What Does a Shoplifter Look Like?

Learn the signs and make smart decisions.


What does a shoplifter look like? This frequently asked question is one that can lead to a mountain of concerns in the retail environment, but it is essential to address with both our store employees and loss prevention teams. Learning the signs is important, but making the right decisions is vital. Having the right answers can help keep our stores safe and secure, while getting it wrong can cost us in a variety of ways and put us in some precarious situations for many reasons.

First and foremost, a shoplifter can look like anyone. There is no magic light that shines down on an individual to indicate they are more prone to steal than anyone else. The desire to steal is not specific to age, gender, race, socio-economic group, or other physical characteristics, and limiting our focus to a specific profile is both futile and foolish. This can lead to a variety of very bad decisions that can increase losses and liability, impact sales and service, and ultimately jeopardize the overall success of the business.

Attempting to pre-determine a physical profile that would indicate tendency to be involved in criminal activity, whatever those traits may be, is not only prejudicial and discriminatory—it’s simply inaccurate. When attempting to identify those that may be prone to steal, our most successful results are found when we understand the true factors that influence shoplifting and learn to recognize key patterns of behavior that may lead to theft.

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Patterns Are Important

Identifying patterns is an important aspect of retail for many reasons. Those in the marketing business spend countless hours analyzing sales data and researching customer shopping habits and tendencies to create a promotional campaign that will appeal to a large target audience. In other words, they identify the type of consumer most likely to buy a particular product, and then take steps to attract that customer to their stores.

But these patterns are actions or strategies that contain common elements recognizable based on the particular behavior exhibited. For example, when shopping in a far corner of a department or area, a vast majority of customers will concentrate on the merchandise in and around their location. They spend their time in search of a particular item, and pay close attention to the displayed price. Once they select an item or exit the area without an item, they move with a sense of purpose to the register or to another area of the store to continue shopping. While this pattern will contain deviations from customer to customer, the actions are similar and the outcome is fairly common.

When a customer deviates from this pattern—for example, if a customer were to move merchandise from different departments to a remote area of the store—it may indicate a unique shopping style, or it may be a prelude to dishonest behavior. There may be a legitimate explanation, or there may be a different reason. Either way, to be in a position to deter or detect potential shoplifters, you must understand and differentiate particular shopping patterns in the store.

The Power of Observation

The power of observation is critical to successful loss prevention. Retail companies will use the power of visual presentation to sell merchandise, but we also use these skills when identifying and preventing losses. In fact, many of the decisions made as part of successful loss prevention are based on our powers of observation and accepted, rejected, or modified as a result of this information.

Consequently, it is extremely important to recognize the value of observation—and make every effort to cultivate these skills to the fullest extent possible. Developing effective methods of observation requires careful practice and the ability to understand, interpret, categorize, and rationalize the information at your disposal. You must first recognize the traits that draw a particular individual to your attention. You then draw upon the signs that further focus your attention, building the foundation for the decisions that follow.

Generally speaking, there are four basic criteria that we should use when making the decision to pursue a surveillance:

1. Behaviors are the way that we function or conduct ourselves in response to our environment. They involve the actions, reactions, and manner of conduct you observe that may point to potential theft and other criminal activity. This can include behaviors such as:

  • Nervousness,
  • Avoidance,
  • Eye movements,
  • A disregard for color, sizes, or even price when selecting merchandise,
  • Staging—or taking merchandise from several areas and moving it to one common area,
  • Blocking by positioning themselves in a way to conceal their actions from the view of cameras, associates, or anyone else who might be watching,
  • Dressed out of season,
  • Or other suspicious movements.

It’s very important to understand that these behaviors represent possible deception—not definite deception. Practice common sense and patience, recognizing that the situation may require further observation to identify the true intention. It’s the sum total of everything you observe that will ultimately lead to the correct conclusions.

2. Indicators are pieces of information that reflect the intention or capability to follow a particular course of action. A theft indicator would be something visible or relevant that gives us grounds to believe that a theft or potential theft incident may take place. Some examples might include:

  • Price tickets or adhesive barcodes that may have been torn or removed.
  • Empty boxes, blister packs, or protective packaging destroyed with the item removed.
  • Defeated EAS tags, especially when hidden in clothing or fitting rooms.
  • Large open spaces in an otherwise full merchandise display.
  • Large amounts of merchandise that is out of place.
  • Empty hangers found hidden among clothing or concealed in the fitting rooms.

The mere presence of an indicator in and of itself is not a clear-cut sign of a criminal act, or even dishonest intentions. It simply provides a flag that encourages us to take a closer look.

3. Means involve the instruments by which an act can be accomplished or an end achieved. This would include the resources and tools that support the ability to steal. For our purposes, this would refer to the devices shoplifters commonly use to assist them in the commission of a crime. This might include:

  • Concealment aids that help to mask a shoplifter’s intention to steal, such as booster bags, booster clothing, shopping bags, oversize clothing, backpacks, large handbags, and so on.
  • Burglary tools used to defeat anti-theft security tags or cabling or assist in gaining access to secured areas, to include wire cutters, screwdrivers, pliers, knives, box cutters, scissors, magnets and EAS detachers, and similar tools.

While the mere presence of these devices is not definitive and may also be present for legitimate reasons, an individual in possession of such tools may deserve additional attention.

4. Opportunity, which involves the favorable or advantageous circumstances and the related prospects that support the potential or capability to commit dishonest acts. This might include situations such as:

  • Open stockroom doors,
  • Open and unlocked cases,
  • Unattended areas,
  • Messy and poorly managed fitting rooms,
  • Poorly managed register areas,
  • Unattended ticket guns and EAS detachers, and
  • Poor customer service.

While opportunity is a primary component in the formula for theft, this is also an area where we have significant occasion to impact performance in the stores. By maintaining good customer service, sound merchandising practices, and basic store housekeeping standards we can eliminate many of the opportunities that lead to both theft and safety concerns.

These are the elements that set the stage for shoplifting incidents and other dishonest acts, and the only acceptable criteria for placing someone under surveillance.

Keep in mind that while any one of these criteria may provide a strong clue, it is not necessarily a clear sign of a person’s intent. It is the total sum of everything observed that will ultimately lead to the correct conclusions. This is an important distinction that can be the difference between a successful outcome and a bad decision.

Learn the Signs

Looking at all the variables that might provide an indication that someone has the capability and the intent to steal is much more complicated than many realize, which is precisely why only properly trained individuals should be involved in the process. This makes the decision to deter a theft or pursue an apprehension of a shoplifter that much more important, with additional imperatives that must be followed to take those steps.

However, what we all can do is learn to better identify the primary criteria that may point to illicit intent, notify the appropriate leadership of our concerns, and eliminate many of the opportunities for retail theft by following necessary practices and protocols while providing exceptional customer service. We can’t anticipate every situation, but we can limit or control some of the opportunities that often lead to theft incidents.

Above all else, it is every employee’s responsibility to keep our customers and employees safe. Learn the signs and make smart decisions.

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