MASERU — It’s Christmas time and the good times have come for supermarkets as they compete to make the most of the spending mood that normally comes with the festive season.
Shop shelves are teeming with goods and as the battle for customers hots up, many supermarkets have marked down their prices.
So customers are streaming into supermarkets that purportedly offer the best bargains.
Times might be hard but people still do all they can to get something special for Christmas.
For every customer who walks in, shop owners are hoping to land a sale.
But not all “customers” come in to buy.
Some are there to steal.
As the traffic into shops increases so does the number of shoplifters.
Unfortunately these are bad “customers” who have kept supermarkets busy this festive season.
Shop owners say although they normally witness a jump in the number of shoplifting cases every festive season, this year “things are particularly worse as no amount of security seems to deter the shoplifters”.
The shoplifters have devised new tricks to steal from the shops, supermarket owners say.
Their methods have been “refined” and are now more difficult to detect, they add.
There was a time when shoplifters would walk into shops, stuff their bags with goods and walk to the door to try their luck past the security guards.
That trick seemed to work for a while until supermarkets discovered it and stopped customers from taking their bags into the shop.
Ladies’ purses were ransacked by security guards who were sometimes quite overzealous.
Some shops resorted to body searches.
The body searches became more rigorous and at times so intrusive that by the time they finished you felt “molested” and “violated”.
The guards also literally unpacked your groceries as they checked them against the receipts.
Soon the shoplifters changed tack.
They started stealing small things that they could hide in the most unimaginable of places like their underwear.
Small things like batteries and shoe polish cans became their favourite.
Still the shop owners caught up with this trick too and increased the number of plain-clothed guards in their shops.
These are those people who pretend to be shoppers when they are in fact shop employees watching your every move like a hawk.
Realising that they were dealing with cunning people, supermarkets put another security guard on a raised platform from where they could have a bird’s eye view of the shop.
That worked but not for long because the plain-clothed security guards quickly realised that there was more benefit in joining forces with shoplifters than with the employer who in most cases paid them starvation salaries.
In time the shop owners’ “eyes” became accomplices in the shoplifting.
Stung by this betrayal, the shop owners turned to machines.
They spent big on CCTV systems and for sometime it seemed like they had won the battle against the thieves.
Clothing retailers put in detectors on their clothes and many shoplifters were caught just as they were about to make away with their loot.
The CCTV, some retailers thought, would stop the thieves once and for all.
But the shoplifters have moved a gear up to go “technical” and are now giving supermarkets a torrid time.
This time round the shoplifters have recruited both the security guards and till operators into their thieving scheme.
Supermarkets say these well-organised syndicates are wreaking havoc in the retail sector.
In this scam a shoplifter comes into the supermarket and pretends to be a genuine customer.
The till operator, who is part of the syndicate, waits until a customer who is buying things in bulk comes to the till before they set the scheme in motion.
They then punch in the customer’s goods into the till and print the original receipt which they hide and then tell the manager that the till roll has run out.
When the roll is replaced they will ask the manager to print a duplicate receipt for the customer.
They will then remain with the original receipt which they give to the shoplifter who uses it to claim the goods.
The guard is also part of the scam and will share the loot with the till operator and the shoplifter.
Supermarkets say this new method of shoplifting has rendered the CCTV, their most trusted “watchman”, useless.
The biggest victims are the Indian and Chinese-owned supermarkets that service the lower-end of the grocery market.
Jackpot Supermarket, a Chinese-owned shop along Moshoeshoe Road in Maseru, has been a victim of this scam many times.
John Xie, the owner, says the most recent case was on Friday.
“I can’t survive like this,” Xie says. “This is so subtle that it requires the police to investigate thoroughly.”
He however says the police have not been helpful.
Xie alleges that instead they force his shop to hand over the goods to the shoplifter because they will be holding the original receipt.
In Friday’s incident police released the suspect without a charge and ordered Jackpot Supermarket to give her the goods she was claiming.
This time Xie says he stood his ground and refused to hand over the goods.
What particularly angered Xie is that the suspect was holding an original receipt which showed that she had bought groceries worth M21 000.
This receipt, he said, had the same goods as those that had been bought earlier by a shopping club from one of the villages in Maseru.
Xie is still fighting with the police.
“The police refused to investigate,” he alleges.
He says many other supermarkets have had similar cases.
When a shoplifting syndicate brings a guard, a till operator and a thief together it becomes difficult to detect, he adds.
There is yet another trick that the shoplifting syndicates have been using to pilfer from the supermarkets.
This one involves the shoplifters actually filling their trolley with goods and paying for only a portion of them because the till operator will only be pretending to be punching some of them into the system.
For instance, the till operator can punch in three bars of soap when the shoplifter has handed over six.
The guard at the door, being part of the scam, will pretend to be checking the receipt and let the shoplifter out.
After being frustrated by the police’s reluctance to investigate the cases or jail the culprits some supermarkets have found a quick fix to the problem.
Instead of reporting the shoplifters to the police they would just make them pay for what they would have stolen.
If the shoplifter has no money they will be detained until a relative comes to their rescue by paying for the stolen goods.
Shawn Yakub, the owner of Circle Supermarket, says he had realised that making shoplifters pay instead of taking them to the police is “the only solution”.
“If you want to deal effectively with shoplifters, don’t take them to the police,” Yakub says.
“Make them pay for everything they steal.”
“If you take them to the police they will be released within 20 minutes without being charged.”