By MICHAEL COUSINEAU
If a store clerk asks if you need help this Christmas shopping season, it may not be just to sell you that shirt you’re holding. Often, it’s to deter you from stealing it.
“One of the best ways to combat it is through customer service,” said Nancy Kyle, president and CEO of the Retail Merchants Association of New Hampshire, which represents 800-plus retailers big and small. “If a sales clerk is paying attention to them and engaging them in conversation, they’re not going to have the opportunity to steal.”
Shoplifting costs New Hampshire retailers “millions, probably tens of millions” of dollars a year, according to Kyle.
And who bears the cost of the stolen goods?
“The consumer does,” she said. “Prices would be considerably lower.”
Many stores this week will see some of the year’s biggest crowds, increasing instances of shoplifting both by amateurs and professionals, according to authorities.
Some larger retail chains include loss prevention departments, but others employ far less security, according to Salem’s deputy police chief, Shawn Patten.
“We have stores through their corporate policy that do not have loss prevention and prevent employees from stopping thefts if they see it in their stores,” he said, referring specifically to the Mall at Rockingham Park, which has 150-plus shops. (He declined to name the stores lest it invite further thievery.)
Patten said Salem police handle more than 400 shoplifting complaints a year, but some stores don’t report the thefts to authorities at all.
“To have policies in place to have employees not contact police is relatively mind-boggling,” Patten said.
A Salem mall spokeswoman declined to answer specific questions about shoplifting or address issues raised by Patten. A statement released by a public relations firm representing Simon Malls quoted Cindy Hall, general manager of The Mall at Rockingham Park:
“The safety and security of our shoppers, retailers and employees is and always has been a top priority for The Mall at Rockingham Park, The Mall of New Hampshire, Pheasant Lane Mall, Fox Run Mall and Simon. Mall management and our security staff have diligently worked to foster very productive and proactive relationships with the local police departments, and determine how to best to utilize our combined resources for the benefit of everyone who shops and works in the malls. We find these relationships to be of the utmost importance during the busy holiday shopping season to help combat incidences of shoplifting.”
Patten said more stores should report thefts.
“We’d be foolish to think we’re getting called every time someone tries to steal,” Patten said. “The numbers are probably astronomical the number of people who get away with it.”
Try 47 out of 48 times, according to the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, which has conducted research with thousands of shoplifters.
According to another group, U.S. retailers last year lost $34.5 billion due to “retail shrinkage,” an industry term that covers lost inventory due to employee theft, shoplifting, paperwork errors or supplier fraud. The total loss represents 1.41 percent of retail sales. The shrinkage in 2010 was $37.1 billion.
Employee theft accounted for 43.9 percent of the loss, followed by shoplifting at 35.7 percent, the latter representing $12.3 billion, according to a survey done with the National Retail Federation and a University of Florida professor.
NRF, in a separate organized retail crime survey, found that 96 percent of retailers had been a victim of organized retail crime over the last 12 months.
“It just blows me away the brazenness of these criminals will just go in and wheel a rack of leather jackets out the door and a truck is waiting for them,” Kyle said of the organized rings. “They’ll do a theft through an emergency exit because there’s no one around there and there’s a car waiting and they’re ready to make their getaway.”
One organized ring operated in several states, targeting Staples stores, including several in New Hampshire last summer. The ring stole at least $100,000, authorities said at the time.
In Rochester, suspected organized theft rings have struck Wal-Mart a couple of times since last year, according to police Sgt. Patrick Emerson.
“They go in and steal items and return them for gift cards,” Emerson said. Sometimes, they sell the gift cards elsewhere. And “for the most part,” the thieves have not been arrested, he said.
Kevin Plante chairs the Retailers Association of Massachusetts Loss Prevention Committee and also works for a national retailer with stores in New Hampshire.
“There is a direct correlation in an increase in sales and the amount of loss they see. If retailers say they do 50 percent of their sales during the Christmas season, chances are they’re doing 50 percent of their losses at the same time,” Plante said.
“When 400 people are in a store and it’s loud and every associate is helping a customer and ringing up a customer, you walk out with a carriage full of stuff,” Plante said. “The stuff is in the back of the car and you’re off before anybody knows the door is open.”
Patten calls it a year-round problem.
“Shoplifting is an every day, every week problem in Salem,” he said. “It’s not confined just to the holiday season. The holiday season, we see a spike in the thefts – building in October and really spiking in November and December.”
Kyle said organized theft rings often will sell merchandise on popular Internet websites.
“It’s people who are stealing in massive quantities,” Kyle said. “They’re making their living at it. They’re reselling it, and it’s a huge problem for retailers.”
Said Plante: “My personal opinion is there will always be the cat-and-mouse game. Retailers will spend millions of dollars to protect stores, whether it be people or technology.”