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Shoplifters on shoplifting: raising the awareness of frontline staff

Report by Jerry Hart, Martin Gill, and Ken Livingstone, July 2003

Why this research was conducted 
What offenders said
Choosing a store to steal from
Choosing products to steal
The CRAVED model
Attitudes to security
Physical prevention
How they steal & get away with it
Disposal of stolen goods
Appendix: Methodology
Contacting offenders
Penetration testing, re-enactment & interviews

Executive summary

·This project sought ex-offenders’ views on customer retail theft or ‘shoplifting’ and this report presents their comments on decision-making, theft techniques, security measures, disposal of stolen property and other related issues.

·Concerning the choice of goods to steal, there appears to be a strong correlation with the CRAVED model, which is presented and discussed within this report.

· Attitudes to security measures indicated that physical measures seem to offer a greater deterrent than technical approaches. However, this is an insight into offenders’ views, rather than an objective evaluation of security measures.

· Some security measures, particularly CCTV, were described as less effective deterrents unless there was a strong indication they were monitored. The deterrent effect of subsequent arrest on CCTV evidence was accepted as an ‘occupational hazard’. However, its presence did cause offenders to move to parts of the store where they thought there were ‘blind spots’. It is therefore possible that eliminating these by making CCTV coverage more comprehensive may have more deterrent effect.

· It is likely that there is some deterrent effect derived from early interaction with staff (e.g. greeting), although interventions after the offender has committed to carrying out the offence (e.g. by having concealed items about their clothing) could sometimes provoke a more confrontational and potentially violent situation. This point is particularly important in organisations that encourage or require staff to challenge suspected shoplifters.

· Stolen goods are typically sold or exchanged very quickly after theft. Offenders cited four common methods for disposal of stolen goods: these are direct selling (usually to friends & neighbours), delayed selling (usually at a car boot sale or similarly informal markets), ‘wholesaling’ to small independent retailers or existing market stallholders or direct exchange, usually for drugs.

· The principal motive for stealing of those ex-offenders who participated in this research was to fund a drug habit. Overcoming this habit was instrumental in helping them stop offending

Why this research was conducted

Crime against business victims is rarely given much prominence. In fact, sometimes crimes against business are classified as ‘victimless’ even though they threaten livelihoods and social well-being, as well as company profits. 

This apparent de-emphasis of business crime highlights the need for effective prevention by businesses. While most organisations have a security, ‘loss prevention’ or ‘profit protection’ function, this does not always amount to a Department, and those who work in them cannot be in all places at all times. Ensuring non-security employees have some security awareness training is therefore invaluable in maximising company-wide vigilance.

But what should front line staff be looking out for?

This report and the accompanying training video present some of the most common methods used by shoplifters. As criminal techniques are many and varied and this was a focused on producing a training video rather than studying shop theft per se, it cannot hope to cover every trick in the book and was never intended to do so. Indeed, it is important to stress that this was not a detailed study of shoplifters and shoplifting, and should not be seen as such. Rather, it provides an insight into how offenders think which, if kept in mind, will help frontline retail staff spot suspicious behaviour and inform the relevant personnel within their branch or store without delay. What it does suggest, and this point is frequently missing from the literature, is that these thieves can be skilled at what they do and we need to learn more about and understand better what they do; this will offer clues to prevention.

In addition, it also begins to address a shortfall in the range of perspectives sought to inform how we should address the retail crime problem. Crime and how to deal with is one of the most consuming and important issue of our time, yet offenders themselves are rarely consulted – despite the formidable expertise and experience some possess. This project is one of few to go directly to the ‘horse’s mouth’ and ask them how and why they commit crime and what they think about the most common attempts to stop them, and to do so at crime scenes and to capture these views on film.

What offenders say isn’t any more legitimate, credible or accurate than any other expert group. Like the rest of us, they sometimes get it wrong (as clearly demonstrated by the fact that all of the offenders who assisted in this research project have experienced getting caught, and many have served custodial sentences as a result). However, their perspective certainly deserves due consideration alongside that of other groups, so we can exploit fresh insights into retail crime and better ensure a truly effective preventive approach, rather that one we would simply like to work.

What offenders said

Offenders were asked about a various issues concerning shoplifting, ranging from how they choose which stores to steal from to how they dispose of the goods they manage to steal. As with most people, opinions varied from one offender to the next which provides us with a rich yet often contradictory set of perspectives. Their comments potentially lead to a variety of conclusions, but perhaps the most important to bear in mind is that shoplifters can be creative; they exploit opportunity and are often capable of spontaneous actions in response to any given set of circumstances.

Choosing a store to steal from

Asked why they chose some stores above others, shoplifters offered a variety of answers:

     They are close to where I live and have stuff that I like or need. 

     These stores are the ones easy to get to, closest to where I live. 

     I am looking for particular things, mainly computer games.

A basic principle that emerges from shoplifters’ comments is that everything done to attract legitimate customers also risks attracting thieves. Unfortunately, all types of shop offer opportunities for theft and the extent to which this is exploited appears related to the disposability of the available products.

     These stores have stuff that is easy to steal, and easy to sell on. 

Hence, offenders’ choice of where to steal from seems to be largely influenced by what they expect to find inside: 

     I go for stores that sell expensive things, and where the tags are easy to get off. 

This said, many expressed a preference for larger, possibly more anonymous stores that carry a wide range of products. However, factors such how busy a store appears to be …

     I like [large supermarkets] as there are lots of crowds there – although I don’t like that they are using a picture of me.

… and how easy or difficult it is likely to be to steal also have some bearing on their choice of where to steal from. Indeed, the decision-making process sometimes appears to be highly rational and well-informed:

     I always study the stores before I shoplift. I chose the ones that have what I want and where I am happy that the    
     security is not a problem.

Timing is also important, as the retail environment changes throughout any given day. For example, some offenders said they liked to steal from supermarkets and convenience stores when they first opened in the morning. This seems to be related to their expectations of staff behaviour and attentiveness at that time of day:

     They’re all still half asleep, not expecting it and looking forward to their first tea break.

Others liked to steal from these types of shop last thing at night, for much the same reason:
     They’re not interested in you – they just want to pack up and get home.

Some offenders sought comfort in numbers by stealing at peak periods, such as early Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons:

     It’s good to be in a crowd, because nobody can pick up on what you’re up to and it’s easier to disappear. The staff 
     are too busy serving people … they can’t be bothered with worrying about thieving.

A further factor may be the nature of the surrounding area. City centres were attractive because of the wide range of choice and ease of escape on foot if they were challenged. However, others liked to seek shops in the quieter suburbs because they were less likely to be fully staffed and carry a full range of security equipment.

     Those little [convenience stores] usually just have a couple of grannies working part time, or some dippy kid behind
     the till. They’ve always got nice high shelving which you can hide behind and you can even reach over the counter 
     sometimes to get the expensive booze.

It’s clear that, while offenders seem to have different ideas about a good opportunity, they all seek what they understand to be signs of weakness or vulnerability. It’s also interesting that, while the location of a store and how busy it appeared to be seemed to be quite important, not once did any of them mention feeling deterred from stealing by the presence of security technology when selecting a store to steal from.

Choosing products to steal

Shoplifters could be categorised in a number of ways, but perhaps the most useful is to separate those who steal items for personal use, and those who steal to sell on. While there is no absolute rule, those who steal to sell on are likely to steal much larger quantities of product than those stealing for personal use, and might be expected to use more advanced or sophisticated methods. As one former shoplifter commented:

   I treated shoplifting as my job.

Virtually all the offenders who participated in this study stole items they could either sell on or exchange for other goods or services (usually drugs). This had a significant impact on their choice of what to steal as well as the overall amount of time they spent doing it.

The characteristics of ‘hot’ products that are most likely to be vulnerable to shoplifting are perhaps best expressed within the CRAVED model, developed by Professor Ron Clarke.

The CRAVED model

CRAVED is an acronym which argues that combinations of the following product characteristics are most likely to influence thieves’ decision to attempt to steal them:


Can be hidden either within clothing or a bag
Can be accessed to carry
Can be found and accessed
Can be sold and is desirable to others
Is pleasurable to own and use
Can be sold on, especially for profit

                                              Clarke (1999)

  Professor Clarke makes draws particular attention to the final characteristic in the model by arguing the following:

While each of the elements of CRAVED may be important in explaining which products are stolen, how much they are stolen may depend critically on just one attribute — the ease of disposal.
                                                                                                                         Clarke (1999): vi

This is important because it provides us with a means of identifying which products are most likely to be stolen most often. Offenders cited a range of items that attracted them to steal, including CDs, DVDs, electronic gaming & music equipment, but also alcoholic spirits, batteries, razor blades, air fresheners, tools and even cheese, meat and other foodstuffs – all of which could be readily exchanged for cash or drugs very quickly after theft.

Attitudes to security

When asked their views about store security some offenders indicated they had seen some improvement and that it had put some of them off stealing. For example, one offender commented:

Store security is getting better so I am cutting down, I was using drugs but I’m doing rehabilitation and staying clean. I’ve got a new baby with my girlfriend and trying to give shoplifting up.

Others appeared to concur:

Store security is getting better, especially at [one store], a couple of my mates have been caught there and that puts you off.

Store security has got a lot better than it was when I was shoplifting, but it is not going to shop someone who is determined to shoplift.

However, yet others did not:

Store security is very ineffective; it is easy to spot and easy to get past.

One of the striking features of many offenders’ attitudes to stealing was their approach to the risk of getting caught. While many considered the risks to be generally low, most said they accepted detection and arrest as an ‘occupational hazard’ and, particularly when they were regular drug users, said it posed no real deterrent and didn’t put them off.
This may sound like mere bravado. However, their rather determined attitude also influenced the approach to dealing with a range of security measures commonly deployed in retail stores. This section will now discuss offenders’ perspectives on each of these in turn.


Closed circuit television is now a common feature of most stores. CCTV can be used in a number of ways, but of particular relevance to this study is whether cameras are routinely monitored by security or other personnel, or whether the images they collect are simply recorded for later analysis.

If offenders knew or suspected that cameras were monitored, they tried to avoid arousing suspicions by simply behaving in the manner of normal customers. One or two felt they could detect if they were under surveillance:

The cameras are like people, you can tell when they are watching you.

While moving around the store – usually with a basket or trolley – offenders attempt to seek out ‘blind spots’ where they feel safe enough to transfer goods to their clothing or personal bags prior to leaving. While some took such measures in all cases as a matter of course, if they felt the CCTV images were simply being recorded, most offenders were far more cavalier in their attitude and would risk stealing in a far more brazen manner. One shoplifter articulated a perception shared by others, in that he had:

… never seen a camera jump off the wall and nick anyone.

Another observed:

CCTV works, but I am fast even if they spot me I am in and out before they can get me.

When asked about the chances of getting arrested later on the basis of the stored CCTV pictures, one commented:

CCTV works, its good. But most shoplifters don’t think about tomorrow.

Another further expanded upon this point:

If I get out of the shop, sell me wares and get me drugs, then that’s a result for me. If the police come calling tomorrow or the next day, it doesn’t bother me because I’ll be back out again within a few hours.

However, care should be taken in interpreting these comments – particularly if they appear to condemn this kind of security technology as ineffective. 

[CCTV] doesn’t put me off but it’s probably how I’ve been caught most times.

Moreover, the presence of CCTV did have an impact because it affected behaviour by causing offenders to move to parts of the store where they felt they could not be observed. On this basis, the practice of selective deployment of CCTV clearly requires careful evaluation, as it seems easy to circumnavigate it unless other measures are in place. Further, and perhaps crucially, offenders seemed able to relate to human interventions (e.g. extra staff) more easily than technical measures. This may be a consequence of their limited understanding of what technology can do, or part of a ‘psyching up’ process that allowed them to act with greater confidence.

Indeed, and on a positive note, Martin Gill and Karryn Loveday (2003) have recently published their work on interviews with offenders in prison about their attitudes to CCTV and concluded that while they are initially sceptical about the value of CCTV those who have been caught on camera in the past were much more likely to appreciate its benefits!


Another common security technology is tagging or Electronic Article Surveillance (EAS). Small electronic transmitters are attached to goods, causing the activation of an alarm if any attempt is made to take them out of the store without de-activation or removal.

Most of the offenders who participated in this research had a fairly sophisticated knowledge of tagging techniques and knew how to find them and either remove or neutralise them before attempting to steal the goods.

If the opportunity is there, many adhesive tags can be removed with the fingernails. 

I just pull them off. The ink ones are crap but the beige ones are harder.

Offenders often do this while wandering about the store pretending to browse other products, while others might attempt to pick off a tag while carrying it in their pocket. 

Tags are not a problem … you can just peel them off.

No problem they are easy to take off.

You can just pull the tags off, and most of them don’t work. Tags can work to your advantage as they make guards and staff lax.

However, they also commented that they don’t like to remove tags that ‘scar’ the product’s packaging, as such signs of obvious theft may reduce their value.

Some more sophisticated or prepared offenders attempt to defeat tagging systems with so-called ‘magic bags’. These are usually large shopping bags, often bearing the name of a prestige store, which are lined with aluminium foil and sometimes other materials. Tagged goods can be placed inside causing many tagging systems to fail as the goods are removed from the store.

Other offenders simply said they would take the risk of simply grabbing as much product as they could carry before running out of the store regardless of any alarm activation. When asked how they would respond to a challenge, most said they would either ignore it or throw some or all of the product back at anyone who pursued them.

I generally avoid tags, but they don’t always work.

Physical prevention

While tagging is often used to protect less expensive goods that are left out on open shelves, more expensive items are usually protected with additional physical measures. Such products include electrical tools and small domestic appliances, as well as yet more expensive electronic goods such as CD players, hi-fi systems and cameras. 

Physical security measures include steel cords or loops, loop alarms and secure display cabinets. Such devices are usually applied in combinations, depending on the value of the goods to be protected and the likely impact on customer browsing.

In general, these measures appear to be very effective both as a deterrent (i.e. putting people off trying) and as a prevention (i.e. stopping those who decide to try). However, many offenders liked to ‘talk tough’ about such security methods arguing that they could be defeated either by stealth, by force or simply by waiting for the right opportunity.

One method of a stealth attack mentioned (though not demonstrated) involved two shoplifters working as a team. While one would break a loop alarm ‘by mistake’, causing it to activate, the other would exploit the commotion and steal one or more of the exposed items while the alarm was going off.

Others claimed to have successfully freed a product from a loop alarm by giving it a sharp tug. This is consistent with a general view that many security products become unreliable over time. This makes it worth risk to attempt to break a loop and, even if the attempt activates the alarm, offenders know they will have committed no offence if they don’t try to remove the goods from the store.

Some offenders claimed to have successfully forced open glass cabinets by using a push-pull technique to disable the lock. However, the most common form of attack on goods protected by cabinets was to wait for a shop assistant to open one up to demonstrate a product, thereby exposing those that remain to theft. 


The need for staff diligence emerged is very important, as one of the things most likely to deter offenders was receiving the attention of store employees.

I just don’t want to be seen, don’t want to be noticed … it puts me off sometimes when they keep asking if I need any help.

However, this needs to be carefully managed as some offenders said that, while they didn’t seek confrontation they were prepared to use intimidation and even violence to avoid getting caught. Nevertheless, entering a store and experiencing frequent greetings and offers to help from friendly employees seems to have considerable merit in encouraging offenders to seek opportunities elsewhere. This said, the offenders were disparaging of security personnel, whether uniformed or plain clothes. They seemed to regard security officers as some form of ‘competition’ in an ongoing game, and spoke with pride about how they had outwitted and out-run store security people.

They don’t put me off – waste of time

Ignorant and easy to get past

When you’re after the stuff you’re not bothered about security guards check their not looking and move fast
They don’t put me of – waste of time

Security guards are no sort of deterrent

They are easy to spot and avoid –‘I’m 6’2 and 14 stone security, guards are not a problem for me.

I hate them, they are too rough. They assault you; they are rougher than they need to be. They force you to fight back and can hurt you and themselves.

Regarding store detectives …

Floor walkers are really good.
Store detectives are normally obvious and easy to spot.
Store detectives are easy to spot as they don’t change them.

How they steal and get away with it

When offenders enter a store to steal, they tend to form a quick appraisal of the security measures in place and the general ‘feeling’ of security and vigilance. They will form their opinion while browsing the store in the style of a regular shopper and will also use this opportunity to identify the location of CRAVED products.

Offenders said they didn’t like to spend too much time in a store because that helped attract unwanted attention by staff. They therefore need to conduct their ‘reconnaissance’ quite quickly so they can execute the theft and escape the store.


Most offenders like to exploit cover, such as high shelving, long aisles and quiet corners were surveillance is non-existent or difficult to conduct. They also like to cover the items they intend to steal, with bulkier goods such as kitchen rolls, large packs of crisps and the like. This technique enables them to transfer smaller items (e.g. batteries or toiletries) to their inner clothing, pockets, or personal bags without changing the appearance of their shopping basket.

It’s all about confidence and avoiding suspicion. If you can make out you’re a legit shopper then you can get away with again and again – knowing how to pack your trolley is important.


Choice of clothing is a very important issue for many shoplifters who take their work seriously. Not only does it provide a means of concealing goods to be stolen, it also allows them to conceal their true body shape and project a different persona – particularly if their choice of clothes is stylish and expensive.

While some offenders customise their clothes by having deeper pockets made and similar techniques, most can make do with conventional clothing if it has the right characteristics. All offenders expressed a preference for loose fitting clothes, particularly jackets or overcoats, as these allowed them to conceal items without obviously changing their body shape. Sports tops with large ‘kangaroo’ type pockets were popular, as were ‘puffa’ jackets and other garments with drawstrings allowing the bottom hem to be tightened.


Many offenders also make very good use of bags – whether sports bags, briefcases, shopping bags from other stores or handbags. One female shoplifter commented:

Every girl carries a handbag so I’m never going to attract suspicion just by having one.

A male shoplifter added:

I always carry at least one bag, even it it’s just a carrier bag. It’s the best way to pick up a decent amount.

Some like to put cardboard boxes inside otherwise empty bags, to give them the appearance of being full. The box can also be covered with one or two garments which can be left exposed to reassure any curious member of staff. However, once pushed to one side, the shoplifter can fill the inner box or container with as much CRAVED product as he or she can find.


Ever-conscious of unwanted attention, many offenders develop distraction techniques to put any curious members of staff off the scent. If offenders work in teams, one or more may act in an openly suspicious manner to deflect attention from the actions of another. Even if working alone, offenders may use tricks such as picking three products up off a shelf and replacing just two, while the third disappears into an inner pocket. Another method is to ‘accidentally’ knock products off a shelf, then replace some of the merchandise while offering an apology and pocketing the rest.

Perhaps the most common form of distraction is to conceal the goods to be stolen, and then purchase one or two inexpensive items to deflect attention and reassure any casually suspicious observer. Indeed, passing through the point of sale also provides opportunities to steal CRAVED goods stored there as part of the store’s preventive policy.

Disposal of stolen goods

So where do all these stolen goods go? Well, the research suggests that this varies from country to country, but offenders in the UK identified four principal ways of selling goods on.

The first is to sell to neighbours, friends and people in pubs or cafés, even people in store car parks who look likely to want to purchase whatever they have on sale. 

I sell them on to friends and family mostly – sometimes sell them in pubs.

You can sell them to anyone – even people you don’t know if you think they look alright.

There appears to be a thriving market in stolen goods of all kinds and this allows shoplifters to maintain a reasonably reliable income stream. Most goods are sold on at about 50% of retail price, while goods specifically stolen to order may be slightly more expensive.

The second method is to accumulate a stock of goods which can be sold at a ‘car boot’ or similar market. These can be amalgamated with more ‘innocent-looking’ stock, such as second-hand goods and other bric-a-brac or even with legally purchased items of a similar nature. However, shoplifters can be wary of doing this because they feel the chances of them getting arrested for stealing raise the risks of a search of their property, which might result in more serious charges for ‘fencing’ stolen goods.

To mitigate this risk, the third method is to sell goods on to individuals who either own a small independent retail outlet, such as a corner shop, or else a market stall specialising in relevant types of merchandise. Some shoplifters said that small retailers, pubs and restaurants constituted their most regular clients.

[Small] shops used to be my best customers, even if they didn’t sell the stuff I nicked, they would probably have a brother-in-law or some other member of their family who would have it.

The fourth method is to exchange stolen goods directly for drugs. This method relieves offenders of the risks of approaching ‘customers’ themselves although it reduces the returns they can expect, forcing them to steal larger quantities or more valuable items, in addition to resorting to other offences. Some of the participants had convictions for robbery, burglary, and drugs offences.

Unfortunately, the evidence provides a strong correlation between drug abuse and shoplifting and other acquisitive crime, as many addicts need access to significant amounts of money every day to maintain their habit. 


Shoplifters target shops that carry goods they can steal and sell on quickly. Ideal products to steal are those that are in constant demand (steal to offer), or those that are specifically asked for (steal to order).

While many acquire the level of knowledge they need to avoid or defeat security measures, most remain relatively unimpressed by technical approaches to security. 

This is because they rely heavily on their ability to exploit opportunities by taking calculated risks. When interviewed, many referred to the ‘feeling’ of a situation, implying their decision-making to be largely intuitive and contingent on the situation at hand. It seems they feel the greatest threat to this intuition is spontaneous and unpredictable behaviour by staff, in contrast to their perception of technology and security officers as predictable and ‘routine’.

While this research provides some insight into basic methods used by shoplifters, it is by no means a comprehensive overview of all forms of retail crime. However, progressively and over time, we intend to conduct further studies using similar methods, but focussing on other offending behaviours, such as fraud and employee theft. We are also about to begin a major project on the effectiveness of security officers in the retail environment.


Clarke, R.V.G. (1999) Hot Products: understanding, anticipating and reducing demand for stolen goods, Home Office Police Research Series Paper 112: London

Gill, M. & Loveday, K. (2003) What Do Offenders Think About CCTV? Leicester: Perpetuity Press: Leicester

Appendix: Methodology

Contacting offenders

Once the agreement of the various sponsoring companies was secured, the research team set about contacting known former shoplifters in a variety of cities in the UK and overseas. This was done by writing to offenders being tracked for civil recovery and via newspaper articles on the research, which invited current or former offenders to contact the research team. In short, offenders were asked a) if they would participate in a video study of shoplifting techniques, and b) if they knew anyone else who had shoplifted and would be prepared to join in.

This method is called the ‘snowball’ technique and it works along the same lines as network marketing. It worked very successfully and helped the research team gain access to a much larger sample of offenders than would otherwise be possible.

Penetration testing, re-enactment & interviews

Once individuals had volunteered to participate, they were taken to one or more stores where they were invited to enact a theft. The enactment usually took the following form:

Penetration test





On arriving near the store where the exercise was to be carried out, one researcher would contact the store management and inform them of the project details. Once their permission was secured, the offender would enter the store without any notification or warning to the staff (including any security officers) working at that time. The offender would wear a special ‘pinhole’ camera which secretly recorded where they went in the store and much of what they did. The offender would also be closely followed by a second researcher who would observe their actions throughout the exercise. The offender would then attempt to steal one or more items using the methods of their choice. This part of the exercise would end either a) if the offender managed to leave the store undetected, or b) if the offender was apprehended at any time during their attempt to steal. If the theft was successful (and it usually was), the offender then returned inside the store, replaced the ‘borrowed’ goods and proceeded to the next phase.





While the ‘penetration test’ phase would be carried out without the knowledge of staff or customers, this second phase was by necessity conducted in a more open manner. The offender would more or less repeat everything they had previously done during the penetration test, but they would now be filmed by a researcher using a professional video camera in full view of any observers. Occasionally, the offender would be stopped and required to perform a key action a number of times so it could be filmed from different angles, ensuring the best possible depiction of their techniques. This stage is necessary because shoplifting is usually a ‘crime of stealth’ which requires offenders to hide their actions as best as possible. 


Finally, the offender would be shown the video they filmed during the first phase and invited to provide commentary which was recorded on audio tape.


Copyright © 2003 Perpetuity Research & Consultancy International (PRCI) Ltd 

All Rights Reserved. 

No part of this publication may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical or other means, known now or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from Perpetuity Research and Consultancy International (PRCI) Ltd.

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