Does Shoplifter Profiling Exist?

Do retail store loss prevention personnel use profiling tactics as a means of determining which customers are most likely to shoplift? The answer is undeniably, yes.

Shoplifter profiling is a loss prevention technique that is silently being practiced by many retailers in an effort to reduce inventory losses. Does that seem shocking? It shouldn’t. Large marketing firms and national advertising media use profiling every day as a means to improve their efficiency of being able to predict future behavior of consumers.

Can you Judge a Book by its Cover?

If you think about it, the art of profiling people is part of our daily lives. It is how we judge who is friendly, who is dangerous, who is honest, and who is compatible with our values. The personal attributes of appearance and personality are definitely intertwined in our decision making process for how we first perceive the image of people we meet. Usually, our initial impression of people changes once we get more information about them. It’s easy to be fooled by first impressions. People know how to dress for success and present a positive image when necessary. Similarly, most people have experience being treated differently when dressed up in nice clothes compared to when they looked unkempt. The critics of shoplifter profiling complain that first impressions gained by appearance alone may be incorrect or blinded by a biased stereotype.

Profiling as a Matter of Policy

Most corporate legal and human resource departments fear any mention of the words shoplifter profiling let alone the practice of it. They are more likely to issue a policy prohibiting the use of customer profiling and forbid discussion of its benefits in training materials. To many in those protective professions, shoplifter profiling are terms synonymous with the words bias and discrimination. Although this fear is largely baseless, it is not totally unfounded. There have been some high-profile cases where misguided store security officers used poor judgment by harassing shoppers seemingly because of their race. In the past decade alone, several national retailers were embarrassed by the media after accusations of racial profiling were alleged by those wrongfully detained for shoplifting. These retailers further suffered from a series of multi-million dollar lawsuits alleging civil rights violations, false arrest, and negligence claims. After all this negative exposure, you would think that shoplifter profiling is dead…it isn’t.

Profiling is a Naturally Occurring Act

All of us naturally profile the people we meet every day. We constantly make subliminal judgments about people based on their appearance, personality, and conduct. Refusing to talk about it or forbidding the practice in a corporate policy is a futile attempt to mask the exercise of human nature. There is no harm caused from the silent opinions that we all form or the judgments that we make about people we meet.

The concept of customer profiling sounds like a valuable tool that every retail loss prevention professional should learn to hone. After all, profiling is a proven tactic used everyday by law enforcement as an efficient method for quickly identifying persons or places likely to be involved in crime. Virtually all investigative agencies use criminal profiling to narrow the field of possible suspects. Why shouldn't retail loss prevention professionals be able to do the same?

Profiling by Other Name

Store inventory control is a common retail store practice used to capture data to track merchandise movement from receiving to sales. This includes a computer-aided system of monitoring physical inventory with point-of-sale and purchasing cross-checks that will keep a progressive store manager ahead of the shrinkage curve. We call this inventory and sales analysis rather than inventory loss profiling. This data, when analyzed, provides both a quantitative and qualitative basis for determining where, when, and how inventory shrinkage has occurred and provides a clue where to focus preventive efforts to curb future losses. So what’s wrong with loss prevention professionals applying a similar business profiling strategy to prevent shoplifting?

Shoplifter Profiling as a Strategy

Retail loss prevention professionals should be thoroughly familiar with store inventory loss data as well as knowledge of shoplifter demographic data. Upon request, the best loss prevention professionals can tell you, with a good degree of accuracy, where the high theft areas are located, what product-lines are targeted, on what days of the week, the most active times of day, and who is committing the crime. In addition to objective data, experienced loss prevention agents have developed shoplifter profiles. This includes a list of shoplifters’ favorite theft tools of the trade, theft locations, and methods of operation. Profiling shoplifters in a business-like manner makes perfect sense. Without an organized plan, store security personnel will wander the store hoping to randomly spot a shoplifter in the act. Not only is this highly inefficient, but it puts pressure of the security officer to be productive. Undue pressure to make arrest quotas is what contributes to bad judgment and bad-stops. As you can imagine, profiling shoplifters based on an objective business model using actual incident loss data is preferable to relying on unschooled officer instinct and emotional prejudgment.

For shoplifter profiling to be used as a business model, store security officers should be trained to look beyond shopper appearance alone and focus on shoplifter behavior. Shoplifter profiles can be effective when compared to the behavior of other shoplifters observed in the past in similar circumstances. Obviously, the life experiences of the observer have an effect on their perception of the conduct of people with different backgrounds. Growing up or working in a prejudiced environment can color ones perception of reality. An observer with more training and experience coupled with a more diverse background is more likely to categorize people broadly based on conduct rather than narrowly based on a single characteristic such as race.

You Can’t Manage What you Don’t Measure

Like anything else, the practice of shoplifter profiling can be abused by biased store security personnel especially when exercising their power and authority to detain customers based merely on suspicion. For example, it should be considered a red-flag if the store shoplifter photo gallery consists only of people of color or only of one sex, or only of one age group. A prejudiced security officer might focus surveillance habitually on the race of a customer as an indicator of suspicion. When this occurs, there is a probability of having unreported bad-stops as well. In the eyes of the law, racial profiling is considered disparate treatment of the public and can be the basis for a civil rights lawsuit alleging racial discrimination. Racial profiling is the illegitimate practice that demands justification by store loss prevention agents who focus on ethnic appearance rather than conduct.

During litigation or corporate investigation, a retail store might be required to justify a pattern of ethnic shoplifter detentions. This is usually done by studying prior incident reports, videotapes, and customer demographic data in an effort to prove or disprove that irregularities occurred. During this process some retail store chains have been surprised to learn that their incident records and video surveillance tapes were either incomplete or corroborated the alleged discriminatory acts. In either case, the finding will prove that supervisors are not reviewing incident reports with a trained or unbiased eye. Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that hurts you, it’s the things you think you know that really ain’t true.” Since store loss prevention departments are not considered profit centers, security departments may not be required to produce detailed incident reports and statistics for management scrutiny. It is a business reality that you can’t manage what you don’t measure. It is a litigation reality that you can’t defend what you are unable to prove.

Exclude Out as well as Include In

Shoplifter profiling can further be enhanced and solidified by studying store apprehension demographics and inventory loss data. Armed with this knowledge, a loss prevention specialist can scan the store more efficiently by excluding possible theft suspects, certain store locations, under certain conditions, and behavior patterns. For example, one shoplifter profile suggests that people rarely shoplift while in the presence of their spouse, significant other, or parents. After scanning these persons and their environment, their conduct might suggest that they have no intention of being dishonest. Shoplifting is a crime of opportunity and desire. Trained loss prevention staff will spend most of their time observing those customers who demonstrate conduct where they ignore perfectly good opportunities to be dishonest. These customers would be excluded from consideration for the time being. However, a customer standing alone in a remote aisle, carrying a large shopping bag, and looking from side-to-side would be immediately suspicious until their conduct proves otherwise. Some areas of the store may never yield a theft due to high visibility, high traffic, or undesirable product lines. On the other hand, remote areas of the store may be very active theft locations as items are transported from other areas of the store. A customer walking in this area with a small concealable item may fit the profile of a potential shoplifter regardless of other traits.

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 demonstrate the desire to steal, but has no opportunity to conceal a large item under those clothes. Based on profiling and shopper conduct, the professional plain-clothes security officer will scan thousands of customers a day and determine that ninety-nine percent of them are legitimate shoppers. During this silent surveillance and profiling process, no customers are injured or wrongfully accused.

Surveillance cannot be Done Crudely

If trained loss prevention professionals perform shoplifter surveillance properly, most customers will never realize that they were being watched. Merchants don’t like monitoring their customers to prevent theft, but it is a matter of economic survival. The retail industry loses over 12-billion dollars a year to shoplifters and sometimes customer surveillance measures must be employed.

No one likes being watched or made to feel untrustworthy. Knowing that you are under surveillance is an uneasy feeling and exacerbates customer relations. A problem arises when untrained store security undertakes the task of customer surveillance and does so crudely. Common customer complaints about retail store security have to do with the perception of being stalked throughout the store in an effort to intimidate them.

Racial Profiling

Racial profiling is an improper and illegal practice based on the mistaken belief that certain ethnic minority groups are more likely to shoplift than others. Because of this, misguided belief, store employees will focus their surveillance on the color of a customer rather than their conduct. Racial bias can blind store personnel and cause them to monitor only the ethnic minorities and ignore the real source of 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 and Latinos have called it “shopping while black or brown”. Unless the wrongful conduct is corrected by management, civil rights violations will occur and false arrest lawsuits will follow along with damaging the reputation of the retailer.

Most retail inventory loss statistics have shown that the majority of shoplifters to be of the Caucasian race. To concentrate surveillance on minority customers is not only improper, but is an ineffective method of controlling shoplifting losses at most locations. The thought of racial profiling is distasteful. A 1999 Gallup poll confirmed that eighty-one percent of Americans disapprove of the practice. Despite this belief, the same poll indicated that seventy-five percent of African American men said they had been victims of racial profiling while shopping. These polls and other media reports are what give the term profiling such a negative connotation. In some circles, any mention of term profiling is tainted from the onset with distrust.

Written Policy may not be Enough

Most major retailers have published broad policies against discriminatory acts, but few have specifically addressed shoplifter racial profiling by its security personnel. Not surprisingly, incidents are occurring, which begs 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 a sales area. In another store, ninety-percent of the shoplifting apprehensions were of ethnic customers where the store demographic reports only showed a fifteen-percent minority customer base. And in still another store, sales associates were told by security officers to call them anytime a minority shopper entered the sales area. Anti-discrimination policy needs to be put into practice and enforced at the security officer level for it to be effective.

Hiring, Training, Supervision is Critical

The only way to eliminate the illegal practice of racial profiling is to prohibit it from the top level of management. Retail stores need to have clearly defined and articulated policies to guide security staffers away from 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 perform the job objectively, lawfully, and with due care. Off-duty police officers working as store security need training too. You can't assume that they understand the mechanics of shoplifting or that they will act appropriately and fairly towards all customers in the retail setting. Off-duty police officers must follow store rules when on the clock and not resort to conflicting street tactics when dealing with retail customer transactions.

During the training phase, new loss prevention personnel should be taught how to observe customer conduct, use store loss data, and not base surveillance decisions solely on the race of the customer. Supervisors should always be on the lookout for signs of prejudice in day-to-day conversation and in written reports. Misconduct should be addressed swiftly. If racial profiling becomes routine in shoplifter surveillance and detentions, then it is because store management didn’t care enough to correct the problem or instead chose to ratify the behavior.


The concept of shoplifter profiling is a valuable tool that every retail loss prevention professional should learn to hone. Profiling shoplifters is not an evil undertaking in the hands of trained professionals. Shoplifter profiling can be an efficient way to focus on the sources of inventory shrinkage using a store business model that is supported by actual loss data, incident reports, and based on the behavior of other shoplifters observed in similar circumstances. Maintaining accurate business records will allow supervisors to monitor success. These same records will provide an adequate basis to investigate or defend claims of alleged misconduct.

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