Understanding how offendors think: The case of shoplifters

It is something of a conundrum that security professionals, geared to assessing risk, have placed so little emphasis on understanding the behaviour of offenders. They are not alone, criminologists who focus on different aspects of crime, have paid limited attention to the ways different types of offenders make decisions and the things that influence them. If we have not sought to properly understand how offenders think, how they react to the threat posed by different security measures, and the skills sets and resources they need to employ to circumvent them, then should we really be surprised that we are often not successful at preventing crime?

Thinking of just offenders for a moment, how can we realistically expect to tackle crime effectively if we do not have the answers to questions such as, what sort of planning is involved? How do offenders choose that target? What makes it easy or difficult and why? What sort of skills are necessary to be successful? Where do offenders get intelligence from? How do they find accomplices? What are their most important considerations when carrying out the offence? How do they choose their method of attack? How do they get away? What do they do with the stolen goods/money? How do they avoid capture or what makes them get caught? How do they manage the threat posed by the police? How seriously do they take the threat of punishment generally and/or imprisonment specifically? These are just examples but understanding the answers to these questions is a minimum requirement for effective security. The problem is that relevant research is in short supply.

The aim of this article is to better understand the decision making process of one group of offenders, shoplifters. Identifying the key points at which decisions are made affords the opportunity to influence that decision. So rather than the thief deciding that he/she will continue with the offence, we can influence him/her through good security to desist. The paper is based on learning from what previous research has been done, and new research that included taking offenders back to the scenes of their crimes, retails stores, and recreating the offences with offenders to better understand what they see as the crucial decision points, and the influences upon them at those key stages. This is supplemented by interviews with convicted thieves. Although the study is based on shoplifters the findings offer the potential to frame thinking about how other types of offenders behave, and how, therefore, they can be encouraged to be stopped.

Key decisions thieves make

Figure 1: Shop thieves' decision circle

The decisions offenders make can be grouped into six conceptual phases, which are shown in Figure 1, starting with choosing the store, and finishing with the disposal of goods. Like most models, it is not the case that all offenders make decisions at each of these stages. Often stages will be missed. If for example, the offender makes the decision to steal while locating the product, there will probably have been less opportunity to influence the thief at the first two decision points because at those points the theft had not been contemplated. This is not always the case of course, sometimes thieves can be influenced by what they perceive to be the ease of opportunity and that impression can be built up at various points.

Another point needs to be made about the model. That concerns the decision making capabilities of offenders. Not all offenders will consider all the pros and cons at each stage, they, like many people making all types of decisions have 'limited' or 'bounded' rationality. It is perhaps helpful to look at each of these decision points in turn.

Choosing the store

Sometimes shoplifters chose stores according to what they aimed to steal. Geography played a part, being local was more convenient, but there was a greater danger of being recognised. Stores where security was known to be weak were attractive, this was not just a case of traditional security measures being installed or not, but also staff awareness and levels of organisation which gave the impression staff were on the ball; reputations count. Familiarity was also relevant; choice was often influenced by a sense of 'better the devil you know than the one you don't' and this feeling could be heightened where a thief had previous successes there.

Two other factors can influence decision making at this point. The first concerns how busy the store is. Some thieves choose to steal at a time of day when the store was not busy, because that way there is less chance of someone spotting them committing a theft. Others, interestingly, preferred times when the store was busy because they could more easily blend into a crowd. The second is the availability of escape routes. This is a massively important deal for a thief, and for that matter all types of offenders, there was no point in committing a theft if you could not get away with it.

Entering the store

Once the thief enters the store he/she has to worry about being noticed. Being identified as potential thieves may mean staff and store security pay more attention to them. There are a number of things that thieves have to consider.

One of the most important things is not to be noticed. As noted above the number of people in the store would affect their judgement on the suitability of it as a place to steal from. Some made an initial assessment by assessing the number of cars in the car park, but once inside the store they conduct a more accurate assessment. After all, customers pose as much of a risk as staff; any individual can raise the alarm or worse still intervene directly. The main aim of the thief was to look like any other customer. Some noted that they paid attention to the type of customers entering the store, their age, and gender profile, and the way they dressed; it was important not to look too out of place.

Entering the store was also the first point at which they could assess security. Were there security staff or cameras about, if so did they look like they could be a problem? Were there ways around them, for example CCTV cameras are less of a threat if there are good blind spots where stolen goods can be concealed. Most importantly, and not least where the entrance chosen was also going to be the exit, there was an opportunity to assess the escape route as noted above, this was always a priority.

Locating the product

Thieves stealing 'to order' behaved in many ways like ordinary shoppers, there was a list of things they 'needed' and they sought to find the goods and steal (rather than pay) for them. The big advantage of stealing to order was that thieves knew they would be able to sell them on easily, although many thieves used fences some of whom agreed to take whatever they stole at typically a third to half of the retail price. Others found friends and neighbours as well as small business outlets to buy whatever they stole.

Some thieves went straight to the product they wanted to take, that way they minimised the amount of time in the store when they were most at risk. Conversely, some searched for goods which gave them the chance to assess security and whether they had been spotted as a potential thief. Typically, consistent with behaving like a normal shopper, they would look at a variety of goods, browse, and try not to look around too much, a sure sign to security staff including store detectives that they might be up to no good.

Concealing the product

The moment they conceal the product they have indicated that they are a thief to anyone who happens to notice them, so it is crucial to do this effectively and they use a variety of techniques. Some hid goods within normal clothes, especially baggy clothes. Some though used special clothing such as large jackets and coats with internal pockets, trousers with deep pockets or wide waists. Some preferred specially designed packages with space inside to conceal goods. Some used other implements including an unopened umbrella, or secreted goods inside rolled newspapers, and of course shopping bags. Some hid goods inside containers purchased legitimately, such as a suitcase although they relied here on the cashier not checking properly.

Many shoplifters were skilful at stealing. For example, one shoplifter interviewed by the researcher claimed that he had stolen three times a day on average, every single day for two years and had only been caught four times. The main techniques they used, involve moving quickly and swiftly reducing the chance that anyone who happened to be watching would notice anything untoward. Others use sleight of hand, and in a variety of ways. For example, a thief may handle various items on the shelf but secretly conceal one and rearrange others to disguise the missing item. They may use a trolley or basket and hide smaller goods under bigger ones which they steal when they are in a blind spot. Indeed, thieves often make use of blind spots, some of which occur in the store and some they create, by for example, using their body as a shield between the line of sight of people or cameras and the goods to be stolen.

Some thieves make us of distraction techniques, and there are a few, including accomplices creating a scene to attract attention away from the person doing the stealing. Some argued that they would collude with insiders. Working on inside knowledge always made things easier especially if the insider was able to provide insights into security measures that didn't work or could be rendered ineffective.

Leaving the store

As noted above, the escape is a vital part of the theft. Stealing goods is one thing, getting away is another, and more important. The key to a successful getaway starts with having avoided attracting attention at an earlier stage, particularly in concealing the goods. The ideal exit strategy involves blending in with customers, so that the thief is not noticed. Some offenders purchased goods as they exited to appear as if they were behaving normally, and it also gave them a chance to check and see whether anyone was watching. Some noted that the check-out provided cover and so they were able to steal while leaving, sometimes this was helped by an accomplice creating a distraction.

Disposing of the goods

Clearly, goods have to be sold. As noted many used a fence, others who stole to order had a ready market for sales. Few thieves worried about getting caught once they had left the store, underlining once again that not only can the store create an environment which is less conducive to theft, but that if it does not, few thieves see impediments once they've passed the exit gates. Some do occasionally get caught, but this appears to be rare.


What this article has hopefully shown is that it is possible to assess the decision making process of offenders in a way that can be helpful for crime prevention. By focussing on the key points at which shoplifters make important decisions, we can assess what they consider important at these stages or what they do or need to try and do to steal successfully. This gives us clues as to how we might weight their decision making process so that they don't steal or are not successful. It will need carefully crafted security measures that influence specific decision making decisions which requires skill.

This research is just one limited example of how research on offenders can help inform security strategies. There are many other issues beyond what is discussed here, but the fact of the matter is that there is limited research available and that for sure has limited how effective security strategies can be.

The author of this article is Professor Martin Gill who is Managing Director of Perpetuity Research and Consultancy International. Article source: Security Insider Jun/Jul 2010


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