Tri-City businesses fight shoplifting amid slumping economy

Shoplifting is an ugly reality for retail businesses nationwide that becomes a glaring problem during the holidays.

And anecdotal evidence suggests when the economy slumps, retail theft goes up, said Mike Blatman, crime prevention specialist at the Kennewick Police Department.

Thefts increase during holidays in direct proportion to the increase in the number of shoppers, said Lee Boman, manager of JCPenney store at the Columbia Center mall. “The ratio of one thief of every 1,000 customers remains the same.”  

On average, about 250 shoplifting incidents are reported annually at JCPenney at the mall, he said.

Statistically, big-box stores tend to bear the brunt of retail theft, said Wal-Mart spokesman Dan Fogleman, who’s based in Bentonville, Ark. He declined to give information about shoplifting incidents at Tri-City Wal-Mart stores, saying it’s against company policy.

But whether it’s a giant retailer like Wal-Mart or a mom-and-pop business, retail theft increases the cost of doing business, results in higher prices and hurts the economy, and in some cases puts small stores out of business, experts say.

Smaller retail firms on average spend about $230,000 a year and large national retailers spend more than $1 million a year on labor costs to fight organized retail theft, according to a recent estimate by the National Retail Federation.

Many businesses hire additional security staff during the holiday season, which runs from Thanksgiving through Christmas, while others continue to rely on closed-circuit TV and electronic security tags to keep shoplifters at bay.

Surveillance cameras are useful, but the most effective deterrent to shoplifting is excellent customer service, Boman said. By greeting all customers with a smile and asking if they need anything, store employees help minimize random theft. It’s also an effective way to boost sales, Boman said.

And it’s also much more cost effective, Blatman said.

In Washington, security staff at retail stores need to have a reasonable suspicion to detain a customer accused of shoplifting. They should be able to show the customer intended to steal, Blatman said.

Security staff are generally trained to do that and don’t want to appear to be harassing customers, he said.

Stores want their employees to treat customers with respect, Boman said.

In Kennewick, shoplifting cases average about 40 a month, with an average loss of about $90 per incident. Statistically, one out of every 50 shoppers is a shoplifter and only one of every 12 shoplifters is apprehended in Washington, Blatman said.

Last year, shoplifting cost U.S. retailers about $11.8 billion, according to a recent University of Florida study by Richard C. Hollinger and Amanda Adams. It’s about 34 percent of total inventory loss, or shrinkage, which is also caused by employee theft and vendor fraud.

In the Tri-Cities, retail theft mostly involves amateurs trying to “budget stretch or trying to get something for nothing,” Blatman said. Most don’t consider shoplifting a crime, because they don’t think there’s a victim, he said.  

Clothing, cosmetics and small, easy-to-conceal items often are favorite targets, said Charles Grigg, president of Grigg’s Department Store in Pasco.

There aren’t any major gangs of shoplifters in the Tri-Cities, said Jaime Whitmore, general manager of Best Buy in Kennewick. Electronic surveillance and customer service help thwart theft at his store, he said, and the average shoplifter gets intimidated when a store employee offers help.

Best Buy employees politely tell customers who have been seen on camera hiding merchandise in their pockets or bags that they need to pay for it before they leave the store.

Most often they have a blank look on their faces and tend to leave immediately, Whitmore said. “Deterrence works very well.”

How do store employees distinguish a genuine mistake when a customer accidentally walks out with unpaid merchandise?

Almost everyone stopped by store security says that they forgot to pay, Blatman said. Store employees look at their surveillance tapes to get a sense of the situation, he said.

If customers tamper with packaging of a DVD or computer software or conceal merchandise knowingly, the security staff will know, Grigg said.

He’s often had customers return to the store to pay for items, like small plumbing fittings, they accidentally put into a pocket, Grigg said.

And many Best Buy customers have come back to return a DVD that a child accidentally put into the shopping cart, Whitmore said.

But Blatman warns consumers about getting involved unknowingly in what’s called “price or ticket switching.” If they change tags or change boxes, it can mean problems, he said.

Tara Bowlin of Richland, who has worked in retail for about 13 years, said she was once wrongly accused of shoplifting at Kmart in Kennewick.

Bowlin said she and her sister hid some garments in the coat section and went out to find their mother who was shopping at a nearby store.

Bowlin, who was about 14, was stopped in the parking lot on suspicion of theft.

Store officials apologized profusely for the mistake once they understood what had happened, she said.

Now, Bowlin says, she would seek help from the customer service desk if she had a question or concern.

It never hurts to ask, Grigg said.

Customers can open packages if they want to see what’s inside a box. But if somebody slits open a shrink wrap or a package and tries to conceal the unpaid item in a pocket, store employees will suspect it’s thievery.