By Evelyn Ticona, Jen Herring, & Ashley Duchesneau
Managing Editor of The Beacon & Contributing Writers
Retail companies across the nation refuse to prosecute shoplifters due to the cost post-arrest and the risk of hurting the brand’s image. As a result, the majority of shoplifting cases go undetected because they’re not reported.
“Personally, I feel like the laws are made just to protect them,” said Jen Santiago, assistant manager of Arden B. in the Palm Beach Gardens Mall. “It’s not really for us.”
According to the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, “Shoplifting has become one of the most prevalent crimes in the U.S., averaging about 550,000 incidents per day resulting in more than $13 billion worth of goods being stolen from retailers each year.”
What most people don’t realize is the effect shoplifting has on the honest consumer. Retail companies do not want to pay for the cost of prosecution after an arrest. Instead, they will raise the price of clothing to compensate for losses.
“It all gets reflected:people we’re able to hire, price of the clothing and being shut down with internal theft or external theft. It all adds up,” Santiago said.
Each store is allotted a loss and prevention budget for stolen items. However, if the total cost of items stolen runs over budget, prices will go up.
“The stores are not going to give it away free and continue to take the loss. They’re just going to pass it on new customers,” said Gary Frechette, director of security at the Gardens Mall.
According to the National Retail Federation, in 2009, 92 percent of retailers said their company was the victim of organized retail crime.
Experts say that as the economy has weakened, shoplifting has increased. That is not the case at the Gardens Mall, according to Frechette. In February only two cases of shoplifting were reported at the Gardens Mall, compared to last year’s 16 cases.
Amanda Soto, store manager for the GAP store at the Mall at Wellington Green said that she teaches her associates “real service.” Acknowledgement of shoppers as they enter the store is a must, she said.
“If they know that we know they are there and that we are watching, they are less likely to put something in their bag and walk away,” Soto said. “If we see someone trying to steal a pair of pants, we use recovery statements.”
Video Flip of Gardens Mall Security below:
In the two years Soto has been store manager, she has never prosecuted anyone for shoplifting.
“I think the policy is the same across the board: there’s always a dollar amount you have to meet before you prosecute,” Santiago said.
Each store’s security plan varies, but at the end of the day shoplifters will do whatever it takes to get what they want.
“We find sensors with bite marks on them,” Santiago said. “If they want it bad enough, they are going to find a way around it.”
There are a variety of types of shoplifters — from juveniles to professionals — who spend weeks hitting malls across the state. They travel for hours to different malls along I-95 to get as many items as they can from different stores.
“We also get the real professionals that are looking for just one thing to steal, and most of the time that’s an item from the high-end stores like Gucci, Chanel or Michael Kors,” Frechette said.
If a store is releasing items from a new collection, professional shoplifters steal them and send them the same day to China to be crafted into a perfect knockoff.
“They have places in China and over in that area that can make these knockoffs in a matter of a day,” Frechette said. “They know it’s coming and they’re ready to go. That’s how knockoffs are successful.”
Aside from stores not prosecuting, another factor is the liability companies have if a customer harms an employee. Employees, even if they clearly see a shoplifter, are not allowed to outright accuse the shoplifter, due to most company policies.
“We can’t pursue those [people] because of risk of bodily harm,” Santiago said.
Lori Judson, manager at Victoria’s Secret in the Gardens Mall, said she follows a similar protocol and uses good customer service to detour shoplifters.
“We make it known that we saw them,” Judson said. “We don’t have to outright say it, but just act overly friendly.”
Tranique Williams, key holder for Charlotte Russe at the Wellington Green, said that if sales associates think they see someone shoplifting, they approach the person and make a suggestion of matching apparel to go with the product that they were trying to steal.
Bridgett Migill, an associate at Victoria’s Secret at Wellington Green, said that if she encounters a shoplifter she is to immediately call mall security.
“It usually takes them around five minutes to get here,” she said.
The strangest thing Migill has seen when it comes to shoplifting is men dressing up as women. A common shoplifter will take one or two pairs of panties from the front and walk out the door, but by the end of the day they usually recover about 85 percent of the stolen merchandise, said Migill.
Judson tells her staff to watch shopper’s behavior closely.
“People act differently when shoplifting compared to shopping,” Judson said.
Sometimes shoppers will use bags from stores not even in the mall or will watch the employees more than looking at the clothing. Others will be rude to distract employees or divert attention elsewhere.
“We have a lot of tools from corporate, but a lot of it comes from personal experience,” Santiago said. She said she keeps a keen eye on customers who want to make returns.
“You cannot make a return without a receipt,” Santiago said.
According to the National Retail Federation, $9.59 billion of fraudulent returns were made in 2009.
“Shoplifters are always going to be one step ahead,” Frechette said. “The best way to catch them is a good sales associate keeping their eye on the ball.”
Shoplifters take an item from a store and immediately try to return it at a different store to get cash. Frechette said that one of the problems is some stores do not require receipts anymore to return clothes, instead offering a store credit.
Though the shoplifting figures vary from month to month, security has been reinforced at the Gardens Mall.
Mall security guards are limited in what they’re allowed to do when a shoplifter is spotted. If a store wants to prosecute a shoplifter, the police must be called. If not, what happens to that shoplifter?
“Malls across the board need to empower their security to do it, instead of waiting for the police to come,” Santiago said. “By the time they come, who knows what could happen.”
Though not too many incidents are reported, Santiago made reference to an assault which occurred on Saturday, March 13, where a customer attacked the manager of Arden B. at the Gardens Mall after being identified as a potential shoplifter.
The report from the Palm Beach Gardens Police Department said the customer pushed the manager against the wall, pulling her hair. Officer William Stiggle reported he found red markings on the manager’s upper right arm, and he found her crying and shaking. This is one of the few cases where managers want to prosecute shoplifters.
Frechette said by statute and liability for their corporation, they’re responsible for the common areas of the mall. However, security guards can help an associate if he or she is in trouble.
With 44 security officers walking and watching the stores inside the mall, and driving around the parking lots and more than 60 cameras placed at strategic points throughout the mall, the Gardens Mall has reduced its shoplifting statistics in the past 18 months.
“Security cameras have full 360 degrees view and can pan, tilt, and zoom,” Frechette said. “We have really good cameras and can look at somebody’s face.”
The Gardens Mall also has several security guards driving around the parking lots looking for potential crime victims.
Security officer Harold Beasley said sometimes people leave their cars with the windows down, exposing valuable items like GPS devices or cell phones. In those cases officers stay by the cars and wait for the owner to come back to their vehicle in order to prevent a theft.
“We try to educate the patrons on things they can do themselves to help and assist and neutralize the criminal activity,” Beasley said.
Officer Allen Montes, who has worked at the Gardens Mall for almost four years, said the strangest thing about shoplifters is their creativity when trying to hide the items they want to steal.
“Just when you think you’ve seen it all they find a new way to do it,” Montes said.
“Knowing the managers is very important,” Montes said. “I try to keep in contact with the maintenance people and housekeeping people so in case an issue arises, we all know what is going on.”
Bully Johnson, 34,
used to shoplift because of the thrill of seeing what he could get away with stealing. He got caught shoplifting at Sears in the Gardens Mall, but didn’t get prosecuted.
“The reason I stopped was because I realized that I was soon going to be an adult and the consequences would be much worse,” Johnson said. “I was a stupid kid.”
In comparison to the Gardens Mall, the Mall at the Wellington Green has a higher shoplifting arrest rate. That’s not to say there’s more shoplifting at Wellington Green, but rather more have been reported to police.
According to a February report from the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, in January there were 44 arrests made for retail theft in the Wellington area.
In November, 19 arrests were made for shoplifting; in December there were 31; and in January there were 29 at the Mall at Wellington Green.
For now, it seems shoplifters have the right of way and innocent consumers are footing the bill.