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Shoplifters: Who are they and why do they steal?

A person in a store aisle wearing safari clothes and using binoculars to look for a shoplifter

In an ideal world, it would be simple to identify the shoplifters who caused this years’ $100 billion shrink problem. Unfortunately, this is not the case. In fact, there is no single method for identifying shoplifters from paying customers. It's critical to approach this subject neutrally and without prejudice because the fact is simple:

You cannot tell if someone is a shoplifter just by the way they look! (Unless of course their outfit is packed with your merchandise and they are running out the door)

No one ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, or socioeconomic status is more likely to shoplift than another. Shoplifters come in all sizes and walks of life.

For example, contrary to widespread opinion, people in the 35-54 age range are most commonly caught shoplifting! Not the stereotypical angsty teen with a backpack.

All of this is to say that you cannot tell a shoplifter apart by how they look, so you have to focus on their motivations, targets, and how they act. Shoplifters usually have at least one of the next 6 motivations:


They see the chance and they take it!

These people are paying customers who take what they can, when they can, because they can. An opportunist will typically take items that are not being carefully watched or security-tagged (and labelled). This thief may even be one of your loyal and frequent customers who thinks they deserve a discount for their continued patronage.


They want to resell or return your items for their own profit

Stealing something and then selling it for profit is called “boosting” and is most common with those who are desperate and struggling to feed their habits. People who want to “boost” usually target big, crowded stores with low supervision. They target your merchandise with higher resale value such as electronics, jewelry, beauty products, and apparel.


They cannot afford basic necessities

With prices skyrocketing, some people steal just to get by. These people target food, clothing, health products, baby products, and sometimes toys to make ends meet. Usually these people do not want to steal but have turned to it out of necessity. 


They feel a compulsive need to steal

Kleptomania” is when someone feels a compulsion to steal products. This is a mental health condition that affects a person’s impulse-control and creates a shoplifting addiction. These thieves take anything they can and for no particular reason other than to steal it. Usually these products would be anything small and concealable.


They want to feel a rush

These people are shoplifting on a whim. This might be because their friends dared them to, they are inebriated and want to impress, or they’re being peer pressured. Usually thrill-seeking shoplifters are young adults or teenagers. This spur-of-the-moment thief usually targets small, inexpensive items or anything that may be valuable, amusing, or otherwise unattainable to the group. A group of young people may want to steal alcoholic beverages since purchasing is not an option for them!


They genuinely do not know they are leaving your store with unpaid merchandise

This unintentional shoplifter accidentally leaves without paying for something because they are forgetful, elderly, or distracted by young children. Whether a child has placed an item into their own bag, an item is left under a shopping cart, or an elderly woman walks out of the store wearing the necklace she had just tried on, these people have mistakenly shoplifted your items.

How can we prevent these people from stealing?

If your store is having items stolen to be boosted, a smart approach to prevent this is to ensure that all little (and large) expensive objects are security tagged and labelled. Some Boosters will undoubtedly be discouraged by anything that makes the task more challenging or raises the likelihood that they will be discovered. Ink tags could be useful in an apparel store. These tags destroy a garment when they are pried off without the correct equipment. This would make them essentially invaluable and useless for resale!

It can be challenging to prevent kleptomaniacs or opportunistic people from thieving within your store; however, lowering store blindspots and raising product exposure would be a good place to start. You will increase your staff's ability to spot suspicious behaviors, boosting your chances of stopping the theft before it even starts. Since kleptomaniacs steal what they think they can get away with, tag your items to make it clear they cannot.

For those who are shoplifting in larger groups, it could be a good idea to spend money on security cameras and mirrors here to boost visibility and serve as a visible deterrent to potential shoplifters. Bottle locks can be useful if you run a liquor store! It is also important to boost signage that reminds young people of the consequences of shoplifting.

Overall, it is a good idea to tag or label as many objects as you can so that they can alert employees (and distracted consumers or shoplifters) as they (and your merchandise) depart the store. This will prevent forgetful people from leaving your store with unpaid goods, stop shoplifters from stealing, or alert you when they have.

In these difficult times, when shoppers are stealing out of necessity, you can assist your neighbors in providing resources to programs and services that can help them feed, clothe, and care for themselves and their families. Desperate people are stealing in order to survive and when they steal from small stores, they usually have to raise prices to cover this loss. This creates an endless cycle of prices being raised, people not being able to afford the products, and shoplifting. Donating food, clothing, or money to neighborhood community initiatives for families in need is an excellent method to deter desperate people from stealing in general. Think about adding a donation box to your store or offering aid to individuals in need. A little kindness may go a long way, and many willing-to-pay customers enjoy seeing local involvement and may want to support your business even more than before!


Some suspicious behavior you should look out for: 

  • Looking around constantly and observing the cashier or salesman more than actually shopping.
  • Wearing overly-heavy, cumbersome apparel in the summer or unneeded layers. 
  • Carrying a large bag or backpack or holding an umbrella when there’s no rain
  • Short or strangely spaced steps when walking might be a sign that someone is hiding stolen property on their body. (Approach this behaviour with caution as some people may have a mobility problem or disability causing them to walk differently)
  • Bringing many things into a dressing room and leaving with only one or none of them.
  • The customer's eyes are not on what they are doing with their hands; instead, they are scanning the area for employees! 
  • Showing nervousness and picking up random objects without any thought.
  • Many shop visits without ever completing a purchase.
  • Coming into the store in pairs or larger groups. One chatting up a storeperson while the other “browses”.

The best loss prevention uses a variety of tactics and a thorough approach to product security.


The most effective loss prevention strategies includes:

  • Training employees on what behaviors to look out for and how to (or not to) approach a shoplifter. You should also cover best practices for security tags and labels.
  • Labels for inexpensive items and security tags for more valuable goods are used in Electronic Article Surveillance (EAS) systems to keep track of stock and alert staff when unpaid merchandise leaves the store.
  • Thoroughly inventorying merchandise and using that data to determine the at-risk items and adjust how many are kept on the floor. Instant RFID inventory tracking is a great way to do this right at checkout!
  • A strong store layout that eliminates hidden spaces and blindspots and places high-value merchandise and frequently stolen products in plain sight.
  • Above and beyond customer service.
  • Security cameras and CCTV surveillance.
  • Lockable screens, tethered cables, and cabinet locks.

No matter who is shoplifting from your store or why - prevention is the key to protecting your merchandise and avoiding raising prices or losing profit.


Further Questions?

To learn more about which security tags are a good fit to upgrade at your retail store, our Retail Loss Prevention experts would be more than happy to assist you.


Please reach out to Amit Pannu with any questions or concerns at APannu@ineosolutionsinc.com.


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