I was pretty innocent up until my early teens when I entered high school. I used to think that bad things happened only in other neighborhoods. When I got my work permit at age 15-and-a-half so I could work as a part-time stock boy at a local supermarket chain in one of Chicago’s far south suburbs in the early 1960’s, I quickly found out that our neighborhood was just like every other neighborhood, at least in one respect.

During my first few weeks on the job, I noticed the store manager spent a lot of time sitting up in a loft in the back room behind the store wall that featured one-way mirrored glass that allowed him to peer out over the store without being seen. I didn’t have a clue as to what he was doing. Whenever I saw him perched up in this dark, small area with his head pressed closely to the oblong windows that extended about a foot from the wall over the floor near the ceiling looking left then right and then straight ahead with a very stern look on his face, he would signal to people below to keep quiet with one hand while looking over the store floor. He was in search of, and sometimes caught, shoplifters.

Although he never discussed the particulars of shoplifters or catching them in the act, a veteran stock boy told me the store manager had caught a variety of people—ranging from teenagers to young mothers with babies in carriages to elderly couples shoplifting everything from fresh meat to baby food.

Adding up all of these stolen goods doesn’t amount to small change. Grocery store shoplifters astonishingly get away with more than $35 million worth of products per day, according to the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention in a Forbes magazine article focused on shoplifting that was published last December.

“Shoplifters cross all ages and economic backgrounds, and include celebrities, district attorneys and physicians to those who are on tight fixed incomes. There is no general profile,” Daniel Reynolds, vice president of North America EAS Solutions & Customer Services, Checkpoint Systems Inc., Thorofare, NJ, recently told me. A new report, produced by the Centre for Retail Research, includes recommendations for the retail industry on dealing with this crime. The report is available via free download from Checkpoint Systems. “Changing Retail, Changing Loss Prevention” analyzes the evolution of retail crime and loss prevention uncovered by the “Global Retail Theft Barometer” publications since 2001.

Not surprisingly, meat is still the most attractive category for shrinkage, the Forbes article relayed. Fresh meat remains a high-theft category for supermarkets and hypermarkets, and news stories about shoplifters apprehended with stolen meat on their person appear regularly in the media. “The most stolen meats include Premium cut meats, such as fillets, NY strip and T-bone steaks. Premium seafood is also high theft,” Reynolds said. It is not uncommon to hear reports of a full grocery cart full of Premium-cut meats bypassing the checkstand and being pushed right out the store.” Not a week goes by when I don’t see news stories in Yahoo News about people who were caught shoplifting meat.

Until recent years, packers and processors had to rely on their supermarket customers to stem the tide of shoplifting. Thanks to advanced technology, they, too, can now play a role in curbing the theft of their own products. For example, with Checkpoint's new 4010 EP Microwave Safe label, meat packers and processors can begin to auto apply RF EAS labels protecting their high-theft Premium cuts for grocers, Reynolds said. “In the past, this was not an option due to the liability potential of these labels causing microwaves to catch on fire,” he added.

“Unfortunately, it's a small group of thieves and shoplifters that ruin a positive shopping experience for the majority of honest customers,” Reynolds said. “Grocers limit the number of Premium cuts that they openly display and their good, honest customers might not ask if they have more and go somewhere else for their fresh-cut meats.”

A PWC study of Checkpoint EAS systems in four grocery stores showed a 70 percent shrink reduction and a 9 percent sales lift on typical high-theft products in supermarkets. “The sales increase is directly related to product being available and accessible,” he said. “Stolen product shows up as being in the supermarket's inventory, therefore, increasing out-of-stock occurrences on high -profit items.”

According to the most recent Global Retail Theft Barometer report, fresh meat in North America has a 3.6 percent average shrink. Luxury cooked meat is a 2.86 percent shrink and high-quality seafood is a 2.28 percent shrink.

Now that meat prices have been on the upswing again in recent months, it’s a safe bet to assume fresh meat will remain a high-priority target for shoplifters. And despite efforts by some to stop this thievery, it continues for several reasons. Many thieves simply aren’t caught….. and for those who are caught, local law enforcement in some areas of the country doesn’t have the manpower to make an arrest of someone who shoplifted an expensive cut of meat, some insiders claim. One expert insists the top deterrent would be the certainty of punishment for those caught, yet some retailers will not press charges for whatever reason.

Anyone caught shoplifting should not be allowed to get away with it. But dealing with shoplifters must be done on a case-by-case basis. Issuing the same punishment to someone who is truly down on his or her luck with a clean background versus a career shoplifter who has the money to pay for food wouldn’t be right.

Whatever the attempted fix is to try and stem the tide of shoplifting will mean more money will have to be spent by either the store or meat suppliers—or both. Doing nothing about shoplifting should never be an option.