Just a Low-Level Shoplifter? The Cost May Be Higher Than You Think

Sponsored by the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention

LP has turned much of its attention in recent years away from petty shoplifters to crooked store associates and organized retail crime—and seemingly for good reason. Professional boosters can exact a real toll on retailers’ bottom lines, and the average loss in a case of internal employee theft outstrips the loss from a typical external theft case. Low-level consumer shoplifters, by comparison, can seem practically harmless.

But are they really?

The cost of merchandise that a “low-level” shoplifter steals during any single theft event may not seem to amount to much. In a survey of 15,000 non-professional offenders caught shoplifting, roughly one-third stole goods costing less than $25, and most stole merchandise worth between $25 and $100.

While it may be tempting to write off those amounts to the cost of doing business, it’s important to recognize that those dollar figures represent only the tip of total losses.

Research shows that, on average, a “low-level” shoplifter caught stealing today has already stolen $1,800 worth of merchandise before being caught because of the frequency of their theft and the infrequency of their apprehensions. Suddenly, the individual caught with a TV cable in her purse doesn’t seem quite so innocuous.

“This amount easily rivals many internal theft cases,” noted Barbara Staib, director of communications for the National Association of Shoplifting Prevention (NASP), which conducted the survey of 7,702 adults and 7,475 juveniles. Indeed, when multiplied by the number of potential consumer offenders—1 in 11 people—total losses to retailers may rival that from professional booster cases.

The above data point derives from another eye-opening finding from the NASP survey. It found that 46 percent of adults caught shoplifting admitted to being a repeat offender, yet only 14 percent had ever been arrested before the current incident. It’s the same for juveniles. Caught shoplifting, 40 percent admitted that they’ve done it repeatedly, but only 6 percent had ever been arrested before. Therefore, the actual cost to retailers of the innumerable incidents that go undetected, unreported, and unpunished is staggering.

“The fact is, year after year, millions of consumer shoplifters go about quietly stealing billions of low-dollar-value merchandise,” said Staib. “They operate under the radar and avoid penalty for the collective value of their offenses.”

So, understanding the true—and heavy—price that they pay for “low-level” shoplifters, what should LP pros and retailers do about it? How should the fact that half of consumer shoplifters are admitted repeat offenders influence loss prevention strategy?

“We cannot ignore the impact that unpunished offenders have on the proliferation of shoplifting,” said Staib. Catching every shoplifter, every time, is one foolproof—but entirely impossible—solution. “The only practical way to reduce the losses,” Staib said, “is to keep an eye on reducing the frequency of theft by the ones you do catch to reduce repeat offenders.”

The National Association for Shoplifting Prevention does not advocate that retailers eschew its fight against organized retail crime (ORC) and shift attention to non-professional shoplifters, but it does believe that the real cost of these offenders warrants a new strategic approach.

  • Retailers are the only ones that can identify shoplifters; when they have a “bird in the hand,” they need to take action to prevent the next offense.
  • Retailers can enlist the support of authorities in their community by sharing information about the cost of repeat offenses to encourage stricter and more appropriate sanctions for “low-level” offenders.
  • Small steps, like providing education at apprehension, can be meaningful and effective in preventing future crime and repeat offenses, for juvenile offenders (and adult ones, too).

Over the years, LP practitioners have been hit with conflicting information on losses due to non-professional shoplifters. Often, data has been included as a point of comparison in studies that aim to highlight the harm of ORC or internal employee theft. The subtext is often that the LP profession needs to move past its concern on non-professional shoplifting to focus more on causes of loss with a higher per-case value. However, for LP to mount a truly successfully theft prevention effort, it must not be a case of either/or.

As made clear by the data above—gathered directly from consumer shoplifters themselves—“low-level” shoplifters account for losses that are both higher than typically reported and too big to ignore. Petty shoplifting is both more damaging and far-reaching than is generally understood because of the frequency of theft and the magnitude of repeat offenders. How retailers respond in these individual cases—and whether they embrace education solutions that have proven to reduce repeat offenses—directly impacts the level of loss they will sustain in the years ahead.

  • When I first started out in the LP business, I worked at a place which had a no-minimum, charge-everyone-criminally approach. It didn’t matter what someone took or how little it cost. We would go through the entire arrest process, then waiting in the hold room, and most difficult of all, convincing local law enforcement to lay a charge. Although I lived in a jurisdiction that required that a charge be laid if the victim requested it, it was an understandably uphill battle to convince the police that charging the old lady with the 3 dollar drawer pull was worth the cost to the tax payer and not a burden on an already over-burdened court system.

    We made this exact argument. That this was most likely a person who had done it hundreds if not thousands of times before and would likely do it again. The problem was that the courts are only concerned about the single incident at hand and not about statistical hypotheticals. The police were understandably cynical, and we were becoming that way too. Even when we did manage to lay a charge and get a conviction on a theft under 10 dollars, we would frequently see that person back in the store doing it again months later. What’s more, our company was paying us overtime for court appearances, and the loss of productive hours due to having a shoplifter in the office vs tagging, auditing or out there making simple recoveries was not justified for any theft under 100 dollars. We took dollar losses on low dollar cases.

    There are other solutions, such as cite and release, “burning” and of course, effective deterrence and prevention. I that since then, most retailers have come to their senses on low dollar theft.


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