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Just 2 Shoplifting Days Remain in Busiest Season

Retail: Merchants fight a high-tech war against the thieves, who are out in force amid the holiday crowds.


Santa isn't the only one trying to keep track of who's naughty and nice.

Retailers know all too well that this is the season for taking as well as for giving. And they're getting downright creative in their battle to deter holiday season theft--a problem that peaks this week.

Retailers are arming themselves with James Bond-style gizmos, such as tiny surveillance cameras that communicate with computers, radio-wave-emitting pens and special tags that spew ink when they're pulled off clothing.

And that yuletide Muzak you half-listen to at your local mall just might be embedded with subliminal anti-theft messages, such as "Stealing is dishonest."

The day before Christmas and the day after Christmas are the busiest days of the year for retailers. They're also big crime days.

"The more-professional shoplifters will use these large crowds as a cover," said Bruce Van Cleek, a vice president at the Washington-based National Retail Federation.

Shoplifters cost merchants $11 billion in 1995. Employee theft was an even bigger problem, accounting for $13 billion of the $27 billion in lost retail inventory that year, according to industry estimates. The rest of the missing merchandise was diverted by dishonest suppliers or simply mishandled.

Retailers are reluctant to discuss the security devices they employ, particularly if the equipment is new and potentially controversial.

For that reason, Sound Threshold Systems does not disclose the names of retailers that use its subliminal messaging. The company will say, however, that sales of the system have risen substantially in Southern California and other parts of the country this year.

Several manufacturers are touting camera systems that allow retail security to simultaneously monitor multiple sites within a store--or even activity in numerous stores--from one screening room.

Surveillance cameras are linked to computers through telephone lines. When a theft is spotted, the cameras send images to computers at a remote location; they then print out pictures documenting the crime.

The system is more secure than conventional closed-circuit camera operations because there is no on-site videotape for savvy thieves or robbers to take. And the images are much clearer.

"Today's cameras can zoom in on your wristwatch and relay the correct time to a monitor," said Dave Shoemaker, a vice president for Checkpoint Systems, a New Jersey-based firm that manufactures the Remote Watch surveillance system.

A competing system, Hyperspan, is produced by Farmingdale, N.Y.-based Sensormatic Electronics Corp.

"Generally, anti-theft equipment is smaller, faster and smarter," said Lee Pernice, spokeswoman for Sensormatic.

For example, the dome camera--a rotating camera enclosed in an opaque ball--continues to shrink. Sensormatic in January will begin to offer retailers a version that's 4.7 inches in diameter--small enough to sit in the palm of the hand and half the size of the company's previous version. The older camera magnifies objects 10 times, whereas the new model enlarges images up to 48 times.

Meanwhile, images transmitted by board cameras--1 1/4-inch-square devices that resemble circuit boards--have become much clearer. Though retailers sometimes use larger cameras conspicuously as a deterrent, these mini-cameras are often hidden in ceilings or in opaque fixtures with a peephole.

Sophisticated thieves are themselves using computer technology, said Read Hayes, president of Loss Prevention Specialists, a consulting firm based in Winter Park, Fla. Hayes cited tip sheets on theft techniques posted on the Internet. One of them is called "A Guide to Shoplifting."

That makes it all the more important for retailers to up the ante.

"Profit margins are thinner, and that makes it difficult for retailers to absorb the costs of theft," Hayes said. "Stores don't have much of a choice--they're investing in more effective loss-prevention methods."

The pressure to hold the line on prices has increased in recent years because consumers are increasingly value-conscious, said Steve Hutchins, senior vice president for store operations at Macy's West, the San Francisco-based manager of the chain's regional operations.

"Theft shortages affect a business' ability to grow and prosper," Hutchins said. "As losses grow more expensive, it affects long-term prices. We spend a lot of time addressing this because we want to give the consumer the best price possible."

One security device long used by retailers, the ubiquitous electronic tag that's clamped to clothing and other merchandise, is getting smaller. The tags emit a radio signal that triggers an alarm at an exit unless deactivated or removed by a sales clerk.

These days, manufacturers of consumer products are beginning to implant the emitters in or on items formerly too small for tagging, such as lipstick cases, pens and batteries.

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