How To Spot (and STOP) A Shoplifter

by Marina Bridal on February 08, 2023

"How can I spot and stop shoplifters?"

Cartoon of a man stashing a bag of chips into his coat while a security camera and guard watches

As loss prevention specialists, this is a question we frequently receive. Unfortunately, there is no easy "one size fits all" answer for you.

Every store is different and it is harmful to profile individuals; however, there are some general behaviour patterns that follow all kinds of shoplifters.

This article will address what type of person may be a potential shoplifter, the 6 most common kinds of shoplifters, what different thieves target, what behaviour to watch out for, and how you can defend your store against them.


So, who is shoplifting?

In a perfect world, the shoplifters responsible for a large portion of the $100 billion dollar shrink problem in the United States this year would be easy to identify.

But… they most definitely are not. There is no one way to be able to tell who is a shoplifter and who is not. It is important to leave your biases and prejudice at the door. No one race, gender, sexual orientation, age, or even socio-economic class is more likely to be a thief than another! Shoplifters come from all walks of life, all ages, and demographics.

If your store is only asking teenagers and younger people to leave their bags up at the front of your store, you may want to apply that anti-shoplifting rule to everyone!

Contrary to popular belief, middle-aged adults are more likely to shoplift than children. Those between 35 and 54 shoplift more than any other age group!

If you are not in possession of a loss-prevention gate that actually records thief data for you to base your judgements on, you must ensure that you are taking every precaution to protect your store!

There is not a specific kind or type of person who is more likely than another to be a shoplifter. However, shoplifters can be separated into 6 major types.


What are the 6 most common kinds of shoplifters?

Once again, it is impossible (and dangerous) to assess a shoplifter based just on looks, research indicates a number of factors, with shoplifters falling into six primary categories:


The Opportunist 

The Opportunist is an inexperienced shoplifter. They will probably take anything they can, just because they can. Usually an opportunist would choose to target items that are not being properly guarded or watched. Anything without a tag or label is easy pickings and would be a great target for this opportunistic thief. This shoplifter could even be a regular customer who believes they deserve a discount because of their loyalty to your store.

A good way to stop an opportunist from stealing, besides applying security tags and labels, is to increase signage on the security measures that your store has taken. If these non-shoplifter shoplifters see signs indicating how they will face fines (or even prosecution) if they get caught by your security cameras or staff, they will likely think twice before walking out with unpaid merchandise.


The Desperate

The Desperate is a shoplifter who steals out of necessity. They steal in order to support their own or their family’s primary needs. These include the need for food items, clothing, health and care products, baby products, and occasionally even toys. These people do not want to shoplift and this act is likely associated with feelings of shame.

Unfortunately, desperate people are stealing out of the need to survive but you (and even your customers) can help your neighbors access services and resources that can improve their quality of life and decrease their need to steal from your store. A great way to prevent desperate people from shoplifting from your store is to donate food, clothing, or money to local community efforts for families in need. Consider introducing a donation drop-off bin to your store or providing resources for those in need. A little compassion can go a long way, and plenty of paying customers love to see community involvement.


The Booster

“Boosting”  is when someone steals something from a store with the intention of selling it for themselves. The Booster is a shoplifter who steals to resell or return items for a cash refund. Usually this is to support a habit or make the income they need to survive! The Booster would target high-value items with minimal security and thrive in busy or crowded stores with low supervision.

Making sure all small (and large) high-ticket items are security tagged and labeled is a good way to prevent someone who intends to boost. Anything that adds an extra level of difficulty or increases their chances of being caught is sure to deter some Boosters.


The Thrill-Seeker

The Thrill-Seeker is someone who steals on a whim and in a group, sometimes after being dared to do so or to gain social status. Teenagers and young people frequently fit this description. They target small, low-value items and anything that can be funny or perceived as valuable to their group. 

This kind of shoplifter works on peer-pressure. So it is a good idea to watch out for these shoplifters when you see a big group of young people or inebriated people with lower inhibitions. To prevent theft here, it may be a good idea to invest in security cameras and mirrors to increase visibility and to be a visible deterrent to those considering shoplifting. If you own a liquor store, bottle locks can be a helpful deterrent to Thrill-Seeking shoplifters. There is nothing thrilling about trying to pry off a high-quality heavy duty bottle lock off of unpaid alcohol. 


The Kleptomaniac

The Kleptomaniac is a shoplifter that steals out of compulsion and typically targets low-value items that they can easily conceal and slip away. This shoplifter likely struggles with impulse control and has fallen into an addictive cycle of shoplifting. These shoplifters have no financial motivation and usually are stealing items with little value to themselves!

It is difficult to stop someone with kleptomania from shoplifting in your store, but a good way to start would be decreasing store blindspots and increasing product visibility. By increasing the chances of your staff being able to recognize suspicious behaviour, you will be more likely to prevent and deter the theft from even taking place!


The Absent-Minded 

The Absent-Minded are stealing by accident. This type of mistaken shoplifter includes the elderly and parents preoccupied with their small children. Sometimes things get tossed into the basket without a parent noticing or someone mistakenly leaves the store with the sunglasses they were trying on. Mistakes happen!

To stop these people from leaving your store with unpaid merchandise, it is a good idea to tag or label items so that they alert your staff (and the distracted shopper) as the items leave the store. It may be a good idea to invest in RFID technology so you can know exactly what has been stolen to avoid awkwardly searching through someone’s stuff. 


How do shoplifters behave?

Once again, it is important to remember that profiling shoplifters based on appearance and demographic is a dangerous, and inaccurate, way to determine who is a shoplifter and who is not. Finding a shoplifter typically boils down to recognizing suspicious behaviour and body language, regardless of whether they are stealing out of need, as a vocation, on a compulsion, or for the thrill.


Key indications of a shoplifter include:

  • Looking around constantly and observing the cashier or salesman more than actually shopping.
  • Wearing overly-heavy, cumbersome apparel in the summer or unneeded jackets. 
  • 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”.


Overall, how can a shoplifter be prevented from stealing in the first place?

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

It involves:

  • Training employees on what behaviour to look out for, how to (or not to) approach a shoplifter, and best security tag and label practices.
  • Labels for inexpensive items and security tags with stronger magnetic fields, such as super lock, hyper lock, and multi-polar 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.


Concluding thoughts:

Retailers may not be able to spot a prospective shoplifter, but they can safeguard their business to reduce risk and expense with the correct loss prevention techniques, training, and education.


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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