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Light-fingered shoppers

June 9, 2011

Germans are known more as big savers than big spenders, but according to a new report, there's no shortage of small-time thieves.

Hands put a computer game into a bag in a shop
Petty theft is big business in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

New research from the EHI Retail Institute suggests that light-fingered Germans stole goods worth a total of 1.9 billion euros ($2.77 billion) last year. Statistically speaking, that's 50 euros per household.

The study, which extrapolated data collected from 88 German retail chains, put daily shoplifting losses at more than 5 million euros.

Almost the same amount again was collectively lost to thieving employees, cleaning and delivery staff and sloppy book-keeping. All told, shops across the country missed out on 3.7 billion euros worth of revenue.

"A mighty figure," Kai Falk, managing director of the German Retail Federation (HDE) told Deutsche Welle, "but it was a drop of 4.8 percent over the previous year's thefts."

Two women in the aisle of a drugstore
Shoppers are often left to their own devices, or are they?Image: DW-TV

Candid cameras

Falk attributes the downward trend to the increased use of video surveillance cameras, which he considers the most important deterrent to would-be thieves, no matter how controversial they might be.

"There is a discussion going on about surveillance and data protection, but it is in the interests of the shops, customers and staff to have video cameras installed."

Of particular concern is the emergence of organized groups of bold thieves who are willing to go to great lengths to steal valuable goods, often with view to selling them on the black market.

"These gangs of criminals are a serious worry," Falk said. "We have had many injured members of staff. As the nature of organized theft is often violent, we have a duty to protect shoppers."

A man puts a bottle of wine under his jacket
Alcohol is particularly popular among German shopliftersImage: picture-alliance/ZB

The personal touch

Cameras are one way of doing that, but Frank Horst, the EHI's director of research, loss prevention and security, says they have a limited reach.

"Technology can help to catch a thief, but attentive staff can prevent theft from happening in the first place," Horst told Deutsche Welle.

He believes the main reason for the slight fall in the numbers of thefts is that companies have been training their staff better in order to sensitize them to the way thieves operate.

This includes teaching them where in a store to position goods such as alcohol, cosmetics, tobacco and razors, all of which are particularly popular among shoplifters.

Cosmetics giant Douglas and the Rossmann drugstore chain both declined to comment on the strategies they use to keep thieves at bay.

Many retailers are reluctant to discuss shoplifting with the media because the cost of stolen goods and anti-theft measures are eventually passed onto consumers in the form of higher prices.

Audacious approach

A woman puts goods on a shop shelf
Staff who know what to look out for can help prevent theftImage: PA/dpa

According to Horst, staff have to be on the ball, as thieves are becoming more and more brazen in their stealing tactics. He says it is no longer a rarity for shoplifters to attempt to clean out entire shelves of a store or to exit an electronics shop quite blatantly carrying a large screen television.

In addition to training personnel, many shops now employ store detectives both day and night.

Where that doesn't necessarily help though, is in the case of crooked employees, who between them, account for 22.4 percent of retail losses. Horst says it is a problem, but that it is neither unusual, nor the most worrying issue.

"There are thieves in every line of business, and in actual fact we're only talking about a small fraction of retail staff who steal."

That fraction, he says, is one in every hundred. But as every shop keeper knows, it all adds up.

Author: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Sam Edmonds