"I Didn't Shoplift, I Just Forgot to Pay!"

Loss Prevention is Watching You


Did You Make an Honest Mistake or Commit a Crime?

So, you're at the supermarket and you've got quite a list of things to purchase. Since you can't fit everything up top, you decide to place a few of the bigger items, (paper towels, laundry detergent, water, milk, etc.) on the bottom layer of the shopping cart and go through the checkout lane.

After ringing your purchases, you pay the cashier and roll your now bagged groceries outside to the parking lot.

Suddenly, you're interrupted by an employee of the store, who presents an ID and asks you to return inside the store with them. You ask what the problem is and they answer, "We can discuss it inside." You're understandably nervous as the person follows you back into the store in front of onlookers, as if they've just captured a serial killer.

The employee is a member of the supermarket's Loss Prevention department and he/she wants to know why you have unpaid for items under your cart. Was it an honest mistake or did you shoplift?

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Shoplifting is a Major Cause of High Retail Prices


Just an Honest Mistake?

Being in the Loss Prevention business myself for over 16 years, it's been my experience that 7 out of 10 shopping carts leaving the store with unpaid for merchandise are honest mistakes. The customer is too concerned with their money, credit cards, etc. and the cashier is either poorly trained or distracted. Those 7 out of 10 customers, (if not stopped by an employee) usually return to the store on their own, once the mistake is noticed. They're usually embarrassed and apologetic, as well. The other 3 times? Not so much.

How Loss Prevention Determines a Mistake

Stopping an honest customer concerning unpaid merchandise is the absolute last step for a Loss Prevention employee to take. Why? Customers are responsible for your paycheck and mistakes do happen, so it's best to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Before stopping any customer, it's usual protocol (if an employee up front doesn't see it first), for an LP to call the cashier directly and tell them to check for merchandise that is underneath the cart, or somehow covered up. This avoids an embarrassing scene at the door or in the parking lot.

If the cashier cannot be reached, I would usually run up to the front of the store to and ask one of the employees to stop them, as I was only allowed to stop those who purposely took merchandise from the premises without paying for it.

If there was no one up front, I would go outside and wait to see what the customer did with the unpaid for merchandise. Would he/she discover it and return on their own or put it inside their vehicle and drive away? Depending on the situation, the customer and the merchandise involved, I would either approach the customer and point out the mistake, or apprehend them for shoplifting. Why? Every situation is different.

Below are 3 different scenarios I've come across and my actions upon seeing them. What would you have done.

  • EXAMPLE A: Elderly shopper has a carriage full of groceries. On the bottom rungs of the cart is a 10 lb. bag of dog food, a gallon of milk and a package of toilet paper. After the customer pays for he merchandise up top, she is stopped and claims she made a mistake. Is it an honest mistake or shoplifting?
  • EXAMPLE B: A male shopper (mid 30's) has approximately $30 worth of groceries in the top half of the cart, which he pays for. Underneath, however, are 2 cases of brand name baby formula, 5 packs of Duracell batteries and 10 packages of Gillette Mach III razor blades. He is stopped outside of the store and claims to have forgotten to pay for the merchandise. Is this an honest mistake or is it shoplifting?
  • EXAMPLE C: A woman purchases $100 worth of merchandise and leaves the store. She has no merchandise underneath the cart, but earlier she placed three greeting cards (worth $12) and 2 packages of lipstick (worth $24) underneath her pocketbook/handbag, which was in the child seat portion of the cart. When she is stopped she claimed to have forgotten about the concealed merchandise/ Honest mistake or shoplifting?

Answers are below

Sometimes Shoplifting Apprehensions Get Out of Control

Answers: Honest Customers or Shoplifters?

EXAMPLE A: It was pretty easy to see this was an honest mistake made by the customer. Why? Aside from the fact that she is an older person, a regular shopper at the store and well-known to employees and management. She had several high priced items in the top of her cart and the items below only totalled a few dollars. Logic dictates were she planning on stealing, she would have placed the $80 worth of meats and deli items underneath, instead of a $5 bag of dog food, a $2.99 gallon of milk and a $3 package of toilet paper. When she was stopped, she was visibly embarrassed and immediately made payment for the merchandise.VERDICT: HONEST MISTAKE

EXAMPLE B: The shopper in this scenario is shady. He had only $30 worth of items in the top half of the cart, but a few hundred dollars worth of merchandise underneath. Although the expensive merchandise was not concealed, it was pretty obvious he didn't intend to pay for it. When he left the store, I stopped him with the assistance of the store manager. The customer claimed to have made an honest mistake, saying he forgot to pay. When the manager offered to take payment for the expensive merchandise, the customer angrily accused him of stopping him for theft. He walked away with the merchandise he paid for and left the rest of the stuff for us to take back. VERDICT: SHOPLIFTER (However, this situation had to be treated as an honest mistake, due to the fact that I had not seen him select the items he placed underneath the cart. Further investigation revealed it was the subject's sister who had rung him out. She was fired for violating store policy for ringing out a relative.)

EXAMPLE C: This person deliberately concealed merchandise underneath her pocketbook and left the store without paying for it. I followed her to her car, watched her remove the merchandise from the cart and toss it inside her pocketbook. VERDICT: SHOPLIFTER (The police were called and she was prosecuted)

Concealment is One of the Five Steps to Determine Shoplifting


Suppose I'm Ever Stopped for an Honest Mistake?

The decision on whether it was an honest mistake or a shoplifting, is made on a case by case basis. There are many gray areas in the loss prevention rules and what may be ok in one store, is sometimes not, in another.

If you should ever be stopped for an honest mistake, my advice is to remain calm, explain the circumstances and be sure to ask that the store manager be present to hear your story. Although it doesn't happen often, an unethical loss prevention officer may twist your story around and use it against you to charge you with shoplifting. It's rare, but it does happen. In this situation, immediately notify your attorney.

Happy Shopping!

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Comments 2 comments

Minnetonka Twin profile image

Minnetonka Twin 18 months ago from Minnesota

This is really interesting and I love hearing from you-a LP employee. A couple years ago I was shopping at Cub. All of my groceries were on the top of the cart. I put my case of pop at the bottom as it was the only place they fit. Between putting out my groceries, pulling out pen and check book, I didn't even notice that or remember that I had not been charged for my pop. When I got out to my car and things were less chaotic, I realized they forgot to charge me for the pop and went back in. They thanked me for my honesty and I apologized for being scattered. I'm sure it happens as an honest mistake because of having too much going on. Some of us aren't good at multi-tasking. LOL Thanks for the informative hub.

rockinjoe profile image

rockinjoe 18 months ago from Standing right behind you! Author

Thanks for the comment, Minnetonka Twin. Glad you enjoyed the hub.

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