South Pittsburgh Reporter - Serving South Pittsburgh Since 1939

Local merchants keep a watchful eye out during the holidays


December 9, 2003

When the holiday season rolls around, it is traditionally one of the best times of the year for retailers and small businesses to reap the benefits of buyers out for the perfect gift. However, with the higher sales often comes an unwelcome increase in theft.

According to District Justice Rick King, the prime goods that are involved in such activity seem to have one thing in common. “People steal items that are small and have a high resale value,” he said. Examples of these goods include electronics and cosmetics just to name a few. And, on a slightly different level, better cuts of meat also attract the attention of thieves as well.

According to King, the typical offenders tend to fall into one of two categories. First, there are those who steal to get money to support some sort of habit. Second, there are professionals who rely on theft as their main source of income. Both are out to make quick money.

In a time of year when people are out to find a bargain, this sometimes plays right into a criminal's hands. “Be aware that if someone is selling something out of the back of a truck, it's not because they got a good deal on it somewhere. It is most likely stolen,” King said.

According to statistics provided by Zone 3 Crime Prevention Officer Christine Luffey, without even including the last two months of each year, local thefts jumped from 662 in 2002 to 747 in 2003, a 12.8 percent increase. With these types of figures, storeowners are encouraged to do everything they can to prevent this type of criminal activity.

There are several precautions retailers can take to try to lessen such theft within their shops. “It's important to make owners and employees visible on the floor,” said Luffey. “Keeping scanners on merchandise is also a good idea.”

Steve Miller, owner of Miller's Hardware in Mount Oliver, is one retailer that has followed some of this advice. Among the steps Miller has taken to curb such activity in his store is the hiring of additional employees. “We need to spend more time with customers and be more assertive,” he said.

Rick Stanton, owner of Schwartz Market, has taken a slightly different approach. His markets now require customers to leave bags at the front counter when entering the shop. Employees are also urged to make occasional announcements stating that the store is being monitored on a security camera.

And, although there is really no downtime when it comes to retail theft, heavier traffic times often cause more havoc than slower times, forcing workers to keep a look out. “We look for people with big coats that are always looking around as if to make sure they're not being watched,” Stanton said.

If caught, the retailers must make a decision as to what action they will take.

In the event that an owner decides to prosecute, depending upon the value of the items taken and whether the person responsible has prior offenses, penalties can range from summary offenses to third degree felonies.

Storeowners also have the option to file a civil complaint rather than a criminal one. In doing so, those caught may be required to pay the retailer up to $150 for goods and property damage.

Although it would be nearly impossible to completely stop retail theft, it can certainly be minimized. And, in Miller's opinion, prosecution is the key. “Seeking out prosecution is the biggest thing that store owners need to do. For each time that a person isn't prosecuted, that's more times they will be able to get away without having any strikes against them,” he said.


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