In the United States, shoplifting is defined as the practice of unlawfully taking merchandise from a store. Shoplifters often conceal merchandise in a purse, pocket, or bag. Most shoplifters are amateurs but there is a growing number of people who make their living by stealing from retail stores. Amateur shoplifters do not make a living out of shoplifting and the majority are detected by security officers. In contrast, professional shoplifters often work in teams or deploy elaborate distraction methods. Some professionals rely on force and fear when they commit grab-and-run thefts. This kind of shoplifter tends to steal higher priced items.
Shoplifters come in all ages and genders and vary in ethnic background, education and economic status. The driving power behind shoplifting can be excitement, desire, need or peer pressure. Some shoplifters are drug addicts, alcoholics or live on the streets. Children and older people sometimes steal without realizing they are committing a crime. Psychologists believe that many shoplifters try to justify their actions by thinking that the large retailer can afford the loss.
According to the results of an annual National Retail Security Survey that were reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, shoplifting costs retailers in the United States an estimated $10 billion annually and 30 percent of these losses are caused by organized retail crime. Among the most commonly stolen items are tobacco products, sports shoes, brand-name clothing, small appliances, jewelry, leather goods and food items. Shoplifting losses account for about one-third of the total inventory shrinkage. It is estimated that shoplifting occurs 330 to 440 million times per year in the United States, which means about a million shoplifting incidents take place every day.
The goods stolen by shoplifters is only part of the retailer's costs. Retailers must also increase spending on security measures and absorb legal costs associated with prosecuting the thieves. Shoplifting can also lead to the community in which it takes place being left without a retail service because operators usually avoid locating their stores in such regions. Stores where theft occurs often relocate and this in turn has an impact on deprived areas. Shoplifting affects consumers by causing an increase in the prices of goods if the retailer decides to raise prices as a result of such incidents.
In some cases, the inability to halt the occurrence of shoplifting has led to the collapse of whole retail store chains. Many retailers resort to plain-clothes floor detectives who observe customers as they shop, although this measure is not effective enough to prevent shoplifting completely. Many stores use video surveillance cameras and electronic devices that cause alarms to go off if goods are not registered by the cashier. Expensive and high-theft items such as leather goods, perfume, cosmetics, tools, liquor, or cigarettes are often held in locked enclosures. Retailers can also use software solutions to detect point-of-sale errors and fraud. Another way that small retailers can help prevent shoplifting is to buy merchandise from established sources as professional shoplifters tend to steal from major retail chains and then resell the goods to small, local stores.
Retailers are advised to train their employees to recognize and report suspicious behavior. Security gates in doorways, security cameras in obvious locations and uniformed security guards patrolling the store are considered instrumental in deterring shoplifters. The act of physically detaining and arresting shoplifters is associated with a high level of risk. In addition, retailers may be sued if their guards resort to violence when trying to stop an aggressive shoplifter. Many customers react with indignation when they feel they are being watched or if they are questioned about a suspicious transaction.
Shoplifters often use large open bags which objects are casually dropped into it. The baby buggy is also a common shoplifter tool as it is ideal for hiding merchandise which can be covered by blankets and toys. Some thieves have even built false bottoms into baby buggies. Skilled shoplifters have adopted many techniques to distract sales clerks. Some enter the store in groups and then separate, making it very difficult for employees to observe all of them. Another method of distraction includes a single shopper sending the only employee in the store into the back room to find something, taking the opportunity to steal something and leave before the employee returns.