Retail Crime Prevention: Part 1

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A guide for small retailers

Retail crime is a growing issue in Ireland and abroad. While large retailers have for many years recognised these trends and employed security teams, the small retailer continues to be an ongoing victim. Many security providers will suggest an easy fix  solution for this such as employing a security guard but for many small businesses this is not a realistic option. This is for a number of reasons including cost and risk. While employing security may not be cost effective or sustainable for small businesses this does not mean they should just be left as victims of criminals. There are many cost effective and simple solutions that small retailers can take to minimise risk and provide an adequate deterrent to opportunist crime.
This is going to be a couple of parts. In this part I want to look at the prevention and deterrence approach to different types of loss and next week I will look at responding to incidents in store. I’m also going to release the whole guide as a PDF on the site once complete.

Opportunist v Criminal intent

You will notice above that I said you reduce the risk from opportunist crime and not from all crime. Without going to heavily into criminology theories it is important to understand how the average criminal thinks. Most retail crimes are committed by amateur opportunist criminals. They may come in to your store with the intent to take something but they haven’t planned how they are going to steal it and are likely to be deterred by the presence of employees.

There is also a cohort of people who will enter your store with a plan. They know exactly what they want, where it is and how they will remove it. The reality is that these people will steal from you no matter what do. This happens in retailers large and small and you will be responding to their actions (more about this later). 

The goal for small retailers is not to be a fortress for thieves. This is an impossible goal and would be counterproductive to sales. The goal is to harden your store as a potential target to thieves just enough to make them go elsewhere. The old story about the bear chasing the campers comes to mind. To escape the bear you don’t have to run quicker than the bear. You just have to run quicker than the slowest camper. The goal of retail security for small business is to look more difficult to steal from than another store in the area.

The risks 

Small retailers face an array of risks, similar in nature to what the larger retailers face. While the larger retailers have security teams to mitigate this they also have a larger space to cover and lack the intimate knowledge of their store and products that a smaller retailer will have. It is important as a small retailer to recognise that it is not just shoplifting that poses a risk to business.

Risks include:

External theft (shoplifting etc.)

Internal theft (staff)


External theft

External theft is probably the most obvious form of loss experienced by small stores. It’s is unfortunately an inevitable part of today’s retail business. A little bit of investment in time and resource can go a long way in reducing that risk however. The key to all of these tips is to train your employees. They should be aware of risk areas, risk items and common theft strategies. Here are some additional tips:

Door alert: A cheap and effective early warning system if you have a store that sometimes has a sole worker or low numbers of workers. A common method of theft is distraction, where a member of the public will distract a sales adviser in a corner of the store while their accomplice enters quietly and steals. A motion activated doorbell from any hardware shop and be installed at the entrance. The chime each time a person enters acts as both a deterrence and a cue for staff to look up and  acknowledge  the new customer. They are also a good idea for clothing stores who may want to monitor fitting rooms with low staffing levels.

Heads up service: Proactive staff are by far the most effective loss  reduction method a store can have. Don’t allow staff to stand idly behind counters waiting for customers to approach. Keep staff out on the floor engaging customers and being seen. When it is quiet then have your staff out front and greeting customers. Being noticed is an effective deterrent to most opportunists.

Install CCTV : CCTV doesn’t have to be a huge investment. A small amount of equipment placed strategically can be an effective deterrent. It’s important to remember why you are installing this equipment. Small retailers generally won’t be using the equipment to identify and apprehend criminals. More likely it will be better utilised as a prevention and deterrence tool. Therefore it should be placed in obvious and high risk areas such as entrance points (even better when coupled with a monitor), till points and blind spots of vision of staff. Decent quality systems that can be monitored locally or remotely are relatively cheap and a good installer will provide all of the back paperwork required.


Display options : Consider risk when laying out high risk merchandise. Try to display the stock in view of employees and CCTV. Don’t store high risk stock near entrances, fitting rooms, toilets or  secluded areas of the store. Also make staff aware of new high risk stock in store and where it is merchandised.

Signage: Well placed signage throughout the store can have a deterrent effect. Of course if CCTV is used the standard legal signage should be used at entrances. However it is also important to use it discreetly but effectively throughout the store. Consider placing CCTV signage or prosecution signage near high risk stock and in staff blind spots.

Internal theft

The issue of internal losses is still slightly taboo in Ireland with many employers fearing the subject and unsure of what to do. This is certainly not going to be guide to identifying and managing internal theft and that shouldn’t be the focus. The focus should once again be mainly on deterrence and prevention.

Reference checks: One of the basics that is often neglected in small businesses is reference checks for new employees. It takes no time or effort to create a simple reference check form for new staff. Have them complete it at interview. Make sure it asks for business phone number/email etc. to contact the person. Prior to the employee starting male some quick calls and get 2-3 references for the person prior to starting.

Clear till area: Keep the cash till areas clear. Don’t encourage staff to leave bags, purses, wallets and phones under counters. Provide a storage area away from tills and preferably away from the shop floor altogether. Don’t store items such as receipts, stock or other non essential items behind till. If there is a bin behind the till then use clear plastic bags in it.

Cash Register

Proper contracts: Design a proper contract with the essential items included in case an issue does arise later. Make sure it contains a probationary period, a grievance and disciplinary procedure and a right of search clause. Having these from the start can make things so much easier if an issue arises later and a professional approach from the beginning shows staff how seriously you take the issue of misconduct.

Policies and procedures: Having proper procedures for staff to follow and adhere to goes a long way to avoiding confusion later. Procedures don’t have to be complicated. They should just spell out what is expected. Examples of areas to have procedures might include; staff purchases, staff returns, cashing up, serving friends, staff discount, checking in deliveries, and accepting tips. Having clear procedures laid out for everybody ensures consistency, avoids confusion and shows how seriously you takes these issues. Each procedure should end with a consequence for breaching the procedure.

Staff searches : Always a good idea to have a staff search clause in employment contracts and a staff search policy. It doesn’t have to done every day but it is a good practice to do it regularly and randomly. Done  from the beginning it becomes just another part of the working day. When implemented correctly the chances of actually finding a staff member with merchandise is minimal due to the deterrence value of the search process in the first place.


Fraud and deception crimes are an ever  growing risk for retailers with small retailers in particular being seen as easy targets. Common deception type offences include passing counterfeit notes, card fraud and return or exchange fraud.

Counterfeit money: Part of each transaction should be to check the note handed in by the customer. Firstly it becomes habitual for the staff and secondly the customers see that every note is checked. This also provides a level of deterrence. A useful guide for staff on how to check notes is available here .


Credit/Debit card:  One of the major risks with debit cards is the use of stolen cards to obtain goods for later return. Train staff to be aware of customers using cards to buy small value items and seeking high value cash back as part of the sale. Also be aware of people using contact-less payments and returning later for a refund in cash or an alternate card. Have procedures in place for all of these incidents. 

Refund policy: Having a strong and clearly signed refund and exchange policy is a great deterrence to potential fraud. Have a no receipt no refund/exchange is a good start. Not being seen as an easy target for the return of used or damaged goods is also a good step. A common ploy is to enter the store with an empty bag and select an item. The person will bag the item and then select the same item in a different colour or size and request an exchange. They may then later return the item with the exchange receipt and obtain a refund. Ideally entry level staff should not be able/allowed to process refunds. Whatever policy is decided upon should be clearly signed in a prominent place at the till. 


Security for small business doesn’t have to be expensive or time consuming. It just takes a small upfront investment in time and resource and then practice to become habit. As I mentioned above the goal is to make your store a harder target than the store next door. This is a really achievable target with some effort, This was part one of a two (or possibly 3) part series and mainly talked about prevention Next week I will talk about responding to incidents such as shoplifting ,customer issues and accidents in store.

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