jeans with security tags on them for shoplifting prevention for a business

Prevent Shoplifting in Your Business

Updated January 1, 1 . AmFam Team

Shoplifting is a crime of opportunity and the key to preventing losses is to eliminate the opportunity. Read some of our highlights to help prevent losses.

Shoplifting, generally regarded as a crime of opportunity, is a problem that affects all retailers. Since it is a crime of opportunity, the solution to preventing shoplifting would seem to be to eliminate the opportunity. However, shoplifting is, by its very nature, one of the most frustrating crimes to control - by bringing the public together with goods that are for sale, a business creates the opportunity for shoplifting. Shoplifters enter the store, as do honest customers, visit the same displays, and handle the merchandise in much the same way - that is, up to the point where they conceal the goods and leave without paying.

There are many measures that a business can utilize to minimize shoplifting losses. First, management must accept the fact that shoplifting can, and probably does, occur. The business must then make the task of shoplifters as difficult as possible. By surveying the premises from the standpoint of the shoplifter, the various points of vulnerability can be recognized and methods implemented to eliminate them.

This report provides information on how a retail business can survey its premises to determine its vulnerability to shoplifting, what measures can be used to reduce shoplifting losses, and the need for policies regarding the detainment and prosecution of shoplifters.

Know Your Store: Ask Yourself These Questions

Before implementing a shoplifting prevention program, the following basic questions should be asked about the business and its operation:

  • Is there a system of inventory controls to measure shoplifting losses?
  • Is the business a likely target for shoplifters?
  • Is the merchandise small or easily concealed, or of high-value?
  • Is the merchandise displayed in an orderly fashion to permit store personnel to quickly locate items?
  • Do certain areas of the store tend to become very congested and overcrowded, thus providing an opportunity for shoplifters?
  • Are shelving and display cases kept at a fairly low level so as to provide an unobstructed view for store personnel?
  • Is there an electronic article surveillance (EAS) system?
  • Can customers exit the store without walking past a cashier or security personnel?
  • Are customers permitted to carry shopping bags or other parcels in the store?
  • Do sales personnel appear alert and aware of who is in the store?
  • Are employees trained in the techniques used by shoplifters?
  • Are there established policies and procedures with respect to detaining, arresting, and prosecuting shoplifters?
  • Are employees, particularly security personnel, trained in the policies and procedures for detaining and/or arresting suspected shoplifters.

Prevention Methods

Shoplifting occurs because it has been made easy and convenient for the shoplifter. While it is impossible to eliminate shoplifting losses completely, it is the responsibility of the business to deter the would-be shoplifter as much as possible through the proper use of people and equipment. A shoplifting prevention program generally consists of procedural controls, EAS systems, and security personnel. In addition, the program should have a policy regarding the detention, arrest, and prosecution of suspected shoplifters.

Procedural Controls

Procedural controls are intended to eliminate the opportunity for shoplifting and consist of the following elements:

  • The physical layout of the store should be such that it discourages shoplifting. Merchandise should not be located near doors. Aisles should not be cluttered. Cash registers should be placed so that customers must pass by them to exit the store. The number of entrances/exits should be limited to that required by life safety and building codes. Customers should not be allowed to use fire exits to exit the store, except in an emergency.
  • All customers should be greeted as they enter the store. A cheerful "May I help you?" from a clerk is appreciated by the bona fide customer, but serves a notice to would-be shoplifters that they are being observed.
  • Sections of the store should not be left unattended during business hours. Employees should arrange to have their stations covered whenever they need to be away.
  • Telephones should be located so that sales clerks can observe their areas while using the phone. Sales clerks should never turn their backs on customers, since this is an open invitation for shoplifting. Remind employees that there are no stereotypical shoplifters, and that all customers are potential shoplifters.
  • All small, high-priced merchandise should be kept out-of-reach of customers, preferably in a locked display case. Sales clerks should be instructed to show only one piece at a time - it is much easier to keep track of one item than a group of items. All expensive or desirable merchandise should be inventoried on a frequent basis to detect the existence of a problem, so that immediate prevention measures can be undertaken.
  • Ticket-switching can be combated by making it difficult to substitute one price mark for another. One approach is to use tickets that tear apart when there is an attempt to remove them. On soft goods, price tags should be attached with plastic string or staples. On goods particularly susceptible to theft, hidden price tags or coded prices may be attached. Since these methods are not foolproof, sales clerks and cashiers should be familiar with the prices of goods and with the ticket system used by their store.
  • The theft of garments in fitting rooms should be deterred by developing a system to account for the number of garments a customer takes into the fitting room. Customers should be prevented from taking shopping bags into fitting rooms - ideally, customers should be required to check shopping bags upon entering the store.
  • Store policy should require that each customer be provided with a receipt for every purchase. Purchased items should be placed in a bag, and the bag sealed with the receipt attached so that it is clearly visible.
  • Convex and two-way mirrors (which reflect the customer's image but can be seen through from behind) placed at strategic points, as well as closed-circuit television monitored from a central location, are examples of surveillance equipment available. These enable store personnel to keep all areas in view. (For legal reasons, two-way mirrors should never be used in fitting rooms.)

Electronic Article Surveillance (EAS) Systems

EAS systems were developed more than 20 years ago to prevent the theft of soft goods merchandise from the sales floors of department stores. EAS systems in recent years have undergone several technological advancements to meet changing security needs. Studies have shown EAS systems to be effective in reducing shoplifting losses by as much as 75 percent.

EAS systems are relatively simple devices. They consist of two components: tags that are placed on the items to be protected and which are virtually impossible to remove without a special device; and sensors that consist usually of a transmitter and receiver and which are placed at exit locations in the store. The sensors usually are pedestals, placed on either side of a doorway or a passageway that customers must pass through to exit the store. The transmitter establishes an electronic field at the exit. The tags, which are designed to unbalance or change the field, are detected by the receiver when a tagged item is passed through the field. This detection can then be used to initiate an alarm.

In a typical application, the tags are placed on all highly desirable merchandise in the store. If a customer attempts to exit the store without paying for tagged merchandise, the sensor at the exit will detect the tag, initiating an alarm. In the case of one system, the tag itself will start to beep, thus identifying the person with the tagged item. When a legitimate customer pays for the merchandise, sales personnel remove or deactivate the tag and the customer can then exit the store without activating an alarm. Thus, it is important to assure that the clerk removes/deactivates the tag.

Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (UL) has established a listing program for EAS systems. Products that have been tested and listed by UL can be found under the category, “Antitheft Alarms and Devices (ATJT),” in the Security Equipment Directory. The standard used for investigating the product is the Standard for Safety UL 1037, Antitheft Alarms and Devices.

For a more detailed discussion of EAS systems, see Crime Prevention Report CP-53-10, Electronic Article Surveillance Systems.

Using Security Personnel to Prevent Shoplifting

If shoplifting persists, the use of security guards should be considered. Guards should be dressed in uniform to signify their presence and act as a deterrent. For additional information, see Crime Prevention Report CP-71-10, Guidelines for the Selection, Training, and Licensing of Private Security Officers.

Detention, Arrest, and Prosecution

It is generally agreed that the most important element of any shoplifting prevention program is the arrest and prosecution of shoplifters who will not otherwise be deterred. Prosecution not only serves to impress upon the individual arrested that shoplifting will not be tolerated by the store, but it establishes an attitude that becomes known in the community.

Because of ignorance of the law and fear of lawsuits, however, many retail businesses are reluctant to detain and/or arrest shoplifters. What can begin as a criminal apprehension of a suspected thief can be converted into grounds for a civil suit against the business owner for not following proper procedures (these procedures should be developed with the assistance of the local police and be reviewed by legal counsel).

Detaining someone, even momentarily, without hard evidence of theft can lead to a lawsuit for false arrest. Staff should be trained in the procedures to follow in detaining and/or arresting shoplifters. The training should also cover the importance of documenting what has occurred.

All States have laws, called "merchant's privilege laws," that are intended to protect stores from civil lawsuits and criminal charges arising from the detention and questioning of suspected shoplifters. These laws will provide protection against suits for false arrest, provided the suspect has been detained in a reasonable manner, for a reasonable period of time, and that there is reasonable assurance that the suspect has taken merchandise with no intention of paying for it.

A person is not necessarily guilty of shoplifting just because he or she did not pay for an item. It is not a crime to forget to pay for something. For a person to be guilty of shoplifting, it is necessary to prove that there was intent to steal. This requires that the shoplifter be seen taking the merchandise, be seen concealing it without having paid for it, be watched continuously to be sure that the merchandise has not been "ditched"(if there is any break at all in the surveillance of the suspected shoplifter, the business will be taking a poorly calculated risk in attempting to make an arrest), and be apprehended past the last possible point where payment could be made.

A retailer must develop clear and legally sound procedures for detaining suspected shoplifters and safeguarding evidence. All sales personnel should be trained in the procedures. Local police departments can usually offer advice on the proper procedures to follow.

Almost all States also have laws, called "civil recovery" or "civil demand" statutes, that allow retailers to forgo the hassles of the legal system and simply ask shoplifters to make restitution, including some costs. While some retailers have made such requests while the suspected shoplifter is still in the custody of security personnel, loss prevention experts generally recommend that civil recovery be handled after the suspect has been released. At such time, a letter from the victimized business, on its own or via an attorney or third party company, can be sent to the shoplifter demanding statutorily set compensation, including the value of the item(s) stolen and damages.

Head to our loss control and risk management page to learn more ways to protect your business.


1. National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice. Security and the Small Business Retailer. Washington, DC: Law Enforcement Assistance Administration.

2. Roberts, J.R. “The Policy was Perfect.” Security Management. Sept. 2002.

COPYRIGHT ©2007, ISO Services, Inc.

The information contained in this publication was obtained from sources believed to be reliable. ISO Services, Inc., its companies and employees make no guarantee of results and assume no liability in connection with either the information herein contained or the safety suggestions herein made. Moreover, it cannot be assumed that every acceptable safety procedure is contained herein or that abnormal or unusual circumstances may not warrant or require further or additional procedure.

Tools & Resources

Explore our tools and smart tips.