As retailers calculate the damage of shoplifters’ Christmas thieving sprees, Charlotte Dennis-Jones asks how they can help empower staff to tackle the problem

Most people find themselves counting the cost of Christmas in the new year, but retailers do in more ways than one. During the festive lead-up last year, it was estimated that shoplifters would collectively target stock valued at£430 million.

But helping shopfloor staff deal with the problem is notoriously tough. Perpetuity Research and Consultancy International director Martin Gill says: “Store staff are primarily concerned with selling and if they are not trained in what to look for, it can be very difficult. Shoplifters don’t go around saying: ‘I’m going to steal something, watch me’.”

Furthermore, they can pose major problems to staff safety. Peter Kaye, head of business protection and continuity at John Lewis, is appalled by how often shoplifting leads to violence. He says: “I’m blown away by the customer service skills of our partners. I find even the thought they have to deal with someone who physically or verbally abuses them absolutely abhorrent. Some people think dealing with shoplifting is just background noise to being in retail, but it shouldn’t be.”

One store manager from Nottingham says a major problem is the lack of investment. Once a retailer starts putting money into security to tackle the problem, shoplifting levels will reduce. But the company then finds it harder to justify pouring more cash into preventing it, which, in turn, makes the job of shopfloor staff even harder. “We need continued investment, but often it just doesn’t happen,” he says.

Furthermore, he feels that the police are not always as active as he would like. “If the concealment isn’t captured on CCTV, the police often aren’t interested. There’s always been a feeling that shoplifting isn’t really a crime and it isn’t treated seriously,” he adds.

British Retail Consortium (BRC) figures show that violent incidents on the shopfloor have doubled in the past year to more than 500,000.

One supermarket store manager from Manchester says he and a security guard once demanded to see the contents of a shoplifter’s bag when he was being detained in the store’s holding room. “He kept saying to us: ‘You really don’t want to see what’s in the bag’,” recalls the manager. “We kept replying: ‘Yes we do, just show us.’ He opened the bag and revealed a gun.” They let him go immediately – and who can blame them?

Many more similar instances go unaccounted. Reliance Security account director Matthew Throne estimates that only about half of all shoplifting cases are reported to the police. “Owing to the pressure of staffing levels, retailers often find it quicker and easier to let them go if the goods have been recovered,” he says. To secure an arrest is very time-consuming and requires at least two people from the store to get involved for a length of time. In smaller outlets this has a major impact on sales.

Head of profit protection for Sainsbury’s in London, Robin Tinto, says that only 4 per cent of shoplifting incidents in the capital are ever reported. The lengths that thieves will go to, he adds, are quite incredible. In its Victoria store, a couple of years ago, local drug addicts were selling stolen goods to a nearby newsagents. A lengthy investigation revealed a cellar in the newsagent’s store where the shopkeeper was stashing the goods. “There was Champagne still with the Sainsbury’s tags on, bags of batteries, rows of toiletries – it was like a mini Sainsbury’s,” he recalls.

Gill says there are a multitude of steps retailers can take, from understanding where and when the main problems are happening, to co-ordinating the security team effectively, to having a good relationship with the police. He adds that information sharing is also vital, so that both police and store staff know exactly who the persistent offenders are.

Although guards are responsible for store security and approaching shoplifters, all staff need guidance and support to tackle the problem of shoplifters.

Tinto says store staff should be encouraged to be meticulous about recording any incidents because this will result in greater police support. He believes collaboration with the local police is the key reason shoplifting at Sainsbury’s Islington store has fallen. “We give them assurance that we’ll have extra security and properly recorded information and if we do that we get a faster response from them,” he explains.

“If the police know they’re coming in for a job with a proper statement and proper information, it helps.”

Engagement with all store staff is also vital. Crucially, this includes security guards. The store manager in Nottingham says he puts extra effort into making security staff feel part of the team. “They’re nearly always contracted out and you wouldn’t believe the number of store managers who walk past them as if they don’t exist,” he says.

“If you ask them to attend weekly briefings they feel included and are more likely to take an interest in the store and the staff as a whole,” he adds.

Throne agrees. “Where security officers are engaged properly, that is where real benefits are achieved.” He adds, however, that there needs to be a sense of shared responsibility among all workers. “If you’ve got staff members feeling that dealing with security lies solely with the officers, it can lessen their attentiveness. If everyone is working together, sharing information and being alert it will work much better.”

He also suggests that smaller stores hold regular five-minute briefings on stock loss. “A security provider is not the golden ticket solution. It’s a circular issue where everyone can play their part.”

Many store managers advocate patrolling what is sometimes termed a red route. They encourage staff to walk through areas with high-value products, such as the liquor aisles, to ensure a constant staff presence.

Throne says alert store staff are a huge deterrent. “If staff look uninterested, it can create the impression that the store will be an easy target,” he says.

Many criminals are also put off simply by customer service. If a member of staff sees someone acting suspiciously, approaches that person and asks if they need assistance, the person will realise they are being watched. If they have pocketed goods already, many will leave them in the store and go elsewhere.

Ultimately, says the Manchester store manager, the secret is to make stores harder to shoplift from than anyone else’s. “That way they can’t be bothered with the hassle. The more inconvenient it is, the more likely they’ll try somewhere else,” he says. “You see some stores and there are hardly any guards and not many of the goods have electronic cases – taking measures like these really does put people off.”

Kaye agrees that deterrence is the key, for one thing is certain: the sentence shoplifters would receive if convicted is nowhere near severe enough to put them off doing it in the first place. “For many shoplifters, arrest is an occupational hazard. If the sentence were harsher it wouldn’t be worth the risk,” he says. “In all stores there are prolific local offenders. We try to prevent the problem happening in the first place, so as soon as we see them we ask them to leave.”

All the business protection officers in John Lewis stores are now dressed the same as regular staff, rather than in official police-style uniforms. Kaye says: “Given that some shoplifters are capable of aggression and violence against even policemen, what do you think they would do against a guard in full uniform?”

Being in business dress, he adds, enables them to interact freely with anybody. “Their dress and the fact that they are trained to always talk to people reasonably, combine to help them resolve a situation.”

Most people are aware of the tell-tale signs that could signify a would-be shoplifter; big jackets in the middle of summer, hooded tops, generally suspicious behaviour or tattered and empty shopping bags from a retailer that isn’t local to the area. But all staff also need to be aware that not all thieves fit the mould. A former Marks & Spencer store manager recalls that one of its most prolific thieves turned out to be an 80-year-old woman. She had been busy stealing from nearly every store in the vicinity. “She was notorious,” he says. “I hate to admit it, because she was a thief like any other, if not worse, but it was awful having to call the police. She seemed like such a sweet old lady.”

Tinto says advances in security technology, such as Chip and PIN, means “good old fashioned robberies are back on the high street”. Not that they ever went away, of course, but shoplifting is a problem that is certainly not diminishing. A non-defeatist attitude goes a long way towards keeping it in check.