Maxmilian Wechsler finds out why
Why should that be? Is it because the nation’s shopping centres, malls, supermarkets, and countless other retail outlets have better security and are more efficient at protecting their products from thieving hands?. Or does it mean that shoppers in Thailand are more honest and trustworthy than anywhere else?
Sadly, the explanation is much less upbeat: shoplifting most certainly exists here and is widespread, but the full extent of the problem is kept secret by retailers who believe that disclosure and the related publicity might harm their reputation.
Most also claim that financial losses from stealing are “acceptable” and do not pose a threat to their bottom line. And that in a nutshell is why the public is kept in the dark about the seriousness of this type of crime.
Nevertheless, stories about shoplifting occasionally surface in English-language media focusing on tourists.
Of course, it’s not only tourists who steal; theft is also rampant among Thais, including in some cases store employees. Information on employee theft is kept under the rug by most companies for obvious reasons, but this almost invariably leads to dismissal and possible criminal charges.
When questioned, executives of several companies refused to go on record or didn’t reply to requests for interviews.
As a result, obtaining information and evidence about shoplifting was only possible after a promise to store managers, security personnel and salespeople that their identities, store names and brands sold wouldn’t be revealed; otherwise they feared they would be fired immediately.
Across the world, the seriousness of retail shrinkage or “shrink” from shoplifting, employee fraud, organized retail crime and also administrative errors is apparent from the latest report released by the Global Retail Theft Barometer, which says global losses from shrink cost retailers more than US$112 billion or 1.4 per cent of retail sales on average in 2012.
The study was underwritten by an independent grant from Checkpoint Systems Inc and based on surveys conducted in 16 countries among 160,000 retail stores with a total of US$1.5 trillion in sales in 2012.
According to the study, shrink is on the rise in most countries with increases noted in shoplifting, employee theft and organized retail crime. The lowest shrink rates were recorded in Japan, followed by Hong Kong, Australia and Germany. The highest were recorded in Brazil and Mexico.
The countries surveyed in the Global Retail Theft Barometer did not include Thailand, but another survey held in 42 countries did. The survey by the Centre for Retail Research based in Nottingham, United Kingdom, found that 1.47 per cent of Thailand’s retail sales value was lost to theft either by shoppers or by employees in 2010, and ranked Thailand ninth among the 42 countries surveyed.
In 2011, Thailand came in seventh out of 43 countries in a Centre for Retail Research survey, with the worst offenders being India, Russia, Morocco, South Africa, Brazil and Mexico. The centre didn’t conduct a survey in 2012.
Off the record
“We don’t worry too much about the financial losses inflicted by the shoplifters or staff theft because we make money and can absorb the losses,” admitted a manager at a branch of a large supermarket chain in Bangkok.
“When we catch a thief, whether Thai or foreigner, we impose a fine on the spot, which can be multiple times the value of the goods stolen, and tell them not to come back. We don’t take the thieves to the police station to be charged because this is a waste of time for us and the police, who have more serious crimes to attend to. This is especially true if the thief steals merchandise that has little value.
“Secondly, bringing a thief to the police station means it could be reported in the media, something my boss doesn’t want,” explained the manager.
He said that the CCTV surveillance systems installed in every branch have failed to stop shoplifting, but added that the cameras are a definite deterrent because thieves usually select areas where they think the cameras won’t spot them.
“The thieves steal cheap items like instant noodles or sweets. In the past they went after razor blades and shaving cream, so we locked these items in a glass display case that staff will open only on a customer’s request.
“Maybe this looks odd to some of our foreign customers, but it is necessary because we were losing large quantities of many of these items. We do the same with more expensive whiskies, wines and other spirits.”
He also talked about “group theft” when as many as ten thieves work together, arriving between 2-5am when only a few employees are on duty. One such group targeted 24-hour stores until they were caught.
Women from Middle Eastern countries sometimes steal in his stores, concealing goods in their long dresses.
Not all companies are so forgiving. A security official employed by a food store in a large mall on Rama I road in Bangkok says: “Every shoplifter, no matter what they steal, whether it is a pack of noodles for 15 baht or imported biscuits for 510 baht, once they’ve been caught by security personnel they are taken to Pathumwan police station to be charged. It is not about the money, it’s the principle.
“Any person who commits a crime should be punished according to the law,” he said.
“Shoplifters are people of all ages, Thais as well as foreigners. We’ve had them from England, Iran, Myanmar, Russia, Spain, Turkey and Vietnam.
“Most of the thieves are amateurs who operate alone but sometimes we get hit by professionals who work in teams. Recently, we apprehended ten shoplifters at our mall, which employs uniformed and undercover personnel along with a vast CCTV network and other security equipment.
“The majority of thieves are females. From our supermarket they steal mainly items like packaged sausages, cakes and coffee as well as merchandise such as hair brushes and hair spray.
“Several employees were also apprehended stealing various items and they, too, were sent to the police station.” None of the arrests were reported in the English-language press.
The official expressed disbelief that people would steal such cheap items when it could land them in a prison cell. He has a point. Shoplifting comes under Section 334 of the Penal Code of Thailand B.E. 2499 (1956), which says the penalty is ‘imprisonment not exceeding three years and a fine not exceeding six thousand baht.’
“Amateurs are easy to spot because they behave suspiciously, like walking around the store for a long time, looking around and up and acting like they are not sure what they want to buy,” continued the official.
“We have officers constantly watching monitors in our control room on the look-out for suspicious people, and if we spot them stealing, we will radio to our uniformed guards to approach the suspect. Most of the thefts occur in the supermarket section of the mall, which is usually very crowded, as well as in the men’s and women’s clothes sections.
“We don’t have much theft involving shoes for the simple reason that only one is normally on display,” smiled the security man.
Staff interviewed at various other shops, including one large food store franchise with thousands of outlets throughout Thailand, also conceded that shoplifting is rampant.
Sales people hit the hardest
Those who suffer most from store theft are the salespeople, who in many cases are required to pay their employers for at least a portion of the losses while they were on duty. The amount depends on the brand and the circumstances of the theft. Generally, supermarket employees aren’t required to pay for losses.
However, staff selling clothes, leather goods, electronics and other durable items often have to pay the full price, less any discounts offered to customers.
Some companies won’t ask the salespeople to cover the loss if the CCTV footage can clearly identify the thief.
A woman selling a Thai brand of men’s clothes at the Rama I mall said that “theft dropped almost to zero” when a CCTV camera was recently installed in the shop. “But we still watch customers carefully and never leave the shop unattended. Before the CCTV was installed, we often had clothes stolen. When theft occurred, those on duty had to share the losses and pay the company the full price less discount, which despite being up to 30%, was still a lot of money to pay even if the amount was divided between sales staff.
“Since the camera was installed, we are more relaxed.”
Another girl in the same mall was near to tears when she described what happened to her recently: “Normally there are two employees in our section, so one of us is always watching the customers, but my partner didn’t turn up for work one day. I went to the toilet and returned to the store after five minutes and discovered that when I was away, a man’s suit on sale at 2,900 baht was missing.
“The CCTV camera is quite far away and this particular rack was blocked by another display,” she explained.
“I already reported the theft to the security people in the mall and to the brand. Now I am waiting to see what they decide to do. Normally the staff has to pay 50% of the loss. I am not making a lot of money and I work long hours every day.
“Sometimes several people gather around the displays and it’s hard to see what they are doing exactly, and I can’t really ask them to open their shopping bags. It is a difficult job and I am thinking about quitting,” she added in obvious distress.
A young salesman working for a men’s Thai fashion brand next to the mall revealed that theft in his and other shops where friends work is common, and added that on occasions he’d like to resign because the company asks him to pay the full price for any stolen merchandise.
“There are three of us in the shop and we always watch and follow the customers around but some are still able to steal.
“Those who steal the most are Thai teenagers who come in a group of three of four,” the salesman said.
Last October, the South China Morning Post published in Hong Kong reported that tourists from mainland China were stealing from duty-free shops at Phuket International Airport only minutes before boarding their planes back home.
“Shoplifters sometimes escape punishment after making it aboard their flights because of reluctance by pilots to delay take-off, along with an apparent reluctance by security staff to press the issue,” the newspaper said.
Because of such incidents, Kanpat Mangkalasiri, deputy director of the Phuket airport, announced at the end of October that passengers suspected of shoplifting from airport shops would be taken from the plane and arrested, although the whole procedure, including retrieval of their luggage, must be completed within an hour.
Phuket Tourist Police Major Urumporn Koondejsumrit commented that it doesn’t matter if the manager of the duty-free shop files a complaint with the police or only asks for the return of the goods, because when a crime is committed the police must make an arrest.
Almost all people interviewed by The BigChilli agreed that shoplifters should be arrested and these arrests should be reported in the press because this will deter the thieves.