How to protect your small business from shoplifters: top tips guide

Laura Court-Jones, SEO Copywriter at Bionic
By Laura Court-Jones, Small Business Editor

Running a small business comes with its fair share of challenges, but one that’s often overlooked is shoplifting.  

Shoplifting can seriously impact your business, from loss of revenue to lack of trust, it’s not easy to try and pick yourself — and your shop — back up after it happens.  

In 2023 alone, over 402,400 shoplifting offences were recorded by police in England and Wales, up by 32% compared to 2022 — that’s a lot of stock being taken off the shelves.  

But how can you prevent becoming just another number? We’ll tell you everything you need to know in this Bionic guide.  

Young woman stealing a chocolate bar and putting it in her handbag

What is shoplifting?

Shoplifting can threaten the livelihood of your business, but what exactly is it? 

Well, shoplifting refers to someone taking goods from your shop without paying for them, meaning you have a loss of inventory and a loss of income.  

Shoplifting affects not just the store and its employees, who work hard to provide a service, but also the community. Prices might go up to cover losses, and trust can dwindle between the business and its customers.  

Why do people shoplift?

Unfortunately, people shoplift for a variety of reasons, each as unique as the individuals themselves. Some of the main reasons include: 

  • Economic need or gain —  Sometimes, people find themselves in a tough spot financially, especially during the rising cost of living crisis the UK has been in for the past few years. The pressure to meet basic needs or the desire for something they can’t afford might lead people to take items without paying for them.  
  • Compulsion — For some, shoplifting isn’t about what items they take but the act itself. It can be a compulsion, a strong urge that’s hard to control. This is often related to a deeper emotional or physiological issue.  
  • Thrill-seeking or rebellion — The adrenaline rush of taking something without getting caught can be a powerful lure for thrill seekers, and, unfortunately, it’s your business that gets caught in the crossfire. This is especially true for teenagers, as it might be a form of rebellion and a way to push against the rules and test limits.  
  • Peer pressure — We all know it’s human nature to want to fit in, especially when you’re young. Sometimes, the influence of friends or peers can lead to someone being peer pressured into shoplifting to gain approval or feel like they belong to a group. 
  • Habit or addiction — What starts as a one-time thing can, for some, turn into a destructive habit or even an addiction. The repetitive nature of shoplifting becomes part of their routine and can be addictive if they’re not getting caught. This can be extremely challenging to break away from.  
  • Mental health issues — Mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, or more complex disorders can sometimes manifest themselves in behaviours like shoplifting. It can be a cry for help or a way for individuals to cope with overwhelming emotions or situations.  

What are the UK laws around shoplifting?

Worryingly, the number of shoplifting cases increased by a staggering 24% across England and Wales in 2023. And that can have a serious impact on small businesses that are just trying to get by.  

However, the UK does have laws in place for anyone who’s caught shoplifting.  

Shoplifting is an offence under Section 1 of the ‘Theft Act 1968’ and anyone caught will be charged with the following:

If the cost of the goods stolen is less than £200 — also known as ‘low-value shoplifting — the person will be charged under Section 176 of the ‘Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act’. The penalty for this is a £70 fine without the thief having to appear at the Magistrates. However, they could get a maximum sentence of six months.

On the other hand, if the stolen goods cost more than £200, the penalty for shoplifting can be up to seven years in prison.

Do you need insurance to protect against shoplifters? 

One of the biggest worries small business owners can face is the risk of someone stealing from their store. No matter the value of what they steal, it can leave you feeling frustrated, sad or even angry.  

Unfortunately, the wording around shoplifting in insurance can be vague, and, in most cases, insurance policies don’t cover shoplifting for a number of reasons. The main one is that without definite proof, such as CCTV showing the event in detail, most insurers simply won’t cover it.  

The definition of theft for business insurance is “something is stolen by violent or forcible means”. This effectively means shoplifting is excluded unless someone is assaulted or physically breaks into the property. 

Tips to keep your business protected from shoplifters 

Keeping your business safe from shoplifters can sometimes be challenging, especially when you don’t know if and when they’ll strike. Here are some smart tips to help keep your business secure: 

  • Know how to spot a shoplifter — It’s not always easy to spot a shoplifter, especially when they can just look like a normal member of the public. Train yourself and your team to recognise any signs that might be classed as suspicious. This can be anything from excessive fidgeting, wearing bulky clothes on a warm day or constantly watching staff instead of browsing items. But, it’s sometimes about your intuition and observation skills.  
  • Create shoplifting policies — Create a helpful playbook for your team that outlines the steps to take when they suspect someone is shoplifting. This could include things like engaging the customer in a friendly conversation or having discreet signals to alert security or management if you think someone is potentially going to steal. Make sure to empower your staff so they know what’s expected of them and that they’re supported.  
  • Make sure to use crime mapping — Crime mapping is used by analysts to map, visualise and analyse crime incident patterns. By understanding where and when shoplifting happens most, you can adjust your security measures, staff schedules and even your store layout to stay one step ahead! 
  • Use electronic tags — These are the silent heroes of inventory security. There are a few different variations of them, such as ones that beep at the exit to ones that spill ink on items — such as clothes — if they’re forcibly removed. This not only deters theft but also protects an item from being sold if stolen.  
  • Complete regular stock takes — Regular inventory checks can be a huge help in knowing what has been stolen from your shop. They ensure that everything is accounted for and can help spot trends in missing items. Learn about how to manage your stock in our guide. 
  • Redo your business layout — Redesigning the layout of your business can be a hassle, but if you’ve seen a sharp rise in items being stolen, it can be a big help. Essentially, you want to design your shop so everything is visible and accessible, and there are no dark corners for shoplifters to hide. Use high shelves for high-value items and position the till near the exit, making it a natural checkpoint.  
  • Use CCTV — CCTV cameras are essential when you’re running your business. From a small clothing store on the high street to a jewellery shop in an indoor market, watching over your shop is key. Place CCTV cameras across the shop to cover as much area as possible, especially any spots that may be less visible to staff. Modern systems allow remote monitoring, so you can keep an eye on your store when you’re not even there!  

How to spot a shoplifter  

Spotting a shoplifter isn’t always the easiest of tasks, especially when you might not really be sure what you’re looking for. However, there are a number of tell-tale signs that can flag someone as a shoplifter.  

Watching you or your staff 

If someone seems more interested in your or your team's movements than the items you’ve got on sale, then this could be a red flag.  

This could mean that they’re potentially trying to track the movements of your staff to find the perfect moment to make their move.  

Talking to keep your attention 

Some shoplifters use conversation as a tool to distract staff members.  

By engaging in a lengthy conversation about anything and everything, as well as asking numerous questions, they aim to divert your attention away from their actions or the actions of something they’re working with.  

This tactic can be quite effective because it makes you want to provide good customer service as a business owner.

Taking little notice of the products 

You might notice that people who show little interest in the products you sell might be in the shop for the wrong reasons.  

Instead of examining items, reading labels or checking sizes, they may simply wander through the aisles with a vague, unfocused gaze. This lack of engagement is usually in stark contrast to someone who is a typical shopper.  

Nervous behaviour  

Nervousness and anxiety can manifest in different ways. This can include things like fidgeting, sweating, avoiding eye contact or just a general feeling of unease.  

While not all nervous customers are shoplifters, people who give off excessive nervous energy, combined with other suspicious behaviours, can be a sign of someone who is guilty!

Frequently enters the store and never makes a purchase 

If you regularly notice the same person entering your store without ever making a purchase, it can be a red flag. While it isn’t always necessarily the case (maybe they just like to browse!), this behaviour might indicate that they’re scoping the store to understand its layout, security measures and peak times of business. 

What should you do if you see a shoplifter in action? 

It can be hard to know what to do if you see someone stealing from your shop, and, in the heat of the moment, you may only have a split second to react.  

According to the Metropolitan Police, if you see someone stealing, then ask them politely to put the item back and make sure to keep your tone neutral. If you feel threatened, back off — you never know if they might have a weapon on them.  

Always be sure that someone has actually stolen before you speak to them. Once you’re sure, then call 999 and report it.  

What to do if you’ve been a victim of theft 

The fact of the matter is, shoplifting does happen. And while it’s not always preventable, it’s good to know what to do if you’ve been a victim of theft.  

  • Report the incident to the police — Your first step should be informing the police about the theft. If possible, provide them with as much detail as possible, including the estimated time frame, a description of the stolen item(s) and any other information you think might be relevant. This is crucial for starting the official investigation process and potentially recovering any stolen goods.  
  • Review security footage — If you have CCTV footage, review it and gather the evidence so it’s possible to potentially identify the people involved. This can be invaluable information for the police who are investigating and can also help you understand how the theft occurred. 
  • Record what's been stolen — Take stock of what has been taken to understand the full impact. This will not only be necessary for the police report, but also for insurance claims and your records. It’ll help you understand the value of the loss and the next steps for planning how you will recover. 
  • Contact your insurance company — You never want to make a claim on your business insurance, but in this case, it's important that you notify your insurance provider about the theft as soon as possible. You’ll need to provide them with a list of stolen items and details about the incident.   
  • Strengthen security measures — After a theft, it’s so important that you review and improve your security measures to prevent any future incidents. This might involve upgrading locks on more high-value items, installing better lighting or increasing the amount of cameras you have around the shop.  

Protect your business with Bionic 

We understand the effects shoplifting can have on your business and the pain it can leave you in. From out-of-pocket charges for replacing stock to that uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach, it’s not easy to get over. 

At Bionic, we’ve got your business insurance covered. Get cover for your premises, your people, your stock and more. We’ll help you compare, switch and renew, just call one of our tech-enabled experts a call on 0800 860 6833 or start a quote online. 

Find out more about business insurance with our guides.