#424: How to Stop a Thief

#424: How to Stop a Thief

Surely, one of the biggest costs of running a retail business is loss due to theft.  If you open your doors to the public, somebody’s going to try and steal from you.  That is just the unfortunate reality of the world we inhabit.  Thieves have existed for as long as civilization, I’ll wager.

We had several defenses in place to protect ourselves from theft.  Although I do not have any numbers, I believe we were about effective as you could reasonably expect.

First and foremost, theft can be stopped by an aware staff.  When I first started at the Record Store in ’94, the boss said that not only is customer service #1, but it can help reduce theft.  If I were to walk up to every customer browsing on the floor to ask if they needed help, then any potential thieves would be aware that I had been watching and paying attention.  The boss taught us that diligent customer service can stop most theft before it happens.

On top of that, another thing I would do is purposely work right next to a suspicious person.  If I saw a customer acting all shady like they were trying to hide what they were doing with their hands, I would walk right next to them and start straightening CDs where they stood.  That probably helped, too.

SECURITY CASEThe second thing we did, at least in the early days, was apply magnetic tags to every item in stock.  For our CDs, that was easily done.  Remember those big, plastic security cases that had to be unlocked at the counter?  Some stores still use them.  You couldn’t break them open without wrecking the contents, and you couldn’t open them without the key, which was behind the counter.  Each security case had magnetic tags in it.  Put a CD in one of those things, and it’s not going anywhere without setting off the alarms.

For tapes, we didn’t have those security cases so we applied the magnetic tags directly to the cassette.  We’d try to hide them on the side opposite from the spine.  This was effective, but less so.  A thief could peel off those magnetic tags and often did.  It was never a good day when we found a bunch of those tags stuck under a shelf somewhere, like an old piece of gum.

Every Wednesday, we’d do a “tape check”.  Either T-Rev or I would go through every single tape in house, and make sure the magnetic tag was on there securely.  If it was peeling, we’d tape it on.  If it was ripped off (sometimes just from age and shelf wear), we’d replace it.  We were encouraged to replace as few of those as possible.  The stickers were something like 5 cents each, and that adds up very quickly when you have a few thousand tapes in stock.

With the magnetic tags and the tape check every Wednesday, we had it partly covered.  You’d also have to watch for kids trying to bypass the security gate.  You might see a kid walking out with his backpack lifted over his head (and gate).   I had also heard that a notorious local gang of thieves had lined their coats with tinfoil.  Tinfoil can stop the magnetic tags from setting off the alarms.  People used tinfoil to make “booster bags” – a device you can hide a tagged item in, in order to steal it without triggering the alarm.  Although I never witnessed it myself, the rumour was that these guys used something similar, and lined their coats with the stuff.  That’s how they managed to steal such huge quantities.  The gangs didn’t steal from us, but they targeted the big chain stores like HMV.  They were known all over town.  Every once in a while, I’ll still see one of their names in the newspaper.  The leader was recently busted in a meth sting, after having racked up 40 convictions over the years.


Been Caught Stealing indeed!

When we changed the store’s format to 99% used CDs, we did away with the magnetic tags.  Instead we displayed empty cases only, while the precious CDs themselves were behind the counter.  This did result in some confusion, but much less costly theft prevention.

I’d still have customers walk up to me and say, “Hey buddy, I think somebody ripped you off.  This CD case is empty.”  Apparently, that customer didn’t notice the 7000 CDs behind me.

To try and help the customer understand what was going on, we put little signs on the CD shelves.  “All cases are empty.”  Even this caused confusion!  A few people would walk up to me and ask, “It says all cases are empty, so does that mean I have to buy the CD separately?”  Others would ask, “So you only sell the cases, not the CDs?”

Yeah, that’s it….

Unfortunately we could never completely stop theft.  Sometimes we would look up a CD in inventory.  The disc would be listed in stock, and the CD itself still behind me…but the case nowhere to be found anywhere in store.   We would check our sections regularly, but many cases never showed up.  I guess some thieves just ended up with empty ones.

Serves them right, but the last laugh was on us, because we ended up with a lot of case-less CDs that could not be sold.  The parasitic thieves cost us again.


  1. An ounce of prevention…amazing how often the saying is true.
    Interesting to hear about the rationale behind talking to each customer. When shopping I prefer being left alone (unless I seek out help) but then again, I don’t go in with tinfoil lined clothing & a plan to shoplift!
    Good post Mike

    Liked by 2 people

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