“Let it go.” When it comes to dealing with shoplifters, these can be the three most important words in our vocabulary. Unfortunately, for many of us they may also seem like the most challenging to learn.
Depending on the situation, those three simple words can be difficult for any of us to handle. Often the internal strife comes at times when we are highly emotional, conflicted, angry, contentious, or vulnerable. We may want to assert an opinion, act on an impulse, or respond to a perceived injustice. But somewhere inside of us, a voice of wisdom is working overdrive to convince us to show constraint, hold our tongues, or walk away.
All of us have experienced what this feels like. All of us know the torment that can come with making the right decision and letting it go, whatever that particular “it” might be. At some later point, most of us come to realize the prudence and common sense that results from personal restraint. But in the moment, it can occasionally feel like trying to hold back the tide.
In retail this can be a common quandary, with many situations falling into the “let it go” category. In many cases this might involve biting our tongues when insults or misdirected frustration are tossed our way. In other situations, it may be much more serious.
Safety Must Come First
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), working in the retail industry is one of the highest-risk jobs for workplace violence. In an environment where we invite the public into our stores—where money is handled, products are available, and individuals of varying means and agendas come and go—violence can come in many forms from verbal abuse and threats to physical violence. These situations are very real, to the point where many retailers now provide training to their employees on de-escalation techniques and methods for avoiding and diffusing violent situations.
Still, among the most potentially volatile situations are often those that occur when dealing with shoplifters. Shoplifting has been a common problem since the dawn of retail. While most customers are good, honest, hard-working people that simply wish to buy the things that they want or need, we also regularly deal with individuals making poor decisions regarding the misguided aspirations to acquire those products without payment. To get the things that they want—or to use those goods to get other things that they want—some people steal.
This isn’t exactly a revelation, and there are very few in retail who haven’t witnessed or otherwise been exposed to a shoplifting event. However, it’s dealing with the actual event and confronting those who have followed through on these poor decisions where things can get much more complicated. It’s through our ability to safely and effectively navigate that critical point of confrontation that the situation will be successfully managed—or pivot into something that we didn’t want or expect.
There’s no valor in putting ourselves or others at risk. You work in a retail store—you’re not part of a video game.
Confrontation is a difficult thing. When dealing with shoplifters we never know exactly who we are dealing with and what we might face, and the results can be unpredictable. From the shoplifter’s perspective, the consequences of their actions can include everything from embarrassment to a loss of personal freedom—an outcome that many will try to avoid at all costs.
Over the last several years, there have been increased levels of violence, threats of violence, intimidation, and use of weapons by shoplifters. Often, we think of the extremes, such as addicts turning to retail theft to support their drug dependency, the increasing number of gang members and other felons that have habitually been involved in more violent crimes turning to retail theft, or other members of organized retail crime operations. But fear and desperation can make people do foolish things despite their motives or background. We can’t make decisions based on preconceived notions or appearances. Situations can turn violent regardless of the individual involved, and someone ends up getting hurt.
Letting It Go
As part of the apprehension process, we’ll typically discuss the warning signs that we should look for in the individual and in the environment, how they might respond, and other external factors that might impact or influence the situation. These are very important lessons and should be methodically learned and meticulously practiced. Still, our most important lessons come when learning how to handle ourselves.
We must have confidence. We need to use sound judgment and make good decisions. We have to practice patience and self-restraint. But we also have to know when to let it go. We must accept that there are situations best managed by allowing the individual to leave, understanding that this outcome is best for everyone involved. Control isn’t always something you do—sometimes it’s consenting that further action is the wrong decision.
For those thinking, “I know what I’m doing,” or “This doesn’t apply to me,” you’re exactly the audience we’re talking to. Over-confidence is not only foolish and dangerous, it’s unfair to your coworkers and your loved ones. Frankly, it leads to mistakes—and you should know better.
When it comes down to making this decision, it doesn’t matter our background, our position, or years of experience. Our stature doesn’t make a difference, nor does that of the shoplifter. It doesn’t matter what our egos tell us we can or can’t handle. All that matters is the potential outcome. Every situation must be handled based on its own merits as well as the policies of the company, and those who don’t feel that they need a reminder are typically those who need it the most.
No Medals or Penalty Flags
Here are a few things to consider the next time you’re confronting a shoplifter:
• Consider the risk. We’ve all heard the “war stories” from those who worked in an era when it was commonplace to chase shoplifters who tried to avoid detainment and fled the scene. We’ve heard tales of employees being involved in altercations, struck by cars, dragged by cars, attacked with knives and other weapons, confronted by friends of the shoplifter, and many other stories involving equal or greater indiscretion. As someone who worked through that era, I can say without hesitation that those actions were nothing short of reckless and stupid. There’s no valor in putting ourselves or others at risk. You work in a retail store—you’re not part of a video game.
• Put people above product. There’s nothing in the store worth someone getting hurt, whether that person is you, an innocent bystander, or the shoplifter involved in the incident. That may sound cliché and over-used, but it’s not. All anyone has to do is check the news over the past year to read a hundred stories that prove that it’s not. People get hurt. People can even die. We can’t fix someone else’s bad decision by making one of our own.
• Follow the rules. Companies have strict policies for a reason. Of course, we don’t want to lose our merchandise to a thief, and a great deal is typically invested in making sure that we minimize our losses. But if you’re breaking the rules you’re a liability, not a hero.
• Manage your emotions. It can be difficult to avoid allowing our own personal morals, values, and judgments to get in our way, but that remains our professional responsibility. Nothing good will ever come from an angry or emotional response, and one way or another it usually comes at a cost.
• Not a contact sport. Linebackers work in the NFL—not in retail stores. Dealing with shoplifters isn’t a sport and is not intended to result in a physical conflict. By the same respect, linebackers do know that you can’t chase or tackle people once they’re out of bounds—at least not if you want to remain employed.
• Not a heroic act. Loss prevention personnel are trained to manage shoplifter situations, including what to look for, what steps to follow, how to make an approach, and knowing when to let it go. Sales associates and other employees who attempt to apprehend shoplifters are typically breaking company policies—not earning any medals.
• Maintain control. Always be aware of those around you by practicing situational awareness and situational safety. Bystanders can get hurt. Bystanders may misinterpret what they’re seeing. They may also attempt to hurt you or the shoplifter. Be smart and maintain control of the situation.
Confronting a shoplifter always carries with it the potential for an unpredictable outcome, and while most shoplifting apprehensions result in the shoplifter cooperating, it’s critical that we remain alert and aware, prepared for the unexpected and knowing how to react. Most importantly, this also requires having the judgment and fortitude to let it go when the situation calls for it. It could end up being one of the most important decisions that you make.
This article was first published in 2019 and updated in September of 2020.