Comparing Policies and Practices on Managing Shoplifting

While the annual shrinkage surveys covering retail loss prevention go some way in offering an oversight as to how the industry is thinking about a range of issues, they rarely delve into much detail around specific topics. The purpose of this series of benchmarking surveys is to provide the LP industry with highly focused and practical insights into specific topics judged to be of interest by practitioners themselves.

For this first benchmarking survey, the authors looked at how some of the biggest retailers in the US are experiencing shoplifting, violence associated with these incidents, and the policies and practices put in place to manage these issues.


Anecdotal evidence from the industry suggested the rates of shoplifting and violence associated with external theft were thought to be increasing considerably. In addition, there was little published knowledge on the extent to which different policies and practices to deal with these issues were being used by retailers.

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Of course, the value of any benchmark survey is highly dependent upon the quality and representativeness of the responses upon which it is based. For this study, the authors chose to target as many of the largest US retailers (based upon sales) as possible, exploiting existing contacts within the loss prevention industry. A request for information was sent out to 58 retailers representing 47 percent of US retail (based upon sales). In the end a response rate of 69 percent was achieved, meaning that the benchmark sample equates to 40 percent of the US market, totaling $1.306 trillion in retail sales. Overall, respondents had a total of 92,489 stores.

It is important to note that this sample is not representative of US retailing in general. It only represents a significant proportion of the largest companies. Therefore, no effort will be made to extrapolate estimates from this data to try and represent US retailing as a whole. If individual companies intend to draw comparisons with this data, it is important that they understand the overall profile of the companies that responded. This article provides only a snapshot of the main results from the study. To receive a free copy of the full report, please contact one of the authors at the email addresses above.

Benchmark Findings

Detailed below are some of the key findings from the survey, looking specifically at levels of victimization, policies and practices relating to the apprehension of shoplifters, and the extent to which respondents have standards on minimum age and dollar values when considering prosecutions.

Recording Shoplifting and Violent Incidents. The vast majority of respondents had some form of system in place for recording the number of shoplifting incidents within their businesses (92 percent). However, far fewer stated they kept records of the number of shoplifting incidents where employees had been either injured, threatened with violence, or a weapon had been used (50 percent).

As can be seen in the table below, the sample of retailers experienced 1.9 million incidents of shoplifting in the most recent twelve-month period, down 5 percent from the previous year. In terms of violent shoplifting incidents, they had records of 22,770 incidents in the most recent twelve-month period, down 2 percent from the previous year.

For those retailers that track the number of shoplifting incidents they have experienced, this equates to an average of 28 incidents of per store. For those companies tracking violent incidents, this equates to less than one incident of violence per store in any one year. Both these rates varied considerably by size of retailer (as measured by sales), with larger companies experiencing higher rates of shoplifting incidents and instances of violence per store.

However, overall it is reassuring to note that of the nearly two million incidents of shoplifting recorded by these companies, just 2.3 percent resulted in violence. While any instances of violence against retail staff is regrettable and undoubtedly traumatic for the victim, this is a remarkably low number and, in many respects, testament to the efficacy of the policies and practices put in place to mitigate the likelihood of incidents of shoplifting turning violent.

The data is also interesting in that it indicates a trend that is generally downward, countering some of the anecdotal concerns aired about both rising dramatically in recent times. Of course, it needs to be remembered that this data is based upon recorded incidents, and it is therefore highly likely that actual levels of shoplifting and violence will be different. But it is interesting that for those companies keeping a record, the evidence seems different from the perceptions held by some in the industry.


Policies and Practices on Apprehending Shoplifters. The benchmark survey was also interested in understanding what policies and practices were being used by retailers when it came to employees apprehending shoplifters. Respondents were able to select more than one option. Therefore, the responses do not add up to 100 percent.

Relatively few respondents—just 18 percent—said that they had a “no apprehension” policy. Of those that did have a policy of apprehending thieves in their stores, the vast majority operated a “no chase” policy (78 percent), with only 8 percent stating that they had a “limited chase” policy whereby staff could run after thieves, but only to an agreed boundary.

A significant proportion of respondents (45 percent) said that they operated a “no physical touch” policy when dealing with thieves, with just over one-third (35%) stating that staff could use force but only in self-defense. A much smaller proportion (15 percent) allowed staff to use “reasonable force” in making apprehensions and one in five allowed the use of handcuffs (20 percent).

Because of the relatively small number of respondents taking part in this survey, it was not possible to carry out any additional analysis on these policies and practices. Therefore, no conclusions could be drawn on whether having any given policy was related to higher or lower rates of shoplifting incidents or rates of violence. However, the data did show that there was no significant difference by size of retailer. Overall, what seems clear is that the largest proportion of retailers responding to this survey do have a policy of apprehending shoplifters but require staff not to, where possible, touch them, unless in self-defense and not to run after them if they are fleeing the store.

Respondents were also asked about their policies on allowing non-loss prevention staff to engage in apprehending shoplifters. Most stated that it was not their policy to allow staff to do this (58 percent), although 42 percent did state that they allowed only store management to apprehend thieves. Given the representation of large retailers in this sample, it was perhaps not surprising that 77 percent of respondents employed specific loss prevention staff in some or all of their stores to deal with incidents of shoplifting.

Policies and Practices on Apprehending Shoplifters

Age Limits and Dollar Values. The survey was also interested in finding out what policies respondents had concerning the prosecution of offenders, in particular, whether they had in place a minimum age and dollar value.

As can be seen in the age limits and dollar values chart below, most respondents had a similar approach to both policies—between 28 and 31 percent did not have a policy on either minimum age limits or dollar values, while the largest proportion stated that they had a national standard policy (46% for an age limit and 43% for a minimum dollar value). On average, the minimum limit before an offender would be prosecuted was sixteen years of age, while the average value of an incident was required to be $30 before prosecution would be considered.

Company Policy on Minimum Age Limit

Future Studies

The authors hope that the data presented in this first benchmark study will enable retailers to reflect upon their own policies and practices relating to incidents of shoplifting and violence and critically review where there are differences and share this with colleagues. The data also shows that relatively few companies have systems in place to record the number of incidents of shoplifting that involve violence. If the industry wants to better understand any changes in the prevalence of this type of problem, then it would seem important to prioritize the collection and analysis of this type of information.

The authors are extremely grateful to those companies that participated in this first benchmark. If you would like to participate in future surveys, please contact one of the authors.

Some of the current topics under consideration for future benchmarks include:

  • Inventory counting practices and inventory accuracy
  • Loss prevention reporting structures and responsibilities
  • Deployment and use of LP technologies
  • Pre-employment screening practices

We are also very interested in receiving your thoughts on these topics and suggestions for others to be covered by future benchmark surveys.

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