Attention, shoplifters: merchants are on alert

Posted: December 1, 2012

The Winchester Star

Lisa Lewis, owner of Once Upon a Find, a gift and consignment shop on the Loudoun Street Mall, has posted a sign announcing that the business uses 24-hour video surveillance. (Photo by Ginger Perry/The Winchester Star)
LEFT: Reminders against shoplifting are everywhere in Once Upon a Find.
Kim Painter looks at a security monitor from her office at Lantz’s Pharmacy in Stephens City. (Photo by Scott Mason/The Winchester Star)
Security cameras watch from the walls of Lantz's Pharmacy. (Photo by Scott Mason/The Winchester Star)
Lisa Lewis, owner of Once Upon a Find, said she always prosecutes anyone caught shoplifting in her store. (Photo by Ginger Perry/The Winchester Star)
A door sign at Once Upon a Find.

WINCHESTER

As the holidays fast approach, so do shoplifters. That’s why Lisa Lewis is keeping a close eye on the scene at her cozy downtown shop.

Local businesses — especially smaller ones — can’t afford to be negligent about shoplifting, she said.

“We are our first line of prevention,” said Lewis, owner of Once Upon a Find, the Home of Pewter Pan Gifts and Collectibles, on the Loudoun Street Mall.

Owners of businesses, big and small, say shoplifting isn’t just a seasonal problem, though. People lifting items from their stores costs them thousands of dollars each year.

To fight shoplifting, store proprietors say they’re using technology, networking and even Facebook posts to warn other business owners.

“When you steal from us,” Lewis said. “You’re taking from this community.”

Thousands of dollars lost

In the last year, city police have made 230 arrests for shoplifting — out of 246 reported incidents, according to department spokeswoman Lauren Cummings.

From Nov. 13, 2011, to Nov. 13, 2012, $17,253 worth of goods were reported shoplifted, she said.

Frederick County statistics show a similar problem.

Capt. Allen Sibert of the county Sheriff’s Office said that from September 2011 to August 2012, 235 shoplifting incidents were reported, with 232 arrests.

During that period, $37,487.11 worth of goods were shoplifted, he said. But that number that may not reflect the true cost of shoplifting since not every incident is reported.

“How much more [merchandise] walked out the door that [store officials] didn’t see or didn’t report?” Sibert asked.

The Berryville Police Department did not respond to questions about shoplifting.

Getting tough

Law enforcement leaders are working with business owners to stop shoplifters.

City police Cpl. Andrew Perlick and city Commonwealth’s Attorney Alexander R. Iden recently held a seminar at the police department for local store owners. It covered a range of topics, including ways to identify a shoplifter, types of shoplifters, prevention tips and the prosecution process after a crime is reported.

During the seminar, Perlick described four types of shoplifters:

Professional shoplifters, who typically pose a severe threat to business and treat shoplifting as a job, using planned methods.

Drug users, who are also a serious threat and are typically desperate.

Amateur shoplifters, who are less of a threat to businesses, but can have a cumulative damaging effect on a store’s profits

Thrill seekers, who are usually taking advantage of an opportunity.

Perlick also attributed some of the downturn in the economy to an influx of a different type of shoplifter.

“Obviously, the economic times we are so inundated with — people will use excuses for anything,” he said.

Becoming street-smart

Lewis, who attended the seminar, said business owners must be informed about and prepared for shoplifting.

“When you steal from us, it comes out of our pocket,” she said. “It all comes down to small-business owners being street-smart.”

Shoplifting isn’t a frequent occurrence at her shop, but when it does, usually smaller, more easily concealed items are stolen.

Linda Bryant, owner of The Door Mouse on the Loudoun Street Mall, said jewelry seems to be a preferred item for shoplifters.

“Anything that can be concealed easily, but then I know clothing stores wouldn’t [say that] when stuff is stolen,” she said.

Sibert said business owners report a wide variety of stolen items, from lip balm to television sets. Electronic items, such as cell phones and TV units, are the most-stolen items.

About half of the items are taken for personal use, and the rest are traded for money or drugs, he said.

Shoplifters are generally not violent, Sibert added. “Most [incidents] are planned, and sometimes [the thieves] are desperate due to loss of a job or a drug addiction. Sometimes they are also opportunists that go into a store and see an opportunity [to shoplift].”

Preventing shoplifting

Prevention is the best way to deter shoppers with sticky fingers, according to authorities.

Watching customers, changing the layout of a store, knowing the store’s inventory or installing security cameras — with signage to let consumers know that the cameras are there — can deter shoplifters.

Molly Lantz, owner of Lantz’s Pharmacy in Stephens City, said her store has security cameras — and employees have been trained to be aware of shoplifters’ typical behavior.

“There’s a lot of things you pick up on with experience,” she said.

Bryant and Lewis emphasized that knowing their clientele helps to identify potential shoplifters.

“You just kind of get to know who comes in and who doesn’t,” Bryant said, adding that she can also determine by mannerisms and behavior if someone has the intent to steal. “Sometimes you just go with your gut; you have a feeling.”

Lewis — who is also secretary of the Old Town Winchester Business Association — said she knows her demographic. She can almost immediately tell whether a shopper is one of her shop’s target customers.

“And it’s the local locals who more often steal from us,” she said, pointing out that tourists don’t often steal.

While she knows her demographics, Lewis still scrutinizes store visitors closely. “We have to watch everybody. And customers that don’t have any ill intent are going to understand that.”

Lewis also isn’t afraid to chase people down — if she thinks she can outrun a shoplifter, she will.

Prevention tips

At the seminar, Perlick provided several shoplifting-prevention tips and described actions that retailers should watch carefully.

For example, higher-risk customers may wear bulky or baggy clothing which may not be appropriate for the season (for example, a heavy coat on a warm day). They may also carry large purses, bags, briefcases, backpacks or push a stroller.

Perlick said popular methods of shoplifting include concealing items, switching price tags, wearing items under clothes and hiding items within merchandise.

He encouraged store owners to pay attention to customers who act nervous or jittery, wander around the store trying to avoid contact, repeatedly revisit certain sections of store, use a decoy or distraction to divert the attention of store employees and leave the store abruptly.

To fight shoplifting, Perlick said, store officials should encourage workers to circulate in the business, talk with customers and remain vigilant.

“The Winchester Police Department and businesses are brainstorming ideas to protect merchandise, make stores safe without alienating law-abiding customers,” he said.

“There’s a balance,” Perlick said. “You don’t want to be intrusive to consumers. Not everyone is there to commit a crime.”

Jay Arnold, owner of the Radio Shack in Berryville, said his store was designed to deter shoplifters.

Everything in the store is in one room and merchandise is not stacked high. “We built it so we could see everything,” he said.

Arnold added that bigger or more expensive merchandise is kept on locking hooks or in locked glass cases.

Employees watch shoppers for suspicious activities, and check the inventory as often as possible.

“We may lose a little thing here or there,” he said, adding that the store’s last shoplifting incident occurred at least two years ago. “We’re pretty fortunate.”

At one point, Bryant said, she and other employees at her shop took a more unusual deterrence approach: dusting.

“We used to have a feather duster, and any time we saw something suspicious, we would get behind someone and dust,” she said.

Although small-business owners were open to talking about their struggles with shoplifters, calls to the Martin’s and Food Lion supermarkets and Kohl’s department store were not returned. Spokesmen for Kmart and Old Navy declined to comment.

Target would not grant a local store interview and would not answer any specific questions about the store’s policies on shoplifting or deterrence methods.

Jessica Deede, a Target spokeswoman, did say the corporation takes a “multilayered approach to security, including using technology, team member training and partnerships with law enforcement to fight shoplifting.”

Networking

Networking has perhaps become one of the more useful tools for businesses in recent years.

Perlick leads Shoplifting in the City (SLIC), an informal group for business owners that meets monthly to share information and discuss trends in retail crime.

Conceived about 212 years ago, the group is a joint effort between the police department and local stores.

The gathering shows the strong commitment local businesses have in protecting their assets, Perlick said.

Often, members will display surveillance photos and try to identify individuals caught shoplifting on camera, he said.

The group also addresses the types of items commonly stolen around the city and where those items are going.

The participating stores include Target, Walmart, Belk, Martin’s, Gabriel Brothers, Sears, Home Depot and businesses in the Apple Blossom Mall.

“They are very avid in their participation,” Perlick said.

Some downtown businesses also work with the SLIC.

“I think it definitely is [helpful] in the sense that store A may not be aware of situations that store B has [experienced] and tried to mitigate,” Perlick said. “[Store officials will] kind of cue one another.”

Lewis said proprietors of the stores on the Loudoun Street Mall watch out for each other and often use a private Facebook page to warn of recent shoplifting incidents or to post photos and descriptions of suspects in an effort to identify them.

“It’s a very resourceful tool for us,” she said.

She added that if someone manages to shoplift from one of the downtown stores, he will likely never be able to do it again.

Bryant, also a member of the Facebook page, said she finds it more effective to use the phone and/or walk along the street to alert other store owners.

Prosecuting the crime

All business owners are strongly encouraged by authorities to prosecute shoplifters — rather than simply to issue a criminal trespass notice that bans someone from the property.

“A lot of people that are chronic shoplifters, you would never suspect,” said Bryant, adding that she can’t understand store leaders who don’t prosecute.

Lantz said a business owner never knows the number of times a person has shoplifted, and prosecution must start somewhere.

“We definitely see [shoplifting] and we definitely do everything we can to stop it,” she said. “It’s an ongoing problem and I never cease to feel violated when it happens. I take it very personally.”

Iden said many business owners choose not to prosecute because they don’t want to falsely accuse someone or are reluctant to go to court.

“It’s not bad going to court,” he said.

Business owners, he said, have a right to question someone suspected of shoplifting — even if the person is innocent.

All that is needed to detain a suspect — which is allowable for no more than one hour if police are en route — is probable cause.

“Probable cause is just, ‘Is it likely a crime was committed and is it likely this person committed the crime?’” he said.

Sibert said the Sheriff’s Office treats any criminal incident equally — whether it is a felony or a misdemeanor. Shoplifting, he said, is a serious crime.

“If there’s a charge to be placed, it will be placed and prosecuted to the fullest extent,” he said.

Grand larceny (or simple larceny) involves a value of $200 or more. If convicted, an individual could face up to 20 years in prison and/or a fine of up to $2,500.

Petty larceny involves a value of less than $200 and is a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by up to 12 months in jail and/or a fine of up to $2,500.

Iden said business proprietors should always give officers on the scene any video that shows the incident. They should also keep a copy of the video for the employee involved and any witnesses; appear in court when subpoenaed; document the price of each stolen item on the day of the crime; and tell the officer the name of the employee who documented the price.

Restitution can only be made if an item is not found and returned and or if it is returned but cannot be resold, Iden said.

Lewis said prosecution is necessary to prevent shoplifting. “We will prosecute. We will not hesitate to prosecute and we will prosecute to the fullest extent.”

Businesses are taking an offensive approach to shoplifting and are at the height of their security knowledge, she said.

“Just assume — no matter who you are — that we will be watching.”

— Contact Melissa Boughton at mboughton@winchesterstar.com