While retailers often disagree on all kinds of business strategies and practices, there's a sad fact that seems to unite everyone: Shoplifting is a problem, and it's tough to fight.
According to the National Retail Federation's third annual Organized Retail Crime survey, 78 percent of retailers said their company has been a victim of organized crime within the past year, and the majority of those respondents noticed an increase in shoplifting since 2005. Each year, U.S. retailers suffer more than $10 billion in losses attributed to shoplifting, a threat to both profitability and safety.
"Every retailer knows that this is a part of what you have to deal with," says Allison Janda, director of retail operations for Boulder, Colo.-based integrative pharmacy Pharmaca. "But there are steps you can take to minimize the problem as much as possible."
Design against crime
Caroline Cardone, a Saratoga Springs, N.Y.-based interiors architect and member of the Loss Prevention Research Council, a multidisciplinary team of researchers at the University of Florida, says store layout significantly impacts a thief's motivation to steal. "The best thing you can do when it comes to store layout and design is improve visibility. That's the biggest thing when it comes to shoplifting," Cardone says. "It's quite simple: Shop?lifters don't want to get caught. In order to get caught, they need to be seen. And in stores where they feel like they're not likely to be seen, they'll steal."
Keep shelf heights below 60 inches, Cardone suggests, since that's the average person's line of sight when standing. If your shelves are taller, they create a blind spot where a thief can hide something without you noticing. "These blind spots are not only invisible to employees, but they're often left off of cameras as well," she says.
Aisle layout is another deterrent. "By setting up the aisles so they're parallel to the checkout, you'll create a long line of sight for employees who are stationed at the cash area," Cardone says. "This way they can see all the activity that's happening in the aisle. If your aisles are perpendicular to the checkout, it'll be much harder for your employees to see what's going on."
Notice how some stores set up elaborate displays near the entrance and exit? They're not there solely to inspire last-minute purchases, Cardone explains. "A crowded area near the doors complicates the sight of the exit for the shoplifter, and it becomes one more thing that needs to be taken into consideration when deciding whether or not to steal there." However, she says, crowded, messy aisles are enticing for thieves, and make it easier for them to do their work fast.
"If your store is messy, it's easier for someone to take something and it's harder for someone at the store to notice," Pharmaca's Janda points out. "Organized tables, merchandising and shelf conditions are important for shopability, first of all, and it also makes it more challenging for shoplifters."
Keep close watch
While thinking about how to deter thieves is an essential part of a business plan, most retailers don't want to convey that risk to their customers. The good news is that experts agree the best ways to monitor shoppers and watch out for suspicious behavior also contribute to great customer service.
"It's been my experience that the better the customer service is at a store, the less shoplifting there is," Janda says. "If you have a team of employees who are engaged with customers and talking to people as they come into the store, shoplifters [will] realize they're on the radar and think, ?Wow, I can't do anything in here.'"
Cardone agrees: "Historically, security has been seen as the antithesis of customer service. But if you position employees strategically, like next to products that are vulnerable, that person has the opportunity to passively monitor the product and also answer customer questions."
A prime spot for positioning an employee is a supplements or makeup aisle, where pricey, small-sized bottles can be very easy to steal. Since many of your customers might also have questions about these products, they'll view it as extra help—and only the thieves will notice the monitoring.
"This is a win-win situation," Janda says. "It empowers your team members to feel great about what they're doing. If you teach employees to focus on watching people and making sure they don't steal, it gives a bad vibe. My approach has been to always focus on the positive from the customer standpoint first, and the benefits you get help make happy customers and lead to less loss."
Kvetch with the competition
If you've had a problem at your store, it's smart to talk to other retailers in your area who might be experiencing similar problems. "It's been my experience that all the competitive edge disappears when retailers get together to talk about this problem," Cardone says. "Everyone wants to know what's happening in the area and how other retailers are solving the issues."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 10/p. 18, 20