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When Dealing with Shoplifters, Safety Is Always Our First Option

The evolution of loss prevention is a common topic of discussion throughout the industry. It is a focal point of many loss prevention conference presentations. It is the subject of many loss prevention team meetings. It has been the topic of C-suite conversations. It is a regular discussion here at LP Magazine.

By the same respect, shoplifting and shoplifter apprehensions typically aren’t found in the titles of many company presentations today unless associated with the relationship to organized retail crime. We discuss loss prevention technology, data security, e-commerce, omnichannel retailing, and a host of topics that focus on the latest retail industry trends and innovations. These are all extremely important aspects of the loss prevention profession and absolutely relevant and valued topics of discussion.

However, evolution doesn’t just occur at the top. At the very core of the profession, the evolution of the loss prevention industry must start with the fundamentals. So many things have changed, and it’s easy to get caught up in what’s new, fresh, and “cutting edge” across the industry.

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But there are thousands of stories dealing with shoplifters that appear every week across digital media in a continuous stream of petit crimes and tragic events. We learn of shoplifters stealing to support drug habits. We hear of parents shoplifting with their children. We roll our eyes at the bizarre and ridiculous shoplifters and their creative pilferage. We cringe at shoplifter confrontations gone wrong and people getting hurt. Drowning in a river of bad decisions, the stories flow on and on into an ocean of unfortunate outcomes and lost profits.

Moving Forward

Shoplifting is only one piece of a much larger puzzle. From a loss prevention perspective, shrink reduction and profit enhancement require a comprehensive management strategy that fits all of the needs and interests of a particular retail organization. It is monumentally more complicated than stopping a shoplifter in a store. But shoplifting concerns are still front and center in many ways, from the impact on profits and the incidents in retail stores to the impressions and influence that often dominate digital dialogue.

Fortunately, retail’s approach to shoplifters and shoplifting has evolved as well. Despite the daily reminders and disastrous choices of the lawfully challenged, we’ve made tremendous strides in our approach to shoplifting incidents. We have the “five steps” of the apprehension process. We preach behavior-based shoplifter surveillance techniques. We lecture on shoplifter approach and detainment. We prohibit shoplifter pursuit. We demand appropriate training and awareness programs. We lecture on the importance of good customer service. Each step leads us in the right direction—strategically moving forward toward the right goals: safety, control, protection, and profitability.

- Digital Partner -

As we navigate through another holiday season, it’s also a good time to remind ourselves that moving forward often requires that we occasionally take a step back to gain a better perspective on the road that lies ahead. While a season of hope and celebration, it is also a time of stress and difficulty for many, which often leads to bad decisions. Stores are a blur of activity, and sales are the pinnacle of every retail company. What happens over the last two months of the year is critical to many organizations, and making the right management decisions are at a premium.

From a loss prevention perspective, a big part of our responsibility this time of year is to stay out of the way. The needs of the business remain our primary objective, and our attention must remain fixed on service and protection. But shoplifters also flock to the stores this time of year, looking to capitalize on the chaos. With that in mind, it’s also a good time for all of us to take a glance back into the stores, focus on the basics, and take the steps to keep our teams, our employees, and our customers safe. While none of this information will spark any new revelations, it’s still a healthy reminder for everyone, from store-level employees to loss prevention leadership, to review best practices for addressing shoplifters in retail stores.

Customer Service

Employees must remain productive, and the company must remain profitable; and customer service is a time-proven approach to these goals. Customer service also remains our weapon of choice against shoplifting in the stores. Attentive employees armed with service and a smile will disarm most potential shoplifters and even carry the opportunity to turn a prospective shoplifter into a customer sale. A proactive approach should remain a first option, offering appropriate attention both on the selling floor and at the register area.

- Digital Partner -

Keeping our store sales teams sharp and attentive over the holiday season serves important objectives on many levels, but it will also mitigate many potential shoplifter incidents. Taking a leadership role by championing this aspect of the business underscores the value and partnership of the loss prevention program with the retail management teams. The importance of a smile and a helping hand should never be underestimated in providing our employees with additional confidence, enhancing the customer experience, and keeping our stores safe.

Shoplifter Surveillance

Developing effective methods of observation requires careful practice and the ability to understand, interpret, categorize, and rationalize the information at our disposal. Generally speaking, there are four basic criteria that we should use when making the decision to pursue a shoplifter surveillance:

  • 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 shoplifting and other criminal activity.
  • 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 shoplifting incident may take place.
  • Means involves 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.
  • Opportunity involves the favorable or advantageous circumstances and the related prospects that support the potential or capability to commit dishonest acts.

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

The Five Steps

Throughout the loss prevention industry, there is a universally accepted process to making apprehensions that is most commonly referred to as the five steps. It is critical that all of these steps are followed before making a shoplifter apprehension.

  • You must see the subject ENTER the department or merchandise display area.
  • You must see the subject SELECT and remove store merchandise from its place of display.
  • You must see the subject CONCEAL the merchandise or take other actions that clearly demonstrate the intent to steal.
  • You must maintain 100 percent CONTINUOUS OBSERVATION of the subject throughout the process up to the point of apprehension.
  • You must allow the subject to EXIT the store whenever possible or proceed toward the exit if the intent to steal is clearly established.

Following these steps will ensure a productive shoplifter detainment, the recovery of merchandise, and a reduction of liability to the company.


The approach itself represents the initial point of confrontation with the shoplifter. While most individuals are generally cooperative, such situations can quickly escalate, arousing the potential for unpredictable results. This is why it is so critical that only those appropriately trained and authorized should be involved in shoplifter apprehensions. Proper attention to the approach and escort will substantially influence the entire shoplifter apprehension process, improving control and encouraging cooperation while mitigating many of the potential risks associated with the stop.

When completing any shoplifter apprehension, the ultimate concern is for the safety of all involved. Approaching the shoplifter with confidence and authority while remaining professional without being threatening typically results in a safe and successful detention. However, it is absolutely essential to follow all company guidelines and policies anytime a shoplifter apprehension is made.

Use of Force

As part of a recent litigation decision, a jury recently ordered a discount retail store to pay a man—who was convicted of shoplifting—$750,000 for injuries he received from a loss prevention employee who confronted him over the theft of a pair of eyebrow scissors and a pair of nose-hair clippers.

When confronted by loss prevention, the shoplifter refused to return to the store, and an altercation ensued. In the process, the shoplifter struck his head on the pavement, suffering several skull fractures, bleeding on the brain, two black eyes, and a permanent traumatic brain injury. The man pleaded no contest in court to shoplifting and was fined $50. Did the punishment fit the crime?

According to the Loss Prevention Foundation’s LPQualified certification course, reasonable force is “that force necessary and within reason to obtain and maintain control during a shoplifter apprehension.” Often that “force” is simply the command in one’s voice. The only acceptable purpose for the use of force during a shoplifter detainment is to obtain and maintain control. Excessive force is any force above that which is needed to obtain and maintain control and is never justified, regardless of the value of the merchandise or the seriousness of the offense.

Many companies prohibit the use of force by any means during a shoplifter detainment and advise their teams that if the shoplifter resists, they should simply let them go and avoid any altercation. Every loss prevention professional should be well versed on specific company policies prior to any action.

Know the Rules and Stay Safe

Most of our readers are very familiar with these common rules regarding shoplifter apprehensions, and there can be many more policies and guidelines depending on the particular retailer. For many, this is simply a look back at a different time in our careersÑbut a look back can still serve as a glimpse forward. Often when things go wrong it’s because one of these fundamental rules were bent or broken.

Shoplifter apprehensions can be very dangerous and in many ways very costly if mishandled. For those companies that deal with shoplifter apprehensions, this may serve as a brief reminder to review all relevant information with your teams as we head into the holidays. For those that don’t, it may serve as a reminder why we don’t allow shoplifter apprehensions by store employees and the importance of training and follow-through.

From all of us at LP Magazine we would like to thank our readers for actively sharing their opinions on this and other topics discussed through our digital resources, and we look forward to your comments and opinions as we move into the New Year. Have a safe and happy holiday season.

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