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Who Cares What Shoplifters Think?

Posted on 4/22/13 10:00 AM

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Shoplifters stealing from a retail storeWhen you need information or advice on a subject it makes sense to speak with a professional source. Mostly. On some topics we can expect straightforward advice while for others we need to prepare for a less than “objective” opinion. I expect a medical professional to give me accurate advice on health topics. I expect that the sales guy at the Ford dealership may provide a certain slant when discussing the “best car on the road.” Advice from criminals fits more closely with the car example than the medical. Studies involving shoplifting range from opinion surveys to the impact of depression on decisions to steal. These studies can provide insights on a crime that some believe has become an epidemic.

Studies create theories and the critical reminder is that theories should always be scrutinized. This is especially true when the method of study involves surveys. Surveys are one part fact and one part opinion. Opinions are difficult to test. Shoplifter’s opinions are difficult to quantify as accurate. The truth and validity of shoplifter self reports need careful consideration. We have to ask ourselves, “Is this really good information?” and more importantly “how much weight should we place on the thoughts and opinions of shoplifters?”

The overall value of shoplifter surveys is limited, for reasons I’ll explain. With regards to the “weight” we give this information I defer to my grandmother’s advice. She said the secret to life is “all things in moderation.” She lived to be 105 so it appears good advice. Shoplifter insights should be viewed with such moderation. There is good cause to listen to these self-reports with a small degree of suspicion. Here’s why:

1. Lies, Darn Lies and Statistics: According to statistics about 1 in 11 Americans shoplift. That’s about 27 million, but less than half been apprehended. Although a large sample is not required to gain statistical validity, things like dependent variable, weighting and methodology are critical. With self-report surveys the “devil is in the details.” Things like how a question was phrased, the choices for response, and what we are trying to measure are the key to valid results than can be generalized. Surveys and discussions don’t pass the rigorous requirements of statistical research. These survey studies aren’t claiming the results are true across all shoplifters. So if they aren’t claiming them as valid, then neither should we. These types of surveys are informational only so we should write the findings in stone.

2. Selection Bias: Random sampling is the most critical component of any study. Unfortunately, current information from shoplifters is not a random selection. Most survey studies use repeat offenders who have been apprehended. So there is a selection bias. We are drawing information from those who have repeatedly committed a crime and were caught. Missing is the information from offenders who have not been caught and those who have shoplifted less. It is also important to note that these “responders” are participating in lieu of a real penalty for their action. That can impact their attitude and opinions on shoplifting. In other words, we are relying on information from repeatedly unsuccessful shoplifters - so the losing team is telling us how to win the game. The information may still be of value. Those apprehended may make decisions in the same way as those not apprehended. But since our sample isn’t “random” we cannot generalize this information to be true for all shoplifter attitudes.

3. Cognitive Dissonance: The shoplifter demographic is broad. Drug users, kids, doctors, celebrities and politicians have been apprehended for shoplifting. By nature, people don’t often define themselves as “bad.” And few shoplifters would classify themselves as criminals. The majority of people experience “discomfort” when their actions contradict their thoughts on “who they are.” A “good” person can’t reconcile actions that are counter to that description. The result of these contradictions is called Cognitive Dissonance. When experienced we react either by changing our behavior or my rationalizing our actions. Blame is a popular rationalization tool - especially when the behavior is socially unacceptable - like shoplifting. Shoplifters tend to project the cause of their actions onto the retailer. It’s understandable as few people would be honest enough to say, “it didn’t matter what you did or didn’t do, I was going to steal.” Instead, the information in surveys tends to run along the lines of “here’s what you should have done to deter me.” I have watched some amazing methods of theft, seen shoplifters find the most remote corners to steal, and watched them purposefully distract associates. Shoplifters work hard to deceive so “information” that places them in the role of victim I find a bit suspect.

4. Captain Obvious: Once upon a time I worked as a store detective. We employed cameras, EAS, locked fixtures, and door greeters and we still had no shortage of shoplifters. Information from repeat offenders is interesting, but hardly game changing. True there is value in their confirmation that great customer service helps, but experience teaches that there is no perfect deterrence method. A trained store agent understands more about shoplifting behavior then it appears even shoplifters know. And there is an important litmus test in the valuation of their information. For it we can channel a little Lt. Cafey from A Few good Men - “Shoplifter, if these are the things that deter you, and yet here you are in this program, then how can you say this works?” So don’t tell me how to deter you, share with me how to catch you.

We shouldn’t just discard all this information, but we should remember it’s just the opinions of a few apprehended from a group of millions. It’s interesting that none of the shoplifters suggest higher penalties for their crimes. Instead they ask that we, the retailers, do a better job at policing them. The real deterrence is fear of apprehension. That fear would be greatly enhanced if the punishment was more severe. There is an inherent danger to treating the perpetrator as the victim. Unless shoplifters share an overwhelming fear of “counseling" programs we might consider the impact of treating the theft as an actual crime. Steal a $20 item from the store and you go home, steal that same $20 from the bank and now it’s a different ball game.

Do I care what shoplifters think? To a degree. But I’m going to consider the source of these helpful suggestions. I will also refute any information that suggests that the retailer is in anyway responsible for a criminal’s actions. Blaming a retailer for a person’s dishonesty defies logic. A busy associate is not cause to steal. Enticing merchandise isn’t at the core of the shoplift problem. Exchanging a good experience for honest customers to ensure criminals aren’t tempted to steal is not our responsibility.

So we should do our part to protect ourselves. We should secure what we can, train our associates, and make stealing from us difficult. Perhaps I should show more compassion, but the truth is our loyal customers and employees pay the price for shoplifting. So you’ll have to excuse me if I don’t give misunderstood thieves a hug or gush with appreciation for their insights on “how” I failed to deter them from stealing.


 Authored by:

Ray Esposito   Ray Esposito

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