Steal This

'Tis the season, ye merry retailers, for shoplifting

Headshot of Robert Klara

As America's retail brands gear up to welcome hordes of holiday shoppers, here's a little something they might keep in mind: One in every 11 people who walk through the door are likely to walk out with at least one item he or she didn't pay for. Given that retailers are likely to lose $119 billion to shoplifters this year (1.45 percent of total sales), it's not surprising that the loss-prevention folks have studied this problem from every angle. That's how we know only 3 percent of shoplifters are "professionals" who'll fence the goods, and most offenders are amateurs whose crimes are ones of opportunity.

"Seventy percent of shoplifters tell us they didn't plan to shoplift," says Barbara Staib, spokesperson for the National Association of Shoplifting Prevention.

We also know that three-quarters of shoplifters aren't troubled teens; they're adults–most with jobs. And 35 percent of losses will happen with the help of a corrupt employee.

The scariest part? Shoplifting is up 6 percent compared to 2010–and many experts predict retailers will face record losses by year's end. "Our shrinkage rate is the highest it's been in five years," says Michael C. Creedon, North American vp of retail sales for ADT Commercial Security, who adds, "The economic environment has led to stealing for need-based purposes." Johnny Custer, director of field operations for Merchant Analytic Solutions, says, "Most shoplifters simply succumb to temptation. But add a sense of desperation because of the economy and holiday pressures, and you have the recipe for theft soup."

With some retailers gearing up to do 20 percent-40 percent of their annual sales, we wondered what items were most at risk as those sticky-fingered visitors slip down the store aisle. Here's what store security pros told us.

 1. FILET MIGNON Choice cuts of meat have become a Grade-A target for shoplifters (who, by the way, have also made supermarkets and grocery stores the most popular retail setting for theft). "Many police still believe [this] is the most common item stolen from grocery stores and supermarkets," according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Between 2009 and 2011, the loss rate for "luxury meat" has risen by 21 percent.

2. JAMESON Expensive liquors help make up a "shrinkage rate" (stolen merchandise, basically) of 2.9 percent in North America. Liquor isn't just nabbed by "minors looking to get drunk at their next party," to quote a report by the AJ Novick Group. It also falls into the addiction category. Hard drinkers without enough cash to buy a bottle will just help themselves to one instead.

3. Electric tools The "DIY" category is No. 3 globally in terms of shrinkage. According to research conducted by Nottingham University in the U.K., the most common items men steal are electric toothbrushes and power tools. (Statistically there are more male shoplifters than females, and the genders have different theft preferences.) In U.S. home-improvement stores, plug-in tools are the items most likely to walk off.

4. iPHONE4 Electronic gadgetry in general– including video games, smartphones, and laptops–and Apple products in particular disappear in a (digital) flash. According to the AJ Novick Group, 100,000 laptops, for instance, annually walk away from big-box stores. "We're going to see an evolution this year," says MAS's Custer. "The quality of the merchandise will increase a lot more, which is why people will be trying to steal more electronic items."

5. GILLETTE MACH 4 Razor blades really cut it on the resale market, especially Gillette Mach 4s. That's because the replacement-blade packs retail for around $23 dollars, and lots of whiskered men can't afford that right now. "Check the online auction sites, and you'll see a tremendous number of people trying to sell razor blades," Custer says. Adds Read Hayes, director of the Loss Prevention Research Council: "In bad economic times, you'll see more basic items stolen." Shaving products account for over 2.7 percent of store inventory losses.

6. AXE The brand's deodorants and body washes are some of the most-stolen products year-round. (Dial is a close second.) "We have some of the best-smelling shoplifters on the planet," Custer says. Most of them are pros who dump the goods at flea markets and bodegas. "Walgreens and CVS recently experienced a series of burglaries," Hayes adds, "where the only thing stolen was body wash."

7. POLO RALPH LAUREN Designer apparel, with Tommy Hilfiger being another big brand, is a prime target, as it's always been. "Clothing has been shoplifted since the beginning of shoplifting," says Rachel Shteir, author of The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting. "My theory has to do with people stealing to transform themselves." Clothing theft has increased by 31 percent since 2009.

8. LET'S ROCK ELMO The furry red Muppet's new product, which tops the Toys"R"Us 2011 "Hot Toys" list, is very likely to get nabbed this year, along with every other item on that roster. The must-have holiday toy has always been ripe for the picking, but that's especially true now. "People won't be able to provide the same kind of Christmas they're accustomed to," Custer says. "They can't afford the hot toy." They can, however, steal it.

9. CHANEL NO. 5 Expensive fragrances now make up close to 4 percent of losses in stores in which they're sold, according to the 2011 Global Retail Theft Barometer. "Highly desirable and often small in size, [they] can be extremely vulnerable to theft," the report says. It doesn't help that designer fragrances are popular for personal use, resale, and, of course, as gifts.

10. NIKES Big-name athletic shoes are especially desirable because they appeal to sports and fashion bugs alike. The U.S. Justice Department classifies sneakers as "high risk" merchandise in terms of likely theft. In a crowded store, it's easy for a shoplifter to show up in flip-flops, try on a pair of Adidas, and bolt out the front door.


@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.