Not all shoplifters fit the profile of crime gangs, thrill-seeking teens or seasoned thieves. Some can be your best customers who steal as a one-off for a reason they believe is justifiable.
So, what prompts a loyal patron to steal and how do retailers stem the loss? Here’s an insight into why good customers steal and the steps you can take to deter them.
A crime of opportunity
More often than not retail theft is a crime of opportunity and when it comes to otherwise loyal customers, this opportunity is usually the prompt.
But as Queensland University of Technology associate Professor Graeme Mortimer recently told Inside Retail, a host of factors beyond opportunity may also be at play.
A good customer may steal out of frustration, because they’re otherwise a model citizen, because they believe they deserve a “freebie” or because they cannot be bothered to rectify an error.
Importantly, loyal customer theft doesn’t tend to occur in the usual shoplifting way or at the usual shoplifting places in store.
In other words, it’s often not an act of deliberate concealment that might occur in a change room and is far less likely to appear as a suspicious behaviour involving casing a retail outlet and deliberately avoiding staff.
But I’m such a good person
Dr Mortimer notes one of the reasons a good person may do a bad thing could be self-licensing. In short this is a phenomenon when someone allows themselves to do something bad after doing something good.
Self-licensing is the behaviour that allows you to indulge in a pizza binge after a week of healthy eating, but it can also feasibly extend to an act of petty theft after giving to a charity or being a general model citizen.
“An increase in self-confidence tends to make the individual worry less about the consequences of subsequent bad behaviour and therefore more likely to make poor or unethical choices,” Dr Mortimer notes.
But in my case, it’s justified
Even though a customer may boast the highest moral code and have loyally purchased items from a retailer for years, they may feel justified in a small act of random theft.
Dr Mortimer notes: “In a retail context, shoplifters regularly justify petty theft with reasons like ‘the store overcharges to begin with’ or ‘the store won’t miss it’. Shoppers see the retailers as the out-group and other shoppers as the in-group”.
Often this might be accompanied by a misconception theft is a victimless crime and the organisation can easily absorb the loss.
Should versus want
He also explains a fascinating phenomenon where people overestimate the extent to which they will behave morally in the future.
“When thinking about future ethical choices, people experience tension between a part of them that wants immediate gratification (the ‘want self’) and the part that seeks to make responsible and ethical decisions (the ‘should self’),” he says.
“Therefore, when making a decision, people predict they will behave in accordance with their ‘should self’, a choice that supports their moral self-view, i.e. ‘I will always accurately scan every item I purchase at this supermarket’.
“However, when it is time to make a decision, the ‘want self’ becomes dominant. The immediate gains from the unethical act become much more important, i.e. ‘I am in a rush, I spend money here every week and simply don’t have the time to start a new transaction’.”
So how do you deter an otherwise good customer from committing a bad act?
Deterring loyal customer theft
In addition to standard loss prevention procedures like electronic article surveillance, CCTV and attentive customer service, Dr Mortimer argues deterring the good customer from committing a theft could be as simple as moral reminders.
This might include signage that indicates theft costs every customer more in the long run, posters that thank customers for their continued patronage, or reminders that prompt positive behaviour indicating most people do the right thing.
And ultimately, deterring small acts of theft adds up to reduce a shoplifting trend that costs the industry billions each year.