Shoplifting is much more common than you would think.

You may believe few people are bold enough to walk into a well-lit, employee-monitored store, but that is not the case.

In fact, shoplifting has become more common than ever.

Check out our video on The Science of Shoplifting to learn the warning signs for this rising crime:

How much do you think the retail industry loses every year due to shoplifting?

Shoplifting costs the retail industry $30 billion every year and that number is growing. Eighty-three percent of merchants reported an increase in shoplifting in 2016.

How many people admit to shoplifting at least once in their lifetime?

Thirty-three percent of people surveyed admit to having shoplifted at least once.

That is a lot of people. So, this is a serious issue. I want to talk with you about how you can prevent it and what to watch out for, whether you work in retail or you are simply a concerned citizen.

In my colleague Danielle’s previous life, she worked at a retail women’s clothing store in Portland. She and her team picked up on a few specific red flags. They had shoplifting occur almost every other day at their store. It was insane. So, they were trained to look out for very specific cues.

#1 Look for atypical customers

The first red flag is someone entering the store who is not your typical customer. At Danielle’s store, the typical customer was a middle-aged, professional female looking to level-up her career wardrobe. If a group of four to five teenagers came in, this was not her typical customer and that’s a red flag.

#2 Look for the big bags

The next red flag is anyone carrying a big bag, whether it’s a backpack or a large purse or a reusable grocery bag. Typically, shoplifters want to shovel in as much merchandise as they can. This really surprised me, because I always thought a pick-pocket would take one small item and slip it into their bag. But in reality, there is no finesse at all. Most shoplifters literally shove in as much as they can. Often, it is a very fast process. Shoplifters rarely browse. They get in and out very quickly.

#3 Look for groups

The next red flag is groups. Just like we noted in a previous post on pickpocketing, shoplifters will travel with a lifter and distractor, and sometimes will have multiple distractors. So, if two people come in, one person will distract the manager or associate by asking them to find specific sizes of an item, directions, or other time-consuming questions, while the lifter is in action doing the shoplifting. When the lifter is done, they both run.

Other tell-tale signs of shoplifters include:  

  • Wearing large coats or baggy clothes
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Watching the staff, not the merchandise
  • Seeking shelter in dressing rooms to stash smuggled merchandise
  • Lurking in corners
  • Taking advantage of stores during peak hours
  • Walking with short or unnatural steps (a tip-off that customers may be hiding merchandise between their legs)
  • Carrying an arsenal of professional tools, bulky packages, pocket books, baby carriages, knitting bags, etc.
  • Lingering in one area, especially if it is near a store’s exit

After shoplifting, many people will return the items to the same store from which they stole them. If you work in retail, something to look out for is someone coming in to return lots of the small sizes, because clothes typically are organized with the small sizes in front/on top.

This topic is really interesting because its prevalence is a little bit surprising. This can help you be on the lookout as someone who works in retail or as a concerned citizen.

Bonus: We put together a science of shoplifting YouTube playlist is you’re curious to learn more!

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Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and human behavioral investigator in our lab.

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