Is anyone stealing product from your optical shop?

September 1, 2009
Carol Patton

Easy steps that can help reduce theft from your optical shop include strategic placement of displays and posters, not leaving locked cases open, and limiting the number of frames that are out at one time.

Key Points

Several years ago, Patricia M. Tolar, MBA, LDO, was about to close her optical store for the day when two scruffy-looking men walked through the door, heading straight toward the area that displayed expensive sunglasses.

Moments later, a clean-cut college student walked in, asking if he could try on certain frames.

Within minutes, the two men walked out. Tolar felt relieved.

Then the college student left, smiling, saying he would return.

As you may have guessed, the three men were a shoplifting team.

Because Tolar and her staff only casually watched the college student, they made it easy for him to stuff roughly $3,000 worth of frames into his backpack.

Since then, Tolar has wised up about internal and external theft. As a business owner of five optical stores and founder of the Optical Business Institute in Chapel Hill, NC, she said this scenario could have taken place in any store, regardless of its location, how affluent its customers are, or even how many years the staff members have been employed. Yet, she said, some optometrists and managers are too trusting, firmly believing that their employees or customers never would steal from them. Eventually, they get blindsided, wondering where their profits have gone.

Surprising statistics

To help optometrists hang on to their inventory and profits, Tolar recently conducted a seminar called "Inventory that walks away and how they do it." She said most optometrists are surprised to learn the following statistics:

"I enjoy sharing some of the knowledge I learned over the years about shrinkage," she said, adding that half of all shoplifting crimes are committed by thieves who operate in teams. "Many optometrists are naïve, thinking that theft never happens in their practice."

What's yours is now mine

Some thieves can be very clever. Consider those who walk into a store with a milkshake, then casually drop an expensive pair of frames in the shake. Others may walk in with booster bags or shopping bags lined with aluminum foil. The foil prevents the store's security system-usually by the front doors-from detecting tagged merchandise in the bag.

Tolar underscored the importance of avoiding blind spots in your store. For example, never place a display in the middle of the store, because it blocks your view of what is happening on the other side. Use tamper-proof gummed labels that can only be removed with scissors. Attach printed-never handwritten-price tags with strong plastic string or ties. Don't cover your windows with posters that can block your view of thieves. Never leave locked cases open and unguarded. Leave no more than three frames out at a time for a customer to try on, returning others to the frame board.

Inventory your frames each month, and conduct quarterly audits, she said. Keep frame displays full so employees can quickly detect missing ones.

Likewise, employees should pay special attention to people walking in with newspapers tucked under their arms or pushing baby strollers, both of which can easily conceal items.

Staff training on crime prevention is key to making these suggestions work, Tolar said.

Employees need to understand state laws, learn how and when to confront and detain a thief, know what to look for, and become familiar with the practice's policies about theft. She recommended that office managers spend 5 minutes each week teaching employees something new about shrinkage prevention.

The first step all optometrists must take, however, is to accept the fact that theft can happen anywhere.

"Theft is a very serious issue," Tolar said. "Just watch your frame inventory and payment area, and be aware of everything."