Down the pants, under the hat and into the pocket book: The choicest cuts of meat end up in the oddest places via the "five-finger discount."
In fact, shoplifters steal fresh meat more frequently than any other product in grocery stores, according to the Washington-based Food Marketing Institute's "Supermarket Security and Loss Prevention 2005" study. Meat represents more than 20% of merchandise stolen by supermarket shoplifters, followed by health and beauty care items at 15%, and over-the-counter drugs at 13%.
"Shoplifters either steal meat to consume it themselves or they pre-sell it to bar patrons and restaurants," said Bill Alford, president of Charlotte, N.C.-based International Lighthouse Group, and a loss prevention consultant for FMI. "Supermarket employees also steal the most expensive meats [for themselves] or they give them away to friends."
Shoplifters occasionally use creative strategies to smuggle meat out of the stores.
"There are a lot of stories about shoplifters who have blood dripping down their face because they've put a package of meat under their hat," said Dave Shoemaker, group vice president of market development for Thorofare, N.J.-based Checkpoint Solutions, which markets loss-prevention technologies.
Other attempts are not so discreet. At a Stop & Shop store last August, a man from Pawtucket, R.I., was caught trying to steal $150 worth of tenderloins that he had piled into a shopping cart and wheeled out of the store, according to a report published in the Providence Journal. The man was detained after the store's security officials spotted him.
"We protect our meats similar to how we protect the rest of our products, through smart merchandising,"
said Robert Keane, spokesman for Ahold USA's Stop & Shop, Quincy, Mass. "We ensure that there is a sufficient supply of meats to service the customers but not an overabundant amount. Our detectives and meat department associates monitor the cases and we use [closed-circuit TV] to protect key areas of our stores, including the meat department."
In fact, digital TV cameras for surveillance were cited most frequently by the FMI study's respondents, who were asked to name the top cost-saving security strategies.
"Some companies choose to hide their CCTV [screens], but my philosophy is that they should be out in the open where [customers] can see that they are on camera," said Alford, adding the screens act as a deterrent. "Monitors can be placed in public view over the high-end cuts of meat, shrimp, lobster, wine, beer and HBC products."
When targeting stores, would-be thieves take small details, such as picture quality, into consideration.
"If a [dishonest person] notices high-resolution visibility then [they'd consider it a] waste of time to steal something from that particular store," Shoemaker said.
Some retailers are beginning to use CCTV screens to broadcast marketing messages until consumers get within a certain vicinity of the screen. As they draw nearer, the image switches to a view of the shopper, Shoemaker said.
Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores uses TV cameras inside and outside the stores, said Sharon Weber, spokeswoman for the retailer. Though she couldn't provide information relating to theft rates of specific products like meat, Weber acknowledged shoplifting is a problem.
"We have a broad assortment of merchandise in our stores from electronics to health and beauty aids which attract people with less than honorable intentions," she said.
In addition to welcoming customers, Wal-Mart greeters are directed to check receipts for unbagged items that customers attempt to remove from the store, Weber said.
Properly trained and educated employees - the second-most-frequently recommended strategy by respondents to the FMI study - are critical when it comes to preventing theft, Alford said.
"If you see someone putting four or five steaks in a buggy, kill them with kindness and say, 'Hi, how can I help you?' " he said. "You want the good customers and the bad ones to know that you're attentive. A professional shoplifter once told me, 'If I walk into a store and someone says hi and acknowledges me, I'll turn around, walk out and go to another store to steal.'"
Variety was not a priority for a man from Wilson, Pa., who stole 16 two-pound bags of frozen shrimp over 10 days from the same Giant Food store, according to a story in Allentown, Pa.'s Morning Call. The thief smuggled the bags out of the store, under his shirt and down his pants, and then sold the bags of $20 shrimp to small grocery stores for $5 to $10. He was caught on the supermarket's surveillance camera, according to the newspaper article. The three area supermarkets that bought the stolen shrimp were also charged.
"Shoplifting losses are a huge cost for all retailers, including Ahold USA's operating companies," said Barry Scher, spokesman for Ahold USA, Giant's parent company. "All Ahold companies have uniformed and plainclothes loss-prevention [associates] and we also use electronic surveillance technologies."
Retailers hide electronic article surveillance tags under labels on packages of meat or within the meat's soaker pad. If a customer tries to leave the store without paying for something that bears an EAS tag, an alarm will automatically sound.
"At the point of sale, a radio frequency signal [deactivates] the tag's circuit" when the product is scanned, Shoemaker said.
Though they can be effective, the tags are not without challenges, Alford said. "The hardest part is applying the tag," he said. "There is a movement to get the task sourced to the [meat] manufacturer."
Stop & Shop has adopted EAS technology in some of its stores, Keane said. The strategy acts as a hurdle for thieves, even when they are aware of the labels.
"Sometimes the thief tries to rip it off and the label is affixed so tightly that it will tear the plastic packaging," Alford said. "It's hard to resell meat when the plastic is no longer in place. Also, if something is dripping with blood and it's been down someone's pants, it's not very appetizing."
When a shoplifter isn't aware that an item is tagged, he still may elude detection, even after the alarm is triggered. "Sometimes the employee will check the person's bag but other times they might just tell them to go on," Alford said. "There is a 'halo effect' with EAS. For the first three months, companies are usually very vigilant with tagging items and responding to alarms, then they might have a lot of turnover or start to get busier on the front end" and they neglect the strategy. "A major retailer in this country uses a pre-recorded message of a deep-voiced man that says, 'You've activated the inventory control system, go back to the register,'" Alford said.
Broadcasting messages like "security scan in the meat aisle" also intimidates would-be shoplifters, even when a store has no security strategy in place, Alford said.
Often, employees represent the biggest threat to the merchandise. Employees may weigh a less expensive meat or seafood item on the scale in order to create a label for it and then wrap a more expensive cut in the package and give it to a friend, Alford said. Employees may also key in an item that may cost $15, as costing 10 cents or not scan it or key it in at all.
To uncover such scams, a few retailers are using a technology that looks for gaps in scanning. If numerous gaps turn up for a particular employee, a retailer can go back to the tap from its CCTV system and view the video image of what transpired.
"If an employee works 40 hours a week [at the checkout] and they have relatives and their friends coming through, they may get peer pressured into stealing for those people again and again," Alford said. "After one cashier was caught stealing she told me, 'I am not a thief because I only give things away to friends who work here.' If you have 50 people working in a store, that can equate to a lot of incidences of theft."