The media often asks me if retail store security personnel use “profiling” tactics as a means of determining which customers are most likely to steal. The answer is undeniably, yes.

Profiling is a Tool

Shoplifter profiling is a proven loss prevention concept and is currently being practiced in most major retail stores by trained loss prevention or security staff. Does that seem shocking? It shouldn't, as long as it doesn't include the discriminatory practice of focusing on the race of the customer alone. Profiling is used everyday as a method for quickly focusing in on a person, a product line, or a section of a store most likely to contribute to shoplifting. All investigative agencies including the police, FBI, and others have used profiling as a tool to narrow the field of possible suspects. Why shouldn't retail store security be able to do the same? Store and customer profiles are developed during day-to-day operation and by collecting and analyzing inventory data. This data provides both a quantitative and a qualitative basis for determining where, when, how, and by whom shoplifting is likely to occur in the future.

A progressive retailer has numerous inventory controls in effect and at several levels. Every store should know what departments and which product lines have the greatest inventory loss based on audits, product movement analysis reports, shoplifter apprehensions, and by finding signs of theft. Professional retail loss prevention personnel are trained to know what day of the week, what time of day, what product lines, and what department will have the most shoplifting activity. Armed with this data, loss prevention personnel set out to observe shopper “conduct” in the most active areas and during the most active times. Profiling like this makes perfect business sense because it is legal and a good business practice.

There are other types of profiling based on store apprehension histories and industry experience that has taught LP professionals who to "include" and who to "exclude" when scanning the store for potential shoplifters. For example, one profile is that people rarely shoplift while in the presence of their spouse, significant other, or parents. After scanning these persons they might quickly be bypassed as theft candidates. Shoplifting is a crime of opportunity and desire. Trained loss prevention staff will spend most of their time observing those customers whose conduct demonstrates both opportunity and desire. For example, a customer standing alone in a remote aisle, carrying a large empty shopping bag, and looking from side-to-side would be immediately suspicious until their conduct proves otherwise.

A customer wearing tattered shoes might appear suspicious in a self-service shoe department until their conduct disproved a lack of desire to steal. A customer walking across a store carrying a small electronic item partially concealed in the palm of their hand might seem suspicious until several opportunities passed to conceal the product. In contrast, a customer wearing tailored shorts and a t-shirt may have the desire to steal, but will have little opportunity to conceal a large item of merchandise they are carrying. Based on profiling and shopper conduct, the professional plain-clothes security officer will scan thousands of customers a day and determine that 99% of them are legitimate shoppers.

Surveillance is Necessary

Believe me, merchants don’t like monitoring their customers to prevent theft, but they know that it’s a matter of economic survival. Merchants know that closely watching customers is bad public relations if done crudely. However, the retail industry loses over 31.3-Billion dollars every year and shoplifting represents about one-third of it. Customer surveillance is limited to the public areas where there is no expectation of privacy as opposed to inside fitting rooms and restrooms that are considered private areas. Knowing that you are under surveillance is an uneasy feeling. No one likes being watched and being made to feel like you’re not trustworthy. However, if trained professionals do the surveillance properly, most people will never realize they were observed while shopping. A problem can arise when untrained or unqualified security, loss prevention or off-duty police undertake the task of store surveillance. The majority of the complaints of racial profiling that I have seen in retail stores have to do with the perception of being stalked throughout the store in an effort to intimidate them into leaving.

Racial Profiling

Racial profiling is an improper and illegal practice based on the mistaken belief that certain ethnic groups are more likely to shoplift than others. Because of this, misguided store employees will focus their surveillance time on the customer's “color” rather than “conduct”. Racial bias can blind store personnel and cause them to monitor only the ethic minorities and ignore the real source of their inventory losses. Racial profiling eventually leads to a pattern of false theft accusations, wrongful detentions, and harassment when no real probable cause exists. The result is that a particular ethic group will be made to feel like they can't be trusted and are unwelcome in the store. African Americans call it "shopping while black". Unless the wrongful conduct is corrected by management, civil rights violations will occur and false arrest lawsuits will follow and sorely damage the reputation of the retailer.

Customer surveillance based solely on the race of a customer is not only improper but is an ineffective method of controlling losses due to shoplifting. The thought of racial profiling is distasteful. A 1999 Gallup poll confirmed that 81% of Americans disapprove of the practice. Despite this belief, the same poll indicated that 75% of African American men said they had been victims of racial profiling while shopping.

Most major retailers have published policies against discriminatory acts but few that I've seen specifically address racial profiling by it's security personnel. Not surprisingly, incidents are occurring, which feeds the question of how much racial profiling exists in retail stores? For example, in one major department store the security staff used radio codes (code 3) as an alert anytime a black shopper came into the area. In another store, 90% of the shoplifting apprehensions were of ethnic customers where the store demographic reports only showed a 15% minority customer base. And in still another store, sales associates were told by security officers to call them anytime an ethnic minority entered their sales area.

Hiring, Training, Supervision

The only way to eliminate racial profiling is to prohibit it from the top. Retail stores need to have clearly defined and articulated policies against security staffers practicing racial profiling and must have a zero tolerance for abuse. The hiring process is a good time to screen out poor candidates that seem predisposed to prejudice. Comprehensive retail security training is absolutely necessary to assure that employees know how to do the job appropriately and understand the rules of conduct. Off-duty police officers working as security need training too. You can't assume that they understand the law or will act appropriately and fairly towards all customers especially in the retail setting. Off duty police officers must follow store rules when on the clock and not resort to street tactics when dealing with store customers. During the training phase new loss prevention personnel should be taught how to observe customer conduct and not base surveillance decisions solely on the race of the customer. Supervisors should always be on the lookout for signs of racial prejudice in day-to-day conversation and in written reports. Violations should be addressed swiftly. If racial profiling becomes a factor in security staff surveillance and detentions, it’s because store management didn’t care enough to correct the problem or instead chose to ratify the behavior.

For More Information

Racial Profiling Retail Stores