By Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Barbara Fleishhacker has a keen sense of humor, yet she’s quite serious, especially when it comes to shoplifters.
On the inside door frame of the entrance to her store, The Main Attraction, is a chicken foot used for voodoo, meant to ward off/curse shoplifters. Right below it is an illustration of Moses with the 10 Commandments.
And there’s also the sign in the back of the store that warns shoplifters they’ll be prosecuted.
“I’ve really been fortunate that I haven’t had too many problems,” said Fleishhacker, who’s been in business for 24 1/2 years.
But she, like millions of other business owners across the country, faces an unrelenting wave of people who are trying – and often succeeding – at stealing merchandise.
A recent study by the Centre for Retail Research estimates U.S. retailers will lose $8.9 billion over the holiday season due to shoplifting, employee theft and vendor and distribution losses.
General shoplifting makes up about $3.8 billion of those losses, with employee theft accounting for $4.7 billion and vendor and distributor losses making up the rest.
All together, the losses add about $98 to each family’s shopping tab, according to the study.
The shoplifting number is up 4 percent compared with last year’s estimate.
The National Retail Federation said shoplifting in 2011 totaled $35 billion in losses.
In retail terms, it’s often called “shrink” or “waste.” Keeping the merchandise in and the thieves out is usually called “loss prevention.”
Large retailers use cameras, loss prevention employees and other security measures. But for smaller retailers, those are expenses they can’t afford.
Sometimes, it comes down to the owners taking loss prevention into their own hands.
“One time, I caught a woman who was stuffing a pair of pants down her pants in the dressing room,” Fleishhacker said. “I ripped open the curtain, saw her and grabbed those pants and dragged her out.”
Other times, Fleishhacker has called parents – and the police – to take care of the would-be thief.
Big box retailers shied away from getting into specifics of their loss prevention measures, citing company policy.
But law enforcement officials say each store has a different policy and they follow the retailers’ leads.
“We wait on them to call us,” said Sgt. Lynette Sandlin of Tupelo Police Department’s criminal investigation division. “They have that person in custody when we arrive. We don’t do any type of engagement at the stores. Each store has a different policy. We meet them and they usually have the person detained. We take them into custody and they sign an affidavit.”
Sandlin said the retailers usually have the merchandise they recovered, and many of them will provide receipts to show the value of the merchandise. That helps determine whether the suspect has committed a felony or misdemeanor.
“It happens on a daily basis,” she said. “Usually we do see a rise in shoplifting as the holidays approach. Depending on which store and which day, if it’s a small boutique, it may be little items. If it’s a department store they may try to leave with a larger item.”
At The Mall at Barnes Crossing, General Manager Jeff Snyder said a combination of improved technology, increased training and raised awareness have cut the number of monthly shoplifting cases from about a 30 a month in 1994 to about 15 today.
“When you consider we have nearly 100 stores, that’s really a good number,” he said.
Snyder said the mall’s use of cameras throughout the sprawling shopping center, additional mall security and 24-hour surveillance have paid immense dividends. So, too, has the of a policy banning repeat offenders.
The mall takes photos of shoplifters and makes them available to mall security and store personnel. If a banned person is spotted inside the mall, he or she can be arrested for trespassing.
“A challenge, though, is making sure everybody knows the law and how it works,” he said. “Our municipal court is very tough on shoplifters and they’ve done a great job. Tupelo is very good at punishing shoplifters.”
In Mississippi, shoplifting can fall under any of these circumstances:
• Leaving a store without paying for merchandise.
• Changing a price tag.
• Tampering with a cash register (i.e., charging less for an item.)
“Any of them by themselves, or a combination of them, is considered shoplifting,” Snyder said.
What retailers will do and how far they’ll go in pursuing or charging a shoplifter varies from store to store, he said.
“Mississippi law is pretty clear, and Tupelo is tough on shoplifters,” Snyder said. “But corporate policy can be different.”
Richard Carleton, who heads the mall’s security, said often the best deterrent retailers use is good customer service.
“You greet everyone in the store, and ask how you can help,” he said. “Most shoplifters don’t want to be acknowledged, and if you talk to them, they’ll know you’ve at least seen them.”
It can be a little more difficult during the holidays with more shoppers and extended hours, but retailers also hire additional help during those times.
“You just have to train your staff about giving great customer service and talking to everybody they can,” Snyder said. “That can stop a lot of potential shoplifters because they know you’re watching.”
Carleton said his officers will respond to retailers’ calls for assistance during a shoplifting incident and help personnel detain suspects until police arrive.
Teamwork between retailers and law enforcement is critical to deter shoplifting, said Rick Mellor, vice president of loss prevention for the National Retail Federation.
“For every piece of merchandise lost, the effect on the business, particularly with a large amount of theft, will be felt down the line,” he said. “Retailers don’t want to pass on the added cost, but it often works out that way.”
Fleishhacker is looking into buying additional surveillance equipment, a cost she had hoped not to incur. It’s not her regular customers she has to watch. It’s for others who might be tempted to take what’s not theirs, to let them know there are other “eyes” watching them.
“I hate it for my regular customers, and I hate that I have to spend that much money,” she said. “But if it will save me several hundred dollars a year, it’s worth every penny.”