations. The first column should have “pre-theft” behaviors—making quick glances at staff, examining items in remote aisles, monitoring security cameras and mirrors, distracting employees. The second column should have “post-theft”—walking quickly to the exit without purchase, head down and eyes averted, following movement of store personnel.

Phase two entails using two sets of videos to practice and confirm trainees have learned proper observation. The first set should be three security videos that show shoppers alone, in pairs, or in a small group, using the same principle as in the previous step to see if anticipation affects observations. The second set should be nine security films of shoplifting incidents that pair three styles of shoplifters (working alone, in pairs, and in groups) and three theft methods (concealment, grab-and-escape, and price tag switching). Two trainees should be paired together to watch each of the twelve videos to compare their independent observations for reliability purposes—are they observing the same behaviors, 5 of 8 acts checked off. The group should discuss the results of each trainee-pair in terms of how often the same behaviors were observed and reasons when trainees failed to do so. The trainer should then discuss whether biases identified in Step 1 were impacting decisions as outlined in Step 2.

Step 4: Testing. Each trainee’s observation skill must be assessed to determine whether additional practice is needed or if it was successfully acquired. The LP manager may also decide the periodic training should occur to ensure the LP team maintains their observation skill.

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Step 5: Periodic reviews. Observation records made by each LP professional for each incident of shoplifting should be kept. The records should include what behaviors drew their attention and were at a level to warrant surveillance, what act occurred to provoke them to approach the shoplifter, the item(s) that were taken, the method used (concealing, altering tags), the shoplifter’s demographics and disposition (was the situation formally or informally handled), who made the disposition decision, reasons for the decision, and whether lawsuits against the store occurred. The LP team should then review these records and security footage periodically (monthly, bimonthly, depending on volume) as a way of detecting errors and updating procedures.

About the Author

Lauren Shapiro
Lauren Shapiro

Dr. Lauren R. Shapiro is an associate professor in the Department of Security, Fire, and Emergency Management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She is co-editor with Dr. Marie-Helen Maras of the Encyclopedia of Security and Emergency Management, a Springer publication.

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