Retail workers who steal from their employers are far more likely to seize opportunity and take cash from the register than to plan a heist, according to a recent study of retail theft in the United Kingdom. The study also found that most thefts take place at the till or in the warehouse and few occur on the sales floor.
In terms of prevention, the study, sponsored by the nonprofit group ECR Europe, found that the most serious deterrent to workplace theft is a CCTV system.
The findings are based on research by Adrian Beck of the University of Leicester in Leicester, United Kingdom. Assisted by other researchers, Beck used a variety of methods to investigate 99 incidents of dishonesty in retail settings. Sources of data included interviews with offenders who had been fired for stealing, taped interrogations of suspected thieves by security officers, questionnaires completed by staff members let go for dishonesty, and interviews with security staff caught stealing from the company.
Beck worked with two large retail companies in the United Kingdom to gather subjects for the interviews. Both companies sent letters to staff members dismissed for stealing in the previous 12 months. Those who responded to the letters were interviewed by researchers, who were sponsored by ECR Europe.
Researchers also reviewed interrogations of employees suspected of theft. One U.K. retailer, Wilkinson’s, has a policy of taping all such interviews and agreed to let Beck analyze them.
More than two-thirds of incidents—69 out of 99—took place at the cash register. Sixteen took place in the warehouse, and five in the main retail area. The remaining incidents occurred at other locations, including the refund counter and the cash office.
Most of those who stole money from the cash register took advantage of quiet times in the day to slip money into their pocket or shoe. Others would pass additional cash to a family member along with change for an actual purchase.
According to the study, these offenders did not take steps to conceal their crimes. Many said that the register rarely balanced at the end of the day and that management took no notice. Others took advantage of company policies that had several employees using a single machine during one shift.
Regardless of their methods, most were caught as they became greedier and began stealing ever larger amounts of cash.
Those who stole from the warehouse area were more likely to steal food and eat it—especially during the night shift—or take merchandise from the store. Some employees would put items in bags and leave them by the door as though they had been purchased, or they would stow the goods in a recycling bin to be picked up later. Some employees simply carried the stolen merchandise to their cars.
However, some offenders used sophisticated schemes to steal goods from their employers. In a few cases, employees would remove merchandise from the floor when they knew that it was due to be discounted; they would purchase it once the discount took effect. This worked especially well with holiday items, which were often discounted as much as 90 percent. In one case, an employee purposely damaged boxes on certain items, then removed them to the damaged goods area where they could be taken without notice.
Beck was able to draw several conclusions from the study, the most important of which was the role of CCTV in retail. “The emphasis upon surveillance as a means of preventing staff dishonesty was the most significant finding,” says Beck.
When questioned, offenders worried most about being caught in the act by a CCTV system. Most of those stealing from the cash register confided that they would not steal from a machine that was monitored. Similarly, those who took merchandise from the back room were aware of the cameras and took care to hide the goods in the system’s blind spots.
Another important factor, according to the study, is the simplicity of the thefts. Offenders did little planning and failed to cover their tracks. They simply stole and then hoped they would not get caught. Some employees in large retail environments relied on the size of the store and the numerous workers to create cover for their actions.
The study also revealed that the cash register was the most vulnerable spot in the retail environment.
Even when retailers required staff to use personal identification codes when working at the register, employees felt they had anonymity. In some cases, the corporate culture seemed to reinforce this thinking.
According to the report, employees who stole were encouraged “by a company culture that was inclined to put losses in the store down to external thieves—the loss of stock was due to the local drug-taking youths and the prioritization of this problem by store security staff offered reassurance to offenders.”