Snowy sidewalk displaying a row of storefronts decorated for the holidays.
The holidays pose a heightened threat of theft for retailers, as crowded stores can create more opportunities for thieves to strike. — Getty Images/Julius Reque

Three ways to thwart retail theft, according to experts:

  • Engaging shoppers is not only good customer service, but you might also unwittingly foil a would-be thief by giving a hearty welcome, asking a quick question like, ‘What are you looking for today?’ and keeping eye-to-eye contact.
  • Increase your staff to handle the crowds but be careful about who you welcome aboard, because temporary employees may not be as loyal as your existing staff.
  • Tap the latest technological tools to keep thieves at bay, like alarm tags and video analytics.

’Tis the season for holiday shopping. And it’s the most wonderful time of the year for retailers, who, according to the National Retail Federation, have averaged 19% of their annual sales during the holidays over the last five years, with some generating much more than that. Retail sales during last year’s November to December holiday season grew to $886.7 billion, an increase of 14% over 2020, according to the NRF.

But for all the merriment of cash registers ringing, the season of giving is also the season of taking, as there are grinches looking to steal Christmas.

The holidays pose a heightened threat for retailers as crowded stores can create more opportunities for thieves who take advantage of busy employees who may be overwhelmed and distracted.

Retail shrink, when taken as a percentage of total retail sales in 2021, accounted for $94.5 billion in losses, according to the NRF’s 2022 National Retail Security Survey.

Keeping theft to a minimum is a major priority for small businesses: Indeed, 56% of small businesses in the retail sector said they had been victims of shoplifting in the past year, according to a new survey by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

And 50% of small retailers say the issue has gotten worse over the past year, while 46% have increased prices over the last year because of shoplifting, the survey found.

Shoring up security, be it adding a security guard or more staff on the floor, is imperative during the holidays, particularly now when retailers need a stellar season to pad their coffers in case recession rears its ugly head next year.

Here are five strategies for the best ways to mind the store to minimize retail theft.

Engage customers to both provide service and deter potential thieves

Retailers get a twofer when they heap attention on holiday shoppers. Not only do merchants get a gold star for customer service when they greet shoppers with a smile and are just fussy enough to inquire about their needs to make them feel appreciated (without being intrusive—do not follow them around the store), but they also get a bit of protection, as engagement may disarm potential thieves because they feel like your eyes are on them and you might remember them. “Customer engagement is a great deterrent,” Michael Brown, Partner in the Consumer Products and Retail Practice of Kearney, a global strategy and management consultancy, told CO—.

[Learn more about U.S. Chamber of Commerce efforts to combat organized retail theft here.]

Keeping theft to a minimum is a major priority for small businesses: Indeed, 56% of small businesses in the retail sector said they had been victims of shoplifting in the past year, according to a new survey by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Staff up — but carefully

Additional staff will be required to handle the holiday crowds. “Hiring this season could be tricky given the continued labor shortage, but you need proper staffing,” Brown said.

However, proceed with caution, as theft isn’t only the doing of outsiders: Inside jobs are also an issue and temporary hires with no vested interest or company loyalty could be prime suspects. To help protect yourself, Brown recommends pairing experienced employees with seasonal hires for oversight. Also, be mindful of how much access they have to sensitive company information and expensive merchandise.

“Run background checks on seasonal help. Theft from seasonal workers can be a big problem,” Timothy Dimoff, President of SACS Consulting, a high-risk and HR security firm.

If the retail store carries expensive items, it is also a good idea to have on-site, professionally trained security, he said. Consider hiring an off-duty police officer or a security company. “The more eyes, the better,” he said.

Teach your workers to recognize suspicious conduct, such as shoplifting methods (a thief may be working with an accomplice who tries to cause a distraction) and discuss what to do if they have a hunch that someone is up to no good. Walk employees through your processes and keep written records of company policies and practices for quick access, Dimoff said. Make it clear to your team that maintaining store security is a high priority for the company.

Remember—location, location, location: Your store’s layout should be designed to allow for maximum visibility

The layout of a retail space is an important consideration when deterring thefts. “An organized store not only increases sales but allows employees to easily tell if items are missing. An unorganized store makes it easier for a thief to leave with a product without anyone noticing,” said Joshua Rogala, a Partner at the law firm of Rees Dyck Rogala, who has worked on cases involving retail theft. He offered three pieces of advice:

  • Your store’s layout should be designed to allow for maximum visibility, which may mean reducing or eliminating tall displays that obstruct employees’ views.
  • Use security mirrors to help monitor blind spots. Have bright lighting and eliminate dark corners where thieves could steal unnoticed.
  • Keep in mind that a cash register located at the back of the store makes it more difficult for employees to monitor people leaving the store. Cash registers located near the exit of the store allow employees to monitor people leaving and see whether they are in possession of merchandise.

[Read: 5 Things Retailers Are Worried About for the Holiday Season – And What They’re Doing to Prepare]

Tap loss prevention technology

There are many tools to help protect your business, like alarm tags, door sensors, and video analytics. “While security cameras have long been used to monitor activities in retail stores, more sophisticated systems are now available that can track behavior patterns and send alerts if suspicious activity is detected,” said Brown. In addition, many stores now use electronic article surveillance systems to prevent shoplifting. These systems use sensors to detect when the merchandise has been removed from the sales floor without being properly deactivated and can trigger an alarm or alert store staff.

Include simple strategies, too, like posting prosecution warning signs

High tech is magical. However, “don’t discount the effectiveness of things like posting signs that warn of the consequences of theft,” said Dimoff. They can help deter would-be thieves by reminding them that they could face prosecution if caught stealing, he said. Install one-way glass in offices that are close to the sales floor so staff can see activities inside of the store without customers knowing they are being watched.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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