Prevention vs. Apprehension: How Do You Make the Choice?

Store Managers Commonly Ask:

“When we suspect a shoplifter in our store, should we act immediately to prevent the theft or should we try to go for the apprehension? Is it better to prevent or detect?”

While store policy will always dictate your actions, if you catch someone “red handed” and you’ve been trained how to apprehend, it makes sense to go for the apprehension.  Getting caught is exactly is what shoplifters fear the most and this fact alone helps to define what retailers should do.  To let a shoplifter go is to encourage the problem by weakening the deterrent value of apprehension and the related fear of prosecution.

However, retail managers and store managers rarely encounter a situation where the shoplifter is actually seen stealing the merchandise and the person observing the incident is fully trained to apprehend.  For this reason, the answer in the vast majority of cases is to go for prevention. 

While it is possible to try and maintain continuous surveillance of a suspicious person in order to apprehend, this is difficult for salespeople and managers to do because of the constant demands on their time by others.  Even if they did have the time to maintain surveillance, because they are usually not well trained, they often don’t know exactly what to do or how to legally prove a person’s “intent” to steal beyond any reasonable doubt.  In most situations involving a salesperson or manager, prevention is the only practical choice. 

What Does Prevention Mean?

Prevention means taking immediate action to deter a theft rather than waiting to see what a suspicious person might do.  Such action can include… making

frequent eye contact… greeting the person with a smile… acknowledging his/her presence in the store again… offering assistance in some specific way… making a complimentary remark about an item of clothing s(he) is wearing… commenting about specific store merchandise s(he) was admiring… working nearby… or taking every opportunity to offer customer service.  Prevention also means alerting the manager and other employees when s(he) moves to another part of the store and/or providing security personnel with a description so they can maintain surveillance.  Of course, once security personnel arrive on the scene, it is usually best to simply follow their instructions from that point forward.

Table 1 highlights why prevention is recommended in nine out of ten cases.  In truth, there really is no sensible alternative.  In the five common shoplifting situations described, an untrained store employee or manager should not try to apprehend in any situation, even when they actually see the theft incident occur, because they are UNTRAINED.  Even with a TRAINED security person or a store manager, they too should not (and cannot legally) apprehend when they are simply suspicious of someone, or only think they saw someone shoplift, or are alerted by another employee or are told by a customer that someone may have stolen merchandise. It is only when they actually observe the theft incident that they can legally apprehend… and these situations are the least common of all because the shoplifter naturally tries to avoid detection. 

So how do you choose between prevention and apprehension?  Looking at the common shoplifting situations faced by retail employees and managers (Table 1), it becomes apparent why in the majority of cases prevention is the only practical choice. 

Table 1
Prevention vs. Detection – When Should Apprehension Occur? 

      Employees or Manager Security or Manager
Five Common Shoplifting Situations

1.   When you are suspicious of
 someone.           NO *   NO*

2.   When you think you saw someone
 shoplift but are not 100% sure.       NO*   NO* 

3.   When you actually see someone shoplift      NO*   YES

4.   When another employee tells you that
 they think they saw someone shoplift.        NO*   NO*

5.   When a customer tells you that they
 think they saw someone shoplift.             NO*   NO*

* Prevention recommended

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