The role of the Store Detective

Tony Security Leave a Comment

I normally have these articles published by Wednesday each week but this week has been crazy. Almost 70 hours between all of my various work and training and I hadn’t gotten near an article. I have been asked a question recently about store detective jobs so I thought I’d put something together. I hadn’t got to it yet but I did have a chapter written on the role for my upcoming book. I’ve decided to publish the first half of that chapter here about the role of the store detective. One of the most difficult and enjoyable parts of the security industry.

Store detectives

The role of the store detective is one which has come into and out of fashion in the retail security industry. One of my favourites photos is one of the Macy’s security team photos from the 1930’s with their backs turned to the camera so as not to be identified. The role has been around for decades and pre-dates CCTV and other security aids. I spent my fair share of days as a store detective and I personally loved the role. For those just entering the industry a store detective is a security operative who is plain clothed and works by covertly observing customers on the sales floor. Their main purpose is the detection and arrest of shoplifters. Of course that is a gross over simplification of the role and there is a lot more involved than just arresting shoplifters. There is a substantial amount of internal investigation work, case preparation and many of the regular security tasks such as fire and safety checks. The ‘main’ role however is arrest and that is the reason for the change in role and uniform from a security operative. Of course along with the uniform and the covert approach is an additional set of risks. When the likliehood of making an arrest increases with the covert nature of the role so to does the risk of making a false arrest. This means that store detectives need to be experienced enough to make good decisions under pressure which means that store detective roles are mostly recruited from existing security officers who already possess some experience in making arrests. Without the deterrent and identification value of a security uniform and taking into account the volume of interactions with shoplifters in plain clothes then the risk of violence and assault also increases. It is for these reasons that the role of the store detective requires additional training and also some additional coverage in terms of guidelines in this book.

Store detective guidelines

Just because a store detective doesn’t have to wear an official uniform doesn’t mean that they can wear whatever they like. It’s essential that a store detective blends in with their environment. If working in a department store selling more formal or fashionable clothes then this should be worn. If it’s a sporting goods store then this can be relaxed and sporting. Regardless of where you are working the clothing worn should be functional and fit for purpose. This means no tracksuit bottoms, sandals, sports shorts etc. My preference has always been jeans or casual cargo trousers, functional shoes or boots, t-shirt or polo shirt and a hoodie or jacket. Why wear a jacket at work you might ask? You’re supposed to look like a customer and customers have come into the store from outside where they will likely need a jacket. Walking around inside without one can be a dead giveaway in colder months.

The clothing should have enough space and pockets to accommodate the equipment you need to do the job. This includes all of the same equipment as a regular security operative (notebook, pen, torch, gloves etc.) but needing to be carried covertly. Sometimes that means making some adjustments to the way you carry your equipment and the equipment you carry. For example the store detective may have to invest in a smaller or easier to conceal radio model or a change to the way the radio is carried. Another option might be to use a two way radio application on a smart phone such as Zello and regular phone earplugs and mic. Your probably going to have to lose the 4D cell maglite from your belt as well.

Licence on display

Even though a store detective isn’t required to display a licence at all times they should still have it on them and available for when making arrest. Some prefer to carry them out a lanyard or ID card holder under their clothes and ready to be produced. Others prefer to keep an armband holder in their pocket. Regardless of which you choose it is should be made visible when moving outside to arrest a shoplifter. It reduces the likliehood of being perceived as just another member of the public outside.

There is no need to go all silly by bringing changes of clothes to work, wearing hats and sunglasses or even disguises all of which I have seen used by store detectives.

Split role

In modern stores the store detective role will generally be split between on the floor duties and CCTV duties. Being good at both is essential. In my experience a lot more arrests nowadays are made with the use of CCTV. I even know a couple of instances where retailers have said that they don’t want arrests made without CCTV evidence. This is usually after a false arrest issue or a claim of assault etc. Store detectives shouldnt be afraid to make this type of arrest though. As long as they follow the theft detection model they use it should t be an issue. Modern store detectives cannot become reliant on CCTV. There were many decades before CCTV and some of us had to suffer through VHS tape changes and time lapse multiplexers. There will always be a time (power cut or tech issue) where you will have to work without CCTV. Get used to it before that time comes.

Additional risk

Like I mentioned above, based on probability alone a store detective is more likely to make a false arrest and be assaulted. If you are 4-5 times more likely to make an arrest using CCTV/plain clothes than you would be in uniform then you are also 4-5 times more likely to make a false arrest. It also means putting the store detective in close contact with 5 times as many shoplifters so the risk of assault multiplies. These are some of the reasons why insurance companies have for years pushed retailers away from the idea of store detectives. They aren’t insurmountable risks though. Good selection of store detectives along with good training and tight supervision (this is really important) can mitigate these risks. They are however something to be very aware of for those thinking of becoming SD’s.

Getting the balance right

While I really like the covert strategy of store detective work it has to be balanced. There is also great value in the service and deterrence based role of uniformed retail security. They shouldn’t be forgotten. Getting the balance right between uniformed security and store detectives is essential. I also mentioned above that supervision is important. This is for balance as well. Store detective teams left unsupervised can start to bend, mould, forge and break rules very quickly. They have to think on their feet under pressure quite a lot and this can lead to bad habits and complacency developing really quickly. Not because they are bad people or bad at their job but because of human nature. It’s really important that they are sticking within the approved policies and procedures or things can get out of hand. Every arrest (and there will be arrests) should be reviewed by a supervisor or manager ( both the report and CCTV) to ensure that rules are being strictly adhered to. Shortcuts creep in just through habit and this can have great consequences.


This section has just been a brief introduction to the role.If there is an interest in this area then maybe next week I can publish the second half of the chapter which goes into some tips and techniques for store detectives. I’ll judge it on the feedback this week. Until then have a safe weekend wherever you are.

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