Merchants, shoppers advised to be on guard against thieves

Keep alert to keep grinches at bay

Zach White saw the stranger through a window.

The man inside of Lids, 729 Mass, was scanning one of the hat racks – nothing too unusual, White thought. But then he saw the man slide a Kansas City Royals cap under his baggy sweatshirt and walk toward the door.

“I tried to slow him down, but he took off running,” said White, who works at the downtown retailer.

Watching for shoplifters is a constant chore for many retailers. But as holiday shoppers flock in, the threat grows.

National crime statistics show that shoplifting often increases during the holidays, leaving merchants searching for ways to keep shoplifters at bay.

“You’re looking at higher customer levels,” Lawrence Police spokesman Dan Ward said. “The clerks are too busy helping all the customers to watch everyone.”

According to Kansas Bureau of Investigation statistics, shoplifting in Lawrence peaked during the holiday months twice in the past four years. In 2004, shoplifting reports peaked in December with 44, up from a low of 25 in August. In 2002, shoplifting spiked from 27 cases in November to 61 in December.

Ward said the rise in shoplifting numbers often occurred because larger retailers employ private security to watch shoppers during the holidays. The more eyes on the customers, Ward said, the more they can catch thieves red-handed.

But for smaller retailers downtown, employees have to keep a close eye on customers.

Backwoods sales manager Eric Cloud helps Lawrence resident Claire Roberts with her shopping Monday afternoon in the store, 916 Mass. Cloud explained that Backwoods has not incorporated any means of deterring theft over the holidays other than having more sales assistants on the floor helping customers.

“You get a sense of: OK, should I keep my eye on them?” said Adrian Meneses, operations manager at Backwoods, 916 Mass.

If a customer is a stranger, Meneses said he or another employee would take the time to give them careful service – both to help them find what they’re looking for and to watch for any suspicious behavior.

During the holidays, Backwoods doubles its number of employees in the store, trying to keep the incidents of theft down as they help customers. But it’s difficult to watch everyone all the time.

“You just have to keep your head on a swivel,” said manager Eric Cloud.

Shoppers can also be targets, when shopping-bag-filled cars can become quick targets for thieves.

“What we do see is more auto burglary in parking lots,” Ward said.

Todd Post of the National Crime Prevention Council said shoppers should be wary of the foot traffic, both around their cars and around them.

“There is an increased opportunity for crime,” Post said. “People are out and about, spending money. There’s more auto theft, more pickpockets, more purse-snatching.”

To keep yourself and your possessions safe, Post said, lock your merchandise in your trunk when you go into shop, and keep an eye out for those around you.

“If it looks shady,” Post said, “it probably is.”