How Do Supermarkets Protect Stolen Goods?


Most shoplifted items are small and expensive, and grocery stores have very thin profit margins. This means that any loss is significant. So how do supermarkets protect stolen goods?

Here’s what I know from decades of experience:

Well-trained employees are the number one way used by grocery stores to protect stolen goods. But grocery stores can’t rely solely on employees. They also use security cameras and lock up expensive frequently stolen items. Some grocery stores may even hire private security or undercover cops. 

But that just scratches the surface.

You may also be interested to know which items are most often stolen from supermarkets. And do you know is unscanned barcodes also set off alarms? Besides, how do shops know if an item has been stolen?

Just keep reading to learn more!

How do grocery stores prevent theft?

The best way for grocery stores to prevent theft is by training their employees to be more attentive and spot shoplifters. Knowing where the blind spots in a store are is also helpful, as well as being aware of suspicious behavior. Many also hire professional security guards. 

Every year, grocery stores lose 1.35% of their inventory due to theft. (source)

While this doesn’t seem like a lot on the surface, remember grocery stores have really thin profit margins. This means that any loss is a significant one.

The most important way to prevent theft is to have attentive employees.

Properly trained and attentive employees can provide hands-on customer service, which allows them to spot potential shoplifters.

Loitering customers without a cart or basket may try to avoid any encounters with employees. While this strategy may not cut out theft completely, it can help grocery stores be more aware.

Employees are also trained to look out for suspicious behavior. Large shopping bags, hanging around high-theft items, moving in groups, and hanging around certain areas for long periods of time are all indicators that someone is likely to steal.

Shoplifters may also stoop or hide their hands in order to conceal an item.

If something like this is spotted, employees engage with them. Now, by “engage with them,” I don’t mean accuse them. I mean, ask them if they need help finding anything or if they have any questions. Alternatively, the employee may report the activity to a manager.

Another way to prevent theft is to encourage customers to use a cart or basket.

Customers that use reusable shopping bags may want to use those bags to carry their items while they are in the store. By the time they get to the front of the store, employees may think that they have already paid for their items.

Instead, customers should be prompted to use a cart or basket provided by the store.

Stores also employee security tags that set off alarms when an item is carried out of the store without payment. At the same time, CCTV cameras help to monitor customer behavior in the entire store. 

What is the most stolen item from supermarkets?

The most stolen items from supermarkets are meat, steaks, ground beef, roasts, etc. Other items that are stolen frequently are energy drinks, over the counter medicine, and cosmetics.

These items are relatively small and are easy to conceal. They are usually left out in the open and not security tagged. This makes meat easy to shoplift

Bear in mind most shoplifters steal with the intention of later trying to return it for cashback. So they tend to not only steal small things but also higher-priced things such as over the counter medicine, and cosmetics.

Spotting a meat thief can be tricky, though.

Especially during the winter when everyone is wearing a big coat. They sneak it up and shove it in their coat. This is where the well-trained employee comes in.

A well-trained employee will be able to spot the thief. To another shopper, the individual may appear overweight. But to an employee, they will see someone acting suspiciously with an ill-fitting coat.

I still recall busting a woman in San Francisco with dozens of packages of meat stuffed down her workout pants with a heavy coat worn on top.

Advil, Claritin, and weight loss drugs are some of the most stolen over the counter medicines.

There are a lot of different departments in supermarkets, meaning that there are a lot of potential places to steal from.

To read about the different departments, just check out this recent article.

Just click the link to read it on my site.

Do unscanned barcodes set off alarms?

No, unscanned barcodes do not set off alarms, as barcodes are only meant for the purpose of inventory and not security. Unlike department stores, most grocery stores do not use security sensors to trigger alarms when exiting the store if not removed.

If you’ve ever purchased multiples of a single product, you may notice that the cashier doesn’t always scan each product.

They can simply put in the number of items you purchased and scan a single item.

While the number of items is accounted for, each individual barcode is not scanned. Chances are, you’ve made it out of the door without setting off the alarm.

If the alarm went off every time a barcode was not scanned, the alarms would be going off all day.

But that’s not to say that there are no items with security tags. Things that are frequently stolen, or high value, can have security tags on them or inside the packaging.

But it’s really uncommon for grocery stores to use security tags.

The reason grocery stores don’t usually use security tags is due to the time it would take at checkout to remove them. That would mean longer lines or potentially require more personnel. Neither of those things are good for a store looking to have happy customers and maximize low profit margins.

How do shops know if something is stolen?

Most stores do inventory monthly or quarterly. So if they know they received 10 of an item, and computer records show 7 were sold, there should be 3 left on the shelf. If there is only 1 on the shelf, they know 2 were stolen.

As I mentioned, security scanners are not common in grocery stores. So, unfortunately, that means there isn’t always an easy or quick way to know if something was stolen.

Every item is accounted for during inventory. Grocery stores know that they can’t prevent every theft, but they can count their losses.

As I mentioned above, most thieves steal with the intention of later returning it to get cash. So in the moment of the return, with the thief obviously not having a receipt, there is not a lot the store can do to verify the original purchase.

I still recall a guy wanting to return 15 lbs of shrimp without a receipt or the product

It was a busy holiday in December and there were a lot of customers. The guy made a big stink about how the shrimp was bad and made all of his dinner party guests sick.

In short, he chose a busy day and time and made up a story designed to make us want to pay him money quickly so that other customers withuin ear shot weren’t alarms that we would be selling poor quality shrimp.

But in this case, I asked him to describe the employee who sold him the shrimp knowing that being a busy holiday day, that employee would not only likely be working, but also remember such a large order of shrimp.

He gave me a vague description, and then I asked him to walk with me to the seafood counter.

In short, most thieves will abandon their efforts if they don’t get quick results. When he couldn’t identify any of the employees, and none of them remembered the large sale, we checked the sales records for that item number to see if there was a recent sale in that quantity.

Big surprise there wasn’t and he quickly left.

This is why most stores insist on a receipt for returns. They may offer you an exchange, but they likely won’t give you any money back if you don’t have a receipt.

And sometimes they may not know if something is stolen.

Small items are stolen all the time. Besides that, a lot theft is internal (ie: employees). So if someone steals something, and they don’t try to return it, they will likely never get caught. 

Do grocery stores use undercover cops?

Yes, many grocery stores use undercover & uniformed cops, or private security. But they tend to be more of a deterent rather than catching & arresting thieves. Officers & security guards are trained to look for suspicious behavior and most theives will leave quickly if they feel they are being watched or followed.

Loss prevention people work very closely with law enforcement.

And most police officers and state troopers are paid fairly low and often will take security jobs on the side as a way to add extra income. Plus, compared to chasing down criminals on the street, grocery store security jobs are pretty low risk.

Sometimes grocery stores will hire private security, too.

Private security tends to be cheaper by the hour. They may or may not be in uniform. And while they don’t have the power to arrest someone, they do have the power to detain shoplifters until the police show up.

Even if a store doesn’t have undercover cops or private security, almost all grocery stores have loss prevention people.

They don’t wear uniforms, and they are not always obvious. They will recognize frequent shoplifters, and they are trained to recognize potential shoplifters.

And every supermarket has cameras. So they will see you. And if they don’t catch shoplifters the first time, they will catch them eventually.

How often do employees steal?

95% of employees steal from their employer at least once. That is an increase of 79% compared to statistics from 1999. About 1 in every 40 employees in retail positions gets arrested for theft every year.

Unfortunately, it’s REALLY common. (source for above)

As a GM (what they called Store Team Leader) for Whole Foods Market for many years, I’ve unfortunately fired dozens of employees for theft.

Often it was smaller items for personal consumption.

But on one occasion, I had to fire our meat manager who was loading an entire stock cart of meat into his car (and had probably been doing it for months if not years before he got caught).

Employees steal for a wide variety of reasons, but most often it’s one of these:

  • Because they feel they are entitled due to low pay or poor working conditions
  • They think the company is making plenty of money and won’t miss a few bucks
  • Because they have seen others steal and not get caught
  • They have seen the boss do things that are against company policy, implying that the rules don’t have to be followed

While employers will never be able to prevent all employee theft, there are a few simple rules I lived by as a GM which I believe makes it happen less frequently.

Those are:

  • Treat all theft the same regardless of the dollar amount
  • Be firm, fair, and consistent in how you handle every incident of employee theft
  • Treat your employees well and give benefit of the doubt if there’s a question
  • Never, ever ask your employees to follow rules you don’t follow

Did I answer everything you wanted to know about how do supermarkets protect stolen goods?

In this article, I talked about how supermarkets protect stolen goods.

I talked about how grocery stores prevent theft. And how they train their employees to check for suspicious behavior among shoppers. I also talked about whether unscanned barcodes set off alarms.

And that grocery stores may even use undercover cops and private security, apart from regular employees. 

Be a good person, don’t steal. Stealing from a grocery store could get you banned from the store, and it can result in criminal charges. It’s not worth it.

Jeff Campbell

Hi! I'm Jeff Campbell. I was a leader for Whole Foods Market for over 2 decades. I worked in 9 stores in 4 states, not counting the hundred-plus stores I've assisted in other ways. I was a Global All-Star, a Gold Pen Winner, and won Top-10 Store (company-wide) 3 times in addition to Best New Store (company-wide).

Recent Content