How to catch/deter retail store thieves?
May 13, 2011 7:09 PM   Subscribe

What measures can I take to prevent retail store thieves from getting away in their unmarked vehicles (i.e., temporarily moved license plates).

My mother owns an African-American beauty supply store with products ranging from wigs and haircare products to accessory clothing and hygiene items. The neighborhood is not by any means unsafe, but theft is a common issue as we don't have the manpower (two workers at any given time) to watch unusual busy times. There are 3-4 video capture feeds set up around the store, but it's difficult to go through the media when theft happens anywhere from five to ten times a week.

A new issue we've had is that customers will rush out with unpurchased products (which is not new) but will get away in their cars that have apparently had their license plates temporarily removed so it's extremely difficult to submit identifiable information to the police. What can we do to prevent or deter this kind of theft? I could be blunt and just watch very carefully, and regardless of whether it is their intention to steal, it creates a very hostile, uneasy environment that damages relationships with honest customers who we want to treat fairly. This is particularly impractical as there are only two people working at any given time due to our financial situation. I can sometimes be in and help out, but that is infrequent and not comfortably consistent enough of a security measure.

This is really open-ended. Any sort of security measure response is welcome.
posted by steampowered to Work & Money (23 answers total)
Not sure how busy the shopping center is or how much traffic comes in your store but you could assign one employee to watch for cars that pull up w/ out a license plate and kindly ask them to leave.
posted by no bueno at 7:14 PM on May 13, 2011

If the stolen items are often the same items, keep those items behind the counter.
posted by proj at 7:32 PM on May 13, 2011 [9 favorites]

Locked entry door, buzz customers in and out?
posted by Meatbomb at 7:34 PM on May 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

A lot of stores who can't afford to pay much to deal with "shrink" do things like call out over the paging system, "Security in zone 3" and stuff like that. Just the appearance of security is good enough to deter some would-be thieves. So maybe a little research in that area would help too.

As for the license plates, I got nothing.
posted by dawkins_7 at 7:36 PM on May 13, 2011

This is a problem straight out of my environmental criminology course.

Don't mess with license plates. Thats useless. They found a hole in your system and they are using it to their advantage with the license plates. Going after the license plate rather than the hole is like going after the symptoms and not the cause. Don't worry about the license plates. Your goal is to lower the amount of unpaid goods leaving your store.

If you REALLY want an answer to this, contact a security agency that deals with architecture/setup.

I *could* give you an answer, but I'd need to ask you 100 questions, and actually see the layout of the store. You can setup the store to prevent people from yanking stuff...but I've found that people are reluctant in doing so, because they have the whole "its my store. its going to be done my way".

If you get past that phase because of a LOT of a reliable security agency that could consult you, or memail me. But be warned, I'll be asking more questions and will need to see a layout (i guess we can do that on youtube, can't we?) of the place.

Either way, good luck.
posted by hal_c_on at 7:47 PM on May 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

I once saw someone walk into Subway, pinch a bag of crisps, and coolly walk out of the door. Last time I went they had moved the crisps rack towards the back of the shop - an anti-theft measure, I presume.
posted by fix at 8:06 PM on May 13, 2011

Move the till near to the door and arrange barriers so everyone has to walk right by it to leave the shop. That might mean the till's more vulnerable though, so you'd have to keep the float to a minimum. A TV with a live feed of the shop's interior placed above the till will show the thieves they're on camera and will act as more of a deterrent than cameras alone. Neither of those things appears unduly hostile to the innocent but it will mean the thieves think about picking on an easier target for shoplifting.
posted by joannemullen at 9:52 PM on May 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

2 quick, cheap ideas: 1) a prominent sticker on the door that says "Premises under video surveillance" 2) video camera (fake? real? who can be sure?) pointed at the door.

It ought to deter all but the truly determined.
posted by contessa at 9:53 PM on May 13, 2011

I've seen stores put up print-outs of stills from video cameras of people stealing things with notes making it clear that they're stealing. So basically a printout of someone carrying out a box with a note that says "Call Crimestoppers if you know these thieves." etc. Even if this doesn't generate tips that lead to conviction, it shames the thieves and if they're fairly local people will be reluctant to end up with their picture going up on the wall.

I've seen the pictures by the register or on the front window facing out to the street.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 10:04 PM on May 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all of the feedback so far.

A couple of clarifying points:

1) Wigs are the most commonly stolen merchandise. They are not easily concealable, but definitely the most valuable with prices ranging from $20-80. As the store's biggest source of revenue, they are also the most stocked and unfortunately there is just too much to put behind the counter.

2) The wigs are located on the opposite side of the entrance as the register. This just occurred to me to be a big problem. Whoever is at the register would have to go around some small obstacles and thus be at a disadvantage of pursuing a thief.

3) We do have security cameras set up. In fact, the feeds are displayed on a hanging 30" TV so that anyone who enters the store can easily see that they are being monitored.

As for the suggestions... keep 'em coming! Someone mentioned having a paging system, but our store just is not large enough to require that. Customers would see our (limited) manpower and would not be any more intimidated to not steal. Paging a door to open could be a possibility, but we want to be fair to the majority of customers who actually do pay. There's also the occasional risk of robbery with a weapon. In the year that my mom has owned the store (and the year or two prior that an aunt worked at that location), it has been robbed at gunpoint on two occasions. While we would hate to lose money, we also do not want to incite further violence from the extreme offenders who are willing to take a lot of risks by acting so foolishly.
posted by steampowered at 10:09 PM on May 13, 2011

Can you video the cars arriving, so that you can see the absence of plates and identify the persons inside/as they get out? Set up a special monitor for this/these cameras, so it can be readily seen by staff (eg at the till)? That way they can keep an eye on the monitor as they go about their business ... a bit hit and miss though.

Tag the merchandise that walks, so it triggers an alarm near the door. More expensive though.
posted by GeeEmm at 10:28 PM on May 13, 2011

Further clarification:

Expensive items like wigs have security tags, but that doesn't seem to be enough.

Installing video cameras would likely be a really wise option, but unfortunately too big of a cost for our business. It would be especially costly as our store is in a very awkward physical position. It is a standalone building in the middle of a small plaza. We have limited parking immediately in front of the store, but also two lots on either side of the building as well. Each lot probably has a 40-car capacity.
posted by steampowered at 10:38 PM on May 13, 2011

How are they getting the security tags through the sensors?

I'd put the wigs up high so that they have to ask for help to try them on, etc., as well as a surveillance sign at eye level below the wigs.

It's going to be a game of inches. I think it's good to focus on the most expensive/lossiest items and work from there. If you can stanch the wig theft, you can move on to product by putting the most-commonly stolen items in a locked cabinet. Even Walgreens here does this: just a plexiglas box that has to be opened by an employee. Every time you notice something flying out the door, put the rest in the box.

Beyond that, I think a camera at the door the points right in their face as they are leaving might be helpful, even if it's a fake camera. I'd give up on catching them after they're out the door and driving away, at least for now.
posted by rhizome at 10:45 PM on May 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

You keep mentioning cost as being too much for certain items like video or more employees, but it sounds like the shrinkage is costing more than it would to hire a security guard or buy better video surveillance. You may find that the cost of a security guard is cheaper than that of having to eat the losses. Maybe you could only have that guard at certain times of the day that are more heavily trafficed?
posted by JohnnyGunn at 11:11 PM on May 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Could you attach the wigs to the shop somehow? Maybe have a wire or thin metal cable clipped to them in a way that doesn't stop them being tried on and can be easily removed by staff, but not by customers without it being obviously suspicious.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 12:31 AM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm guessing the wigs take up a considerable amount of space; build a wall of locking glass cabinets for the stock, leaving only one of each style on a display head, along a long counter in front of those cabinets. Basically, reduce the amount of merchandise easily grabable, while still having the merchandise visible and easily available for sales. (Yeah, cabinetry will cost money, but this is a case where one way or the other, you'll have to spend money to keep making --- or at least stop losing! --- more money.)

Also, make sure store displays don't block the salespeople's sightlines, so a possible theft is clearly visible; many stores have wide aisles for just this reason: sure, I understand that you want to use your floorspace to fit in more shelves of merchandise, but it's better to keep those sightlines open.

Theft is a crime of opportunity; you need to reduce that opportunity, by making it both more time-consuming and less hidden/more visible.
posted by easily confused at 2:57 AM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

This seems like the sort of case where those exploding ink security tags would be perfect - hard to disguise that you stole a wig when it has a big neon splotch on it. Of course that's assuming the dye would stick to a wig.
posted by brilliantine at 6:34 AM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

2nding the wire attachments to the wigs, like dept stores do with leather jackets.
posted by Neekee at 8:00 AM on May 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Is there a way you could keep most of the wig inventory out of customer reach, back in a storeroom or something? Keep one wig of each kind for display and then if an actual, paying customer wants one, the only way they could take it out of the store is once they've paid for it.

(or, basically what easily confused said)
posted by contessa at 9:39 AM on May 14, 2011

Nthing the 'put the sample wig out on wire' and save the rest of the merchandise in a key-locked cage. I'm picturing some of the same setups as you might see in a pawn shop - if they're in the same neighborhood, pull some recon work.
posted by chrisinseoul at 7:32 AM on May 15, 2011

Does your store currently have its entry directly on a sidewalk, making it nice & easy to get to and from a waiting car? How about building a sort of 'airlock', a second set of doors just inside the current doors? You can see this setup at lots of stores and shopping malls; it slow thieves by making them waste extra seconds on opening both doors (especially fun with thier hands full, juggling your merchandise), plus it would also help your AC/heating retention. I know, it'd waste a good 6x8 ft. of your sales floor, but it's one more way to slow down and inconvienence the grag-and-go type of thief you seem to have.
posted by easily confused at 2:12 PM on May 15, 2011

That's a non-starter. If you aren't Target and building mantraps into your buildings (which are typically more for saving money on HVAC), that is an extremely expensive form of overkill. It would be much, much cheaper to point high-resolution cameras where the cars are so they can get license plate numbers. Video documentation of the entire path of a customer throughout the store and out to the car is probably something like (number of aisles) + (number of plain-sight vectors to parking lots) worth of cameras.

Just a couple on the wig zone for now should be OK, and less than $500 to do that (assuming someone's already got a laptop).
posted by rhizome at 10:51 AM on May 16, 2011

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