Shoplifting and other forms of retail theft cost retailers tens of billions of dollars each year. As a result retail leadership has learned to recognize the value of a well-trained management staff and a professional loss prevention department. We have learned to drive operational efficiency, and ensure that controls are in place and adhered to throughout the organization. We have learned the value of deterrence, limiting the desires and the opportunities for theft and other losses by integrating loss prevention concepts with retail practices. We have embraced a belief in training and awareness as being at the heart of a successful loss prevention program.
Despite our best efforts, there will always be those that will test our resolve. For those retail loss prevention professionals that must deal with shoplifters every day, we are trained to recognize that a shoplifter can look like anyone—shoplifters are not bound by gender, race, creed, or social standing. Professionals are trained to identify patterns of behavior and must follow strict protocols before shoplifting suspects can even be approached. There are well-defined principles that guide our decisions, and clear steps that must be followed before an apprehension is made.
But there are times when specific individuals will draw our immediate attention. Based on well-established patterns of previous behavior, the habitual thief—those that are known to have stolen from us on multiple occasions in the past—deserve our efforts and focus. While not a definitive indicator of future intentions, their presence in the store warrants priority consideration.
These concepts have become international, and the basic principles and core competencies of loss prevention have become a shared approach across borders and oceans alike. Unfortunately, we also share some of the same problems. Shoplifting can take many forms, and is plagued by many different characters.
Britain’s Most Prolific Shoplifter
Reporting on loss prevention issues worldwide, we have found that there appears to be a “competition” in the United Kingdom to identify “Britain’s most prolific shoplifter.” Each of the following individuals has been granted this dubious honor in previous months:
Harry Hankinson has a criminal record which includes 523 offenses, 433 of those for theft and dishonesty. Hankinson has a criminal career dating back to 1970. His long suffering spouse has even admitted that she barely knows her husband he has spent that much time in and out of prison. In the latest spree, he was caught stealing goods worth £4,000 from upmarket stores.
Hankinson was branded an “uninhibited thief and a pest” as he was incarcerated for his latest offense, adding another notch to an astonishing record. “When he shoplifts he is almost on autopilot…He offers no excuses for these offences, only remorse and apologies,” reports noted. The court heard Hankinson blame his crimes on an accident in 1970 when he fell backwards out an open window during a family function.
In his most recent arrest incident Glen Stacey, 56, bit the security tag off a leg of lamb and hid a magazine in his bag at a local supermarket. He had planned to give the magazine to his girlfriend as a gift and sell the meat.
Stacey, who has a long history of pilfering low-value items, was issued a Criminal Anti-Social Behaviour Order (Crasbo) in February, barring him from shoppes in Lancashire. While police say the threat of jail does not stop Stacey, they feel the Crasbo provides the opportunity to at least arrest him before he causes any serious trouble.
According to the Blackpool Centre Neighbourhood Policing Team, “It’s how prolific he is that’s the problem. Jail doesn’t stop him—being inside is just an occupational hazard.”
Blackpool magistrates were told he had 281 previous convictions and that the latest theft marked the 400th time he had been caught shoplifting. Despite reaching the 400 offenses milestone, Stacey walked free from court.
Serial shoplifter Robert Knowles first broke the law at age 13. He was sent to correctional school in 1959 and has been back in court charged with theft every year since—chalking up 183 court appearances in 54 years.
Adding to a criminal career that has stretched over the past seven decades, Knowles was recently jailed for his 341st offense after pleading guilty to stealing a bottle of wine and some items of clothing. The court heard he had been released from prison just days before and had been living briefly in a city hostel before the thefts.
“He usually survives for something between 24 and 72 hours before he is arrested again either for theft of clothes or theft of alcohol,” claims his long-time attorney. “Nobody knows whether he is effectively waiting to die in prison. He has no support in the community. He has put the barriers up. Nobody really knows why he does it.”
Knowles has spent most of his adult life behind bars. There have been so many incidents that even prosecutors have lost track of his expansive rap sheet.
A week after spending two days in custody awaiting his appearance on offenses 338 and 339, David Archer face the same court in North Wales after he admitted to four more offenses, including theft from a charity shop— bringing his total to 343.
Archer had previous convictions for shoplifting, burglary, and other thefts and burglary, along with previous convictions for breaching an order which bans him from all charity shops.
Reports claim that Archer had begun to target charity shops more and more over the years, stealing money, clothing and other items. “He’d lean over the counters and literally feel the weight of the charity box and then if he was happy with the weight he would cut it,” according to reports.
Archer’s offenses first began when he was ten years old and have stretched over the past 48 years. The magistrate overseeing the case said he “shuddered to think” what Archer must have cost his victims and the state over the years. He is currently serving an 18-month prison term.
Who Holds the Crown?
Clearly it is of little consequence which of these individuals carries the label of “Britain’s most prolific shoplifter” because the number of criminal events that these men are involved with only seem to be growing on a continuous basis. These four individuals alone are responsible for more than 1600 criminal offenses, with each involved in theft incidents spanning five decades or more. It’s hard to imagine what these individuals have actually cost the retailers, court systems, and communities where they live and steal. When we consider the lifetime of consequences, it’s quite clear that no one comes out on top.
Shoplifting is a Shared Concern
Laws, cultures, and governments may be different, but shoplifting is an international concern that is shared by retail merchants everywhere. These individuals may stand out as exceptions, but similar exceptions can be found everywhere across the world. Often we limit our perspective to what is found in our own back yard. We may notice a million-dollar theft or an international crime spree in some other part of the planet, but it can be just as important to recognize the damage that can be done by a man biting the security tag off of a leg of lamb. Every step that we take to become more educated and aware; every gesture that we make to build our professional partnerships and business acumen; and every opportunity that we seize to learn and grow as professionals is a step in the right direction.