'Tis the season for sticky fingers.
A few weeks ago, two middle-aged gentlemen walked into a local Cignal -- the trendy clothing store owned by Merry-Go-Round Enterprises Inc. -- with a large box wrapped like a Christmas present.
As one of the men chatted with a sales clerk about the store's merchandise, the other quickly took the lid off the "present" and stuffed it with shirts.
"When you have five things on the rack one minute and one the next minute, and the cash register hasn't rung up any sales, you know you've got a problem," says Kirby Bunnell, manager of the Cignal at Owings Mills, recounting the incident at a sister store.
With all the increased goodwill, cheer and sales the holidays bring, retailers say the season also brings a dramatic rise in the number of shoplifters who come a-wassailing.
Experts say all merchants should be on their toes.
Nationally, roughly 20 percent of all shoplifting occurs between Thanksgiving and Christmas, according to Sensormatics Electronic Corp., a leading manufacturer of electronic surveillance equipment.
"There's more merchandise around during the holidays, and there are more people on the floor. Although there are also more employees, there aren't as many eyes because everyone's busy at the cash registers," says Lou Chiera of Florida-based Sensormatics.
Retailers and theft experts expect the number of dollars lost to shoplifting this holiday season to increase because of the slumping economy. More people will find it difficult to afford what they want and may be tempted to steal, they say.
"It's definitely going to be worse this year, I think," says Carl Donnelly, director of security and safety at Hecht's. "With the economy being what it is, we are expecting to see less shoppers, but we're going to see more shoplifting -- maybe a 15 to 20 percent increase."
Like Cignal, other retailers have already been the victims of shoplifting this season. At Webster Men's Wear in Mondawmin Mall recently, a man snatched four sweaters off a display table and tried to run away, says the store's assistant manager, Brian White. Mr. White thwarted the would-be thief by tackling him.
Besides the snatch-and-run method, shoplifters use other, less obvious techniques of thievery, experts and victims say. Mothers have been known to stuff merchandise underneath a baby in a stroller; some use the team approach, with one coming in a store and cutting the sensoring device from an item and the next coming in and stealing it; others simply stuff merchandise under their clothes.
Thieves often switch price tags to pay a lower price for an item or pay for a pocketbook, for example, but stuff other merchandise in it.
Mr. Donnelly of Hecht's says some shoplifters will walk off with a huge TV because it looks so obvious, no one thinks it is being stolen.
It's nerve-racking to deal with, but retailers say they are not letting theft dampen their Christmas spirit. Instead, they've adapted plans to snare even the most ingenious shoplifter.
The Sharper Image at Harborplace puts a sign outside its popular upscale gadget store saying the number of people allowed to enter the store will be limited if it becomes crowded.
"The guards will ask that people wait until others leave so that we can keep an eye on merchandise," says manager Clara Croll. "We also make sure we greet everyone that comes in the store so that they know that we know they are there. That serves as a good deterrent."
The sales clerks at the Cosmetic Center in Timonium use secret hand signals when a shopper whom they believe is behaving suspiciously comes into the beauty outlet. The store has seen its share of shoplifting during the holidays, says manager Marilyn Zollner.
Just last week, two women were prosecuted on two separate complaints the Cosmetic Center filed last Christmas season for shoplifting.
Some retailers say they use mannequins with eyes that are really hidden cameras and beef up surveillance in dressing rooms to combat shoplifting. Others say they crisscross hangers to prevent people from ripping everything off a rack or put two sensors on merchandise instead of one.
Most merchants keep employees on their toes by quizzing them on what customers have taken into dressing rooms, use plainclothes security guards and have special meetings to keep employees informed. Saks Fifth Avenue gives rewards to employees for catching shoplifters. And Macy's has resorted to dye packs like the ones used at banks, which explode if tampered with.