Playing the Long Game: A Retailer’s Reaction to Shoplifting Today Impacts Crime for Decades to Come

Sponsored by the Crime Accountability Partnership Program

Shoplifting is often cited as the most frequently committed crime in societies around the world. It occurs so often that it can be easy to overlook—or to forget—just how critical a retailer’s response is to any single incident. But whether a store unwittingly helps to create a lifelong shoplifter or puts a person on a law-abiding path is directly linked to how it approaches these everyday occurrences.

The implication of crime data is pretty clear. Nearly 55 percent of adult shoplifters admit to beginning their criminal careers during their teenage years, and one in four shoplifters is a juvenile. So the effectiveness of retailers’ response to today’s juvenile offenders directly impacts future shoplifting rates. Get a shoplifter to change their behavior, and you may eliminate hundreds or thousands of potential criminal acts. Miss the opportunity, and all retailers will suffer the enduring consequences.

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The action retailers should take at this critical juncture first requires an understanding of what goes on in the minds of non-professional offenders. While no two shoplifters are alike, there are commonalities. One typical characteristic is a lack of awareness and understanding about the crime of shoplifting as it relates to themselves, the victim, or the community.

Faced with increasingly sophisticated and devious organized retail crime enterprises, loss prevention practitioners can be forgiven for forgetting just how unsophisticated amateur shoplifters often are. But studies of shoplifters reveal surprising ignorance, willful or not. Consider the most common myths that have been exposed in interviews with apprehended shoplifters:

  • Shoplifting is only a crime in some states.
  • You can never be arrested unless you leave the store with the merchandise you stole.
  • If you buy something, it proves you aren’t a shoplifter.
  • You aren’t guilty if you are just holding something for your friend who stole something in the store.
  • Acting as a lookout or blocking an employee or customer’s view while a friend steals is perfectly legal.
  • It’s okay to shoplift if it’s the store’s fault: the store charges high prices, the lines at the checkout counter are too long, or the salespeople are nasty.
  • Most stores will just let you pay for the items you took and then let you go.
  • If you cry and say it was just a mistake, most stores will just let you go.
  • Shoplifting isn’t such a big deal compared to other crimes.
  • Being caught shoplifting can’t really affect a person’s future.
  • No one is hurt by the little bit a shoplifter takes from a store.
  • You can’t go to jail for just shoplifting.

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Debunking these myths is challenging, especially for juveniles. While explaining the truth about shoplifting to kids before they offend seems like the most forward-thinking solution, describing to them the theoretical consequences of being caught—such as civil fines, community service, or having a record—typically falls on deaf ears. People, especially kids, are driven by their experiences and those of their peers—not by warnings of an uncertain event.

This is why retailers’ reaction to catching a shoplifter takes on enormous and lasting consequences. Apprehension creates a rare opportunity to educate offenders—juvenile and adult alike—and to dispel myths at a time when individuals are open to the lesson.

According to the Josephson Institute biannual Survey of Youth, 98 percent of respondents said it was important to them that people trust them. When youth shoplift, they risk losing the trust that is most precious to them—that of their parents and families. They also appreciate—temporarily—that shoplifting has the potential to disrupt the future that they expect to enjoy. At the time of apprehension, retailers have a real and rare opportunity to change juvenile offenders’ thoughts, beliefs, and behavior by addressing the things that are meaningful to them—for example, by increasing their awareness of the long-term effects of criminal convictions.

But the opportunity is fleeting. As soon as an offender is caught—either juvenile or adult—the clock starts ticking. Apprehension provides a teachable moment, but there is a narrow window of opportunity—while they are still scared and ashamed—to do something to re-shape their thinking to prevent repeat offenses. The immediate aftermath of an apprehension is the largest determinant in whether the individual will shoplift again.

Not every juvenile offender will be a shoplifter for life. Research shows that unethical consumer behavior often reflects transient opportunism that may diminish as people mature and are better educated. But it is also true that repeat offenders are born when apprehensions fail to change their hypothesis that the risk is worth the reward.

Retailers are both the primary victims of shoplifting and, often, the first and only touchpoint with shoplifting offenders. So the skill with which they handle apprehensions is a primary determinant of future rates of shoplifting. For example, retailers can effectively reduce repeat offenses by providing offenders access to age-appropriate, offense-specific education.

Shoplifter apprehensions are common and routine, but it is critical not to overlook just how important each individual apprehension is. If retailers arm themselves with the information, tools, and skills to take effective advantage of this teachable moment, it’s possible to take potential lifelong shoplifters out of circulation.

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