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Researchers ‘Surprised’ by Shoplifting Study Results: ‘Let’s Just Let People Walk Out with the Goods’

The discussion surrounding the surge in retail crime since the pandemic has centered around the steep losses merchants suffer, and debate over techniques to deter and punish offenders. But very little of the conversation has addressed the well-being of store employees having to interact with criminal suspects.

A study released earlier this month from researchers at Florida Atlantic University (FAU), Louisiana State University, Ohio University and Salisbury University, found that shoplifting takes a significant toll on front-line store employees. Using three experiments and a survey, “Not My Circus, Not my Monkeys? Frontline Employee Perceptions of Customer Deviant Behaviors and Service Firms’ Guardianship Policies” found that dealing with deviant customers, which most of the time are shoplifters, lays a heavy burden on store workers, a fourth of whom aren’t sure what their company’s policy says to do in those situations.

Melanie Lorenz, associate professor of marketing at FAU, and one of three of the four study authors who did their post-grad work at the University of Alabama, was “surprised” to discover that so many employees were unclear about corporate policies stating what to do if they encounter “an angry customer or shoplifting customer.”

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“This led to an increase in anxiety and, really, a sense of unfairness,” she told Sourcing Journal.

The study involved four experiments and one survey among 26 frontline retail employees, who were presented with hypothetical situations and asked about their employer’s “guardianship policies” regarding deviant customers. Choices were confined to required (19 percent), authorized (23 percent) and prohibited (30 percent) and the remaining 27 percent did not know their company’s policy for dealing with deviant customers. Overall, 83 percent expressed negative feelings about dealing with deviant behavior, compared to 8 percent who had positive feelings toward confronting criminal suspects.

After undergoing the four scenarios, the subjects answered a survey that found 55 percent who want to leave their jobs because of deviant customer behavior and related policies, 17 points above a 38 percent turnover rate (TOI) for the industry.

In conclusion, the study’s authors found that management should set expectations for confronting shoplifters and do training early. The study also found that the policy most likely to make employees most proactive about confronting shoplifters is one that authorizes, but does not require, employees to act.

“Empower them. Give them some restrictions and ways so they can serve without actively having to stop [shoplifters],” Lorenz said. “There’s this middle ground of, let people engage but only in a passive way, rather than mandating them.”

Lorenz said the subjects they interviewed would generally like to be more proactive in stopping retail theft, but are less likely to want to if they are mandated or prohibited, and they are especially unlikely to want to act if they don’t know the store’s policy, which a notable 27 percent didn’t. What they also want to see, Lorenz said, is some fruit to come from their efforts.

“They want others to be more proactive. It felt like they wanted the manager to be there so they could just say, ‘hey, this person stole,’ and they also want to see something has been done about it, because some said they would tell the manager and nothing would be done,” Lorenz said. “I think the managers are even afraid of acting or doing things wrong, so let’s just let people walk out with the goods.”

What results is a leadership vacuum expressed in the title of the survey by the old Polish saying, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.”

“I’m now much more sensitive towards retail employees,” Lorenz said. “It’s this open shoplifting thing where you know these people just shoplifted and you can see it in the eyes from the retail employees—they know it, too, they just often aren’t even allowed to talk about it or they just have to be hands-off and it’s really frustrating for them.”

“Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys” comes out as the scourge of organized retail crime spreads and the becomes increasingly violent. Also increasing are violent encounters between shoplifters and store employees. In some circumstances, bystanding customers decide to take the law into their own hands when they see a shoplifter escape and in other cases, plain-clothed, off-duty officers have opened fire on suspects.

Earlier this month in Florida, shoplifters confronted by a Fort Lauderdale Macy’s employee pepper sprayed the worker and led police on a car chase that ended when the getaway car struck another vehicle prompting two of the three to flee on foot before being captured.

Last month, 31-year-old Ashlie Clark was sentenced to more than five years in prison over a 2022 incident outside of Portland, Ore., when she bit off part of the earlobe of a Nordstrom employee after the security guard tried to stop her from stealing more than $800 worth of merchandise.

Violence inflicted by shoplifters doesn’t just happen to staff and law enforcement; harm can come to customers, as well.

Earlier this month, a customer at a Family Dollar in Memphis tried to confront a pair of shoplifters only to be shot at from the driver’s side window of the suspects’ getaway car. The bullet missed the customer but struck the Family Dollar store behind him. The retailer was slapped with a $330,000 fine for a previous fatal shoplifting incident.

Lorenz notes the issue of confronting shoplifters is complicated and fraught with legal entanglements, but she’s confident her team’s study lays down some baseline tenets that could improve retail employees’ mental health, job satisfaction, willingness to act in the store’s best interest and reduce the likelihood of violent conflicts.

“What we found, interestingly, is that if I ask somebody to passively get involved, just to help distract the shoplifter, this was the easiest approach and the most successful approach,” Lorenz said. “If you’re already anxious as a retail employee, mandating [confrontations] is only going to make it much worse.”