Everybody Wins: A Fresh Way to Manage the Scourge of Shoplifting (FULL VERSION)

Sponsored by Turning Point Justice

It is certainly provocative, but perhaps not completely untrue, to say shoplifting prevention in the US is a dismal failure. Yes, there have been significant victories on individual fronts. Theft prevention strategies have grown more sophisticated, for example, and great advances have been made in technology to prevent shoplifting and identify when it occurs. But when it comes to managing the problem comprehensively—catching the shoplifter, paying back the victim, and making sure that he or she never offends again—it can seem like we haven’t made much progress at all.

For starters, most shoplifters aren’t caught—1 in 48 by one estimate from the National Association of Shoplifting Prevention—meaning the vast majority of offenses are never addressed. And, when thieves are apprehended, none of the three traditional options for handling cases effectively serve the disparate goals of restitution, accountability, prevention, and cost effectiveness.

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One option for retailers is to simply not arrest an individual they spot shoplifting—making the calculation that the time and risks associated with apprehension isn’t worth it. Or, to minimize the administrative burden, a retailer may stop a suspect but opt for “warn-and-release.” Or else a retailer can go all in—call local police and go the route of prosecution. While each choice may have arguments in its favor, they all have downsides.

Ignoring shoplifting surely removes liability and work hours associated with apprehensions, but simply eating losses is not a particularly sustainable security strategy and certainly does a disservice to the community. Warn-and-release followed by a civil recovery letter may limit work hours and recoup a small percentage of losses, but it also does nothing to prevent recurrence. “As far as a message to the shoplifter and preventing recidivism, warn-and-release doesn’t work,” according to Barbara Staib, director of communications at the National Association of Shoplifting Prevention (NASP). “Offenders tell us that the most important factor in whether they shoplift again is their experience the time before and if they got away with it.”

So is taking a harder line the answer? Calling the police might help put an offender on the right track, especially if education is made part of sentencing, but the demand on resources is substantial—from the retailer, law enforcement, and the courts—and certainly out of scale with a small theft by a first time offender. Also, a retailer does not endear itself to local law enforcement if they call every time they nab a petty shoplifter.

In Tampa, Florida, a large volume of calls for service in cases of suspected small-scale shoplifting is resulting in hard feelings, according to a recent investigation by the Tampa Bay Times (May 11, 2016). “[It’s] a huge problem in terms of the amount of time,” complained Officer James Smith, who specializes in retail crime. “We are, as a department, at the mercy of what [retailers] want to do.” Though admonished in the press, Staib says she sympathizes with retailers. “They are in a tight spot—being told to not call them too much. But the only people who win in that scenario are the offenders,” she notes.

Clearly, a better approach is sorely needed. Shoplifting accounts for almost 20 percent of all thefts in the United States, according to US Department of Justice data, and consumes countless public dollars in police, prosecution, and court costs. The average police department can expect to spend over $2,275 to process a typical theft case according to the “Cost of Crime Calculator” from the RAND Corporation (2016). Some district attorneys have admitted to telling retailers flat out not to bring casual shoplifting cases because “the traditional response isn’t sustainable from a resource perspective” (Diverting Shoplifters—A Research Report and Planning Guide, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2012.) Retailers lose billions annually to casual shoplifters and successfully recover losses in only a fraction of cases when they pursue civil recovery according to the Centre for Retail Research.

In short, there are several traditional choices for handling minor shoplifting cases, but not one of them seems to be in the best interest of everyone it impacts.

In the decades that courts have been ordering education programs for offenders, their value in reducing recidivism has become clear. This has been to the benefit of retailers, the community and offenders alike. However, only less than 2 percent of shoplifters who go through the court system ends up in programs, according to NASP. Additionally, laws across the country are being changed to raise felony levels, so even fewer offenders are now getting the court-ordered education they need to steer them in the right direction. Finally, many diversion programs fail one of the primary stakeholders in the process: the retailer. While diversion from the traditional justice process is increasingly common for retail theft cases, only 20 percent of programs involve retailers in the diversion process, according to the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) research study. Many other diversion efforts fail to provide accountability to offenders, which strictly limits their overall effectiveness.

“A program won’t work unless each stakeholder reaps benefits in equal measure,” said Staib. “That’s critical to the sustainability of the program.” The everybody-wins approach is driving the success of the new Crime Accountability (CA) Partnership Program, a joint effort of NASP and Turning Point Justice. Through the CA Partnership Program, first offenders that qualify and agree to participate undergo a NASP education program instead of becoming embroiled in the costly criminal justice system. “It’s not just warning and releasing them like we did in the past, and it’s not putting a $20 offender into the criminal justice system,” said Staib.

A significant driver of the CA Partnership Program’s success is the marriage between Turning Point, a technology company that provides the platform retailers use to manage first offender cases and NASP, which has decades-long experience delivering education programs and provides all the hands-on student management. It leverages the value of restorative justice principles but doesn’t wait for the court system to get around to it—and that provides value to law enforcement, retailers, offenders and the community in equal measure. “The partnership happens outside the courts but in cooperation with them, the DA, and law enforcement,” noted Staib.

Paul Jaeckle 2
Paul Jaeckle

Paul Jaeckle, senior director for asset protection at ‎Walmart, said his company has strengthened its relationship with those other stakeholders as a result of its participation in the CA Partnership Program. The enhanced bond is not only because Walmart is reducing calls for service and prosecutions, but also because they’re making communities safer. “The great thing is the program does not deflect risk to other stores,” said Jaeckle. Instead, it reduces criminal activity by investing in individuals who may have made a mistake but can be deterred from re-offending, he said. “Shoplifting can be a gateway crime and this gives us the ability to intercept those individuals early, to let them see the ramifications of their actions and to right wrongs.”

Staib believes the CA Partnership Program is a move along the natural learning curve of a nation that is beginning to effectively come to grips with the problem of petty shoplifting. It’s an evolutionary step forward that extends to retailers the value that courts have been experiencing with restorative justice programs, driven by “brilliant technology” from Turning Point that is changing retailers’ calculation of the value of diversion programs. “Until now, there was no vehicle to provide an ROI to the retailer,” said Staib. Now that a program can deliver positive results to every player touched by a shoplifting incident, Staib expects the CA Partnership Program to become a national model in the years to come. “In ten years this will be absolutely commonplace.”

Jaeckle agrees. He think there is pressure on the retail industry to reevaluate its approach to shoplifting—stemming from ever-changing felony thresholds, to evolving approaches to policing, to how states are crafting laws around civil demand. “That changes things for retailers as well,” he noted. The CA Partnership Program offers retailers a new direction that has uniform stakeholder support. “We are the world’s largest retailer so we probably have the world’s largest number of shoplifters, and we’re thinking about things differently, focusing on a way to reduce the amount of risk and frequency of shoplifting in our stores,” explained Jaeckle. “As a deterrence-type mechanism, restorative justice and the CA Partnership Program fits that strategy.”

Technology, ROI Driving CA Partnership Program

A teenager with more than $100 in hand nonetheless pockets an $18 audio cable. Stopped by the store’s loss prevention agent he says he doesn’t know why he did it. That he’s never done anything like it before. Police could come and take the young man to jail, likely spending three hours processing the case, but the retailer is a participant in the Crime Accountability (CA) Partnership Program, which offers the teen a different option. He stays out of the court system by agreeing to pay back the retailer for the harm caused as a result of the incident and footing the bill to participate in an education program administered by the National Association of Shoplifting Prevention (NASP).

This type of diversion program, often offered though the courts, is extended pre-charge via the CA Partnership Program, a joint effort of NASP and Turning Point Justice, a technology company that provides the platform for processing offenders. The first-time offenders who stay out of the criminal justice system are its most obvious beneficiaries. “The program focuses on the person, and gets at the root of why he or she shoplifted,” said Barbara Staib, director of communications for NASP.

Most eligible offenders recognize its value. The offender watches a video describing the CA Partnership Program at the time of apprehension but then goes home to make an informed, deliberate and voluntary decision whether to participate. To date, more than nine out of ten of individuals who have qualified for the program have chosen to enroll. If they fail to enroll, “it’s reported back to the criminal justice system in the same way it would have been on the day of apprehension,” explained Staib. But for the 80 percent that do follow through, the CA Partnership Program can be life changing. “It provides an opportunity to a person to make a mistake and not have it dog them for the rest of their lives,” said Staib. Offenders who have undergone the education program often describe its transformative nature. “I feel that I am able to walk away a better person and more aware of everything shoplifting means and the results that occur from it all,” said one program participant from Tampa, Florida. “My future is something that should not be toyed with [and] I will never repeat this act ever again in my life.”

Although perhaps less obvious, there are also tangible benefits to the community when retailers participate in the CA Partnership Program. In a recent study by a law enforcement agency in Texas, the program was identified as having the potential to reduce the number of calls to law enforcement and allowing resources to be focused on more serious crimes. “The CA Partnership Program has contributed to a 51 percent reduction in calls for service related to retail stores that are currently working with the program,” according to the report titled Shoplifting Study from the Harris Country Sheriff’s Office Strategic (HCSO) Planning and Policy Unit (March 16, 2015). It concluded: “The implementation of CAP for shoplifting may save significant resources for HCSO [and] will allow HCSO to better serve Harris County through improved offender accountability, more efficient jail population management and increased public safety without increase in public costs.”

But what’s in it for retailers? The value to retailers may be least evident but they may have the most to gain by joining the CA Partnership Program. “The program takes the best of restorative justice principles and extends it pre-charge so that it provides a value to retailers,” explained Staib.

Retailers get reimbursed by the offender at a fair value but don’t lose the ability to handle the case through the courts or civilly if participants don’t follow through (overall collection has gone up among participating retailers). They enhance their relationship with local law enforcement by reducing calls for service. And they get a technology platform—at no cost—to manage cases, develop case reports, identify legitimate first offenders, ensure company policies are correctly applied enterprisewide, allow LP agents to complete cases more quickly, and guarantee that each case, wherever it occurs, is managed in accordance with state law. As an added bonus, there is even the fact that some research has shown that shoplifters offered diversion are more likely to become loyal customers of that retailer.

Additionally, the voluntary nature of the program helps to reduce a retailer’s risk of a lawsuit arising from a small-value shoplifting case, as does reducing the amount of time that a store holds an individual. The system helps a retailer correctly identify an individual as a petty offender and qualifies them for the program in 20 to 25 minutes, according to Paul Jones, chief operating officer for Turning Point and former executive director of global asset protection for eBay. Rapid processing offers a clear advantage over holding suspects for an extended time while waiting for police to arrive. “The longer you hold people, the greater the safety risk,” noted Jones. The saved man hours also boosts the productivity of LP agents, freeing them to return to work on issues that are more material to the company’s bottom line than $2 shoplifting cases.

Some benefits cross over between participants. For example, the Turning Point platform that retailers use to process offenders creates a single, sharable, prosecutable report of the incident. The program includes a NASP-managed Indigence Fund that also pays the course fee for qualified individuals who can’t afford to enroll in the education program, thus shielding all partners from criticism that the program charges unjust fees to participants. This is particularly beneficial to retailers by ensuring the partnership will only enhance their reputation. Finally, providing low-risk offenders a different path than the one hard core thieves travel effectively prevents future crime, a benefit to the community and victim retailers alike. “The research says that if you take low-risk offenders and apply the punishment that everyone else gets, you’re going to make them worse. The chance of reoffending skyrockets,” warns Joanne Katz, a professor at Missouri Western State University.

The driving force behind the CA Partnership Program’s success is the marriage between NASP, which has a long tradition of providing quality anti-shoplifting education, and Turning Point, an advanced technology company with loss prevention expertise. According to the Harris Country Sheriff’s study, “NASP education programs for both adult and juvenile offenders are by far the most effective shoplifting deterring programs that maintains the lowest national recidivism rates of 2.9 percent.” NASP is ‘vendor phobic,’ according to Staib, but saw a unique opportunity in forming a partnership with Turning Point. “Their cutting-edge technology was developed from a prosecutor’s point of view, in conjunction with industry pros representing 100 years of LP experience.”

Walmart is one of the retailers beginning to experience value from that partnership. The company recently completed a pilot of the Crime
Accountability Partnership Program at select stores and plans to expand it to more than 500 stores over the next few months. Pilot stores have reduced recidivism, saved man hours processing offenders, and “dramatically improved” their relationship with local law enforcement, according to Paul Jaeckle (shown at right), the company’s senior director for asset protection. But it has not meant letting offenders off the hook. “Law enforcement is not the only way to hold people accountable,” said Jaeckle. Educating first offenders, changing their behavior, and deterring future crime “is another way to gain control.”

How Sears Holdings Changed Its View on First Offenders and Earned ‘Gushing Praise’ from Law Enforcement

The asset protection department at Sears Holdings faces a unique set of security challenges, but it’s similar to many others in one way—it is gravitating toward a more strategic approach to security. “Approximately three years ago, we started transitioning from a more traditional security focus to a broader asset and profit protection focus,” says Scott Glenn, chief security officer for Sears Holdings Corporation.

Scott Glenn
Scott Glenn

It’s perhaps the Holy Grail of modern security management—moving away from security that is purely reactive to a more thoughtful and proactive approach, one that aims to maximize the strategic value of security. Part of getting there for Sears Holdings means embracing a new approach to managing cases of minor retail theft.

The company, which operates Kmart and Sears stores nationwide, is the largest retail participant by store count in the Crime Accountability (CA) Partnership Program, which provides first offenders a chance to stay out of the court system by completing an education program delivered by the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention (NASP) and paying restitution to retail victims. Sears Holdings currently utilizes the program in about 40 percent of its stores and plans a methodical roll out to every location. The program seemed tailor made for a company trying to manage security more strategically. “When we started looking at external theft and how we treated it, the program seemed a natural fit within our broader asset protection vision,” said Glenn.

Sears Holdings started conversations in 2014 with CA Partnership Program partners NASP and Turning Point Justice, and Glenn said he was immediately impressed. “For me, two things really stood out. There were significant benefits for the actual offender, and the technology that was used to walk the offender through the process seamlessly integrated with our existing case management system. Those were clear differentiators from some of the other programs out there.” Glenn admits to some initial trepidation as to how the company’s legacy systems might integrate with Turning Point’s technology but found that “Turning Point’s technology folks bent over backwards to work with ours.”

The Turning Point Cloud JusticeTM platform guides asset protection associates and offenders through the process, and includes an engaging, thoughtfully produced video to describe the program. Glenn said the video is “much better than having a store employee read from a script and asking offenders to sign here.” He notes, too, that the process has alignment points throughout, which ensures that the offender “understands each step along the way, so they can’t come back later to say they didn’t understand or agree to the commitment.”

Sears Holdings is a data-focused company and is finding that metrics reveal the program is working on several fronts. For example, Glenn says internal analysis indicates that his department is saving the equivalent of more than 600 days worth of work hours by avoiding court time, travel costs, and other time consuming aspects of their prior approach. The finance people are pleased as well because recovery from stores using the CA Partnership Program outperforms stores that still use traditional civil recovery services, even though “that’s certainly not the reason we’re doing it,” says Glenn.

He believes it is the obligation of the security industry to take a more holistic approach to managing shoplifting, one that includes trying to put first-time offenders on the right track. “Some people make bad decisions; and if we’re not involved in a positive way, we leave them to the mercy of the criminal justice system. I believe this just creates a cycle of future offenders. We have a responsibility to these individuals not to let a single mistake scar them for the rest of their lives,” said Glenn.

The CA Partnership Program has also impressed the Sears Holdings’ team, particularly because of the “soft” benefits it has generated. Letters arrive weekly from prosecutors and law enforcement agencies to thank the company for the drop in shoplifting arrests and the reduction in calls for service; letters that have generated positive press for the company. Glenn still remembers the first letter he received—a “gushing” note from the sheriff in Hillsborough County, Fla., who couldn’t believe what was happening in his area as a result of the program. “He was seeing a 36 percent reduction in calls to our stores, He wanted us to know how much he appreciated what we were doing, and asked if there was anything he could do to help market the program to other retailers.”

The positive response from law enforcement isn’t purely a “feel good” benefit, according to Glenn. “When we do ask for support [from law enforcement], we find we get a better response and more priority,” he said. “When we need something in larger, more complex cases, we see that we’re getting more attention.”

Although results from CA Partnership Program participation have been uniformly positive, Glenn said that he did face a roadblock during the pilot phase. Some veterans in the organization held the view that the CA Partnership Program meant that the company was going soft on shoplifters. “I think if I could do it over, I would have spent more time up front in laying the foundation for the program and maybe better explaining the benefits of the program to our field teams.”

As far as advice for his industry counterparts, Glenn thinks—at the very least—retailers owe it to themselves to examine the Crime Accountability Partnership Program. “Every one of my peers should take the time to assess this program and examine it from a customer relations viewpoint, a financial viewpoint, and from the perspective of law enforcement relations. They should carefully assess how the partnership might add value to their own program.”

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