Retailers Lose Nearly $50 Billion Annually to Theft — But Here's How Signage Can Help

Shoplifting, retail security cameras | Shopify Retail blog

What retailer doesn’t want to add to their bottom line? It could start with a sign.

According to a National Retail Federation survey, American retailers lose almost $50 billion annually to theft. Shoplifting accounts for most (36.5%) of those losses. 

Many small- and medium-sized retail businesses aren’t able to afford the same security measures used by big-box retail chains, whether it's expensive scanners at the front door or hidden theft-prevention tags. But signage can provide an inexpensive way to curb shoplifting and minimize loss due to theft.

Losses from theft can cause huge retail chains to go out of business if left unchecked. Knowing what your signs should say and where to place them may determine whether or not a thief targets your business.

SmartSign co-founder and CEO Blair Brewster says, "The goal of retail theft-prevention signs is to scare the thieves, not to intimidate legitimate buyers. Your signs should be a reflection of who you are and what you’re selling.”

To help retailers ensure their signage stops potential shoplifters in their tracks, here are some practical tips and best practices to use signage to deter theft. 

Shoplifting Signage: Best Practices

Shoplifter signage | Shopify Retail

Shoplifters survey everything and everyone around them. While shoppers and staff move about the store and out of a potential shoplifter's line of sight, signs stay put 24/7.

“In a sense, shoplifters are always under surveillance by the signs,” Brewster explains.

Much like a burglar who notices a security system sign in a home’s lawn, shoplifters often will also move on to another, easier mark if the proper anti-theft signage is installed.

Your front door is the first place shoppers look, so it should be the first place you install an anti-theft sign. Put a stop to any funny business by posting an easy-to-read and concise “Shoplifters Will Be Prosecuted” sign on the entrance door.

Shoplifting is a crime signage | Shopify Retail

The audience for your shoplifting or surveillance signs is fairly limited: the people who really take notice are the ones looking for them. Don’t waste your precious shelf or floor space with signs. Instead, put them up high, since that’s where thieves check for surveillance cameras.

The language on these signs should reflect your company’s philosophy. For example, a jewelry store whose clientele drives BMWs may require a different kind of sign than a small town convenience store. Both may aim to counteract theft but in different ways. Humorous signs, like the one pictured below, might work better when trying to deter people from swiping DVDs, not diamonds. 

Humorous theft prevention signage | Shopify Retail

Another important note: There is such a thing as having too many signs, which could cause shoppers to think you’re crying wolf. Relying too heavily on signs may send the message to shoplifters that you don’t actually have an alarm system or surveillance cameras installed.

According to a survey from the National Retail Federation, the most-shoplifted items include:

  • Electronics
  • Cigarettes
  • Pregnancy Tests
  • Handbags
  • Weight loss pills
  • Pain relievers
  • Infant formula
  • Alcohol
  • Razors

Consider placing anti-theft signs near your most expensive or popular products. If you sell products that consumers may be embarrassed to be seen buying, place signs near those items.  Put signs where they'll be noticed, like in areas with heavy foot traffic.

Depending on the tone you’d like to use, relevant theft protection sign messages could include:

  • Shoplifters will be prosecuted
  • All bags are subject to search (Be aware: This is a voluntary procedure. Employees may ask to search bags, but customers can still decline.)
  • You are being videotaped
  • We are watching you
  • NOTICE: This area is under 24-hour video surveillance

Research also shows that signs featuring eyes double the likelihood of compliance. Recreating the feeling of being watched can be accomplished with something as simple as a pair of eyes printed on a sign.

Shoplifter prosecution signage | Shopify Retail

Signs to Curb Employee Theft

Employee theft is responsible for about a third of all retail theft — coming in a close second only to shoplifting. According to Security magazine, the rate of employee theft has increased nine out of the past 10 years with 75,947 dishonest employees apprehended in 2015 at just 25 large retail companies in the U.S.

Because employees have a certain level of trust with management and are more familiar with their workplace than customers, it can be tempting for employees to steal. 

Place the same signs you use near merchandise in the break room, restrooms, stockroom, and other areas workers have access to.

Employee theft signage | Shopify Retail

When employees steal, it’s usually one person out of a larger group. And although employees who steal may only make up a small contingency of your staff, consider customizing anti-theft signage to be geared toward employees.

This kind of theft prevention signage also helps underscore existing company policies. Use the customized signs to remind employees that honesty is your company’s policy. If you make honesty the group norm, staff members are more likely to conform. During initial training and regular meetings, you can also remind staff about anti-theft measures and policies as well as any initiatives to anonymously report suspicious activities.

FURTHER READING: Signage in your store can do more than stop shoplifting. Learn about five types of signage no retailer should ignore.

How Do Signs Help With Loss Prevention?

Today, CCTV cameras are so small that shoppers can be left wondering if they even exist and where they are hidden. Reinforce your store’s security by informing patrons and employees that your store does indeed have surveillance cameras or an alarm system (even if it doesn’t!).  

A simple “Shoplifters Will Be Prosecuted” sign can serve as an intimidating reminder of potential consequences. Signs make it easier to associate your staff with surveillance, letting customers know they’re not just there to assist shoppers — part of their job is also to enforce policies.

There’s no guarantee that signs will stop employee theft or shoplifting entirely, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t post them. While loss prevention expert King Rogers isn’t completely convinced signage alone can deter thieves from stealing, he offers up this trenchant reason to put up signs:

“I don’t think that the overriding purpose of posting a sign in the interior of a retail establishment [stating] that video surveillance is taking place is to be a deterrent to thieves. Thieves are going to steal anyway. They don’t believe in signs. What it’s really intended to be is a legal defense for the retailer.

Frequently, local statutes would require that retailers or any commercial establishment utilizing camera surveillance, video surveillance, post that information [making] it available to the general public.

Signs protect the stores from liability and allow people to shop more confidently, knowing any incident will be recorded. Customers often take comfort in those signs, [and] are more accepting of surveillance; they have actually come to rely on the benefits of all those cameras, since one day it could be an incident in which they’ve been a victim.” 

Moving Forward With Shoplifting Signage

Signage is one crucial component of an overall loss prevention strategy. While signage can help curb shoplifting and protect retailers from liability in some cases, retailers should explore multiple strategies to stop theft. Some of those include training your employees, keeping your store organized, optimizing your store layout, and employing a few other low-tech ways to stop shoplifters in their tracks.

Remember: Be judicious with the number of signs posted in your store. Most shoppers are honest people. If you don’t treat them with respect and trust, they will pick up on that and take their dollars elsewhere.

shopify-author Katelyn Gray

About the Author

Katelyn Gray is the Social Media Associate at SmartSign. Connect with SmartSign on Twitter.