Is it possible that shoplifting declines in direct proportion to sluggish retail sales?

Scientific evidence supporting that thesis is yet to be produced, but it's a theory strongly supported by the manager of the Greater Washington Board of Trade's retail bureau.

"Retail sales weren't strong this year [1981] and when there are fewer people in the stores there is less shoplifting," said Leonard Kolodny.

Kolodny said his theory is based on a comparison of shoplifting statistics and weekly retail sales figures that were reported to his bureau during the Christmas shopping season.

In any event, preliminary figures indicate there was a further decline in shoplifting during the retail bureau's intensive three-month campaign, which ends next week.

During a similar three-month period in 1980, at least 6,242 persons were arrested for shoplifting at stores in metropolitan Washington. With one week remaining in the current reporting period, arrests total 5,882.

"There's an overall consensus by retailers that this is the most successful campaign we've ever had," Kolodny said.

What this means in terms of losses experienced by area retailers is yet to be determined. However, losses resulting from shoplifting this year are expected to continue a downward trend.

Losses totaling $486 million in 1980 were down 2 percent from $496 million in the previous year.

Although only a small percentage of retailers participate in the annual anti-shoplifting campaign, the publicity that it has generated over the past 12 years is believed to be working as a deterrent.

Exposure to the campaign, which has evolved into a three-pronged anticrime program, may have had a salutary effect on amateur shoplifters, particularly teen-agers.

And although there apparently were fewer incidences of shiplifting among all groups last year, housewives continued to be the biggest perpetrators of the offense. "They shop more and have more exposure to merchandise," Kolodny theorized.

The 1981 retail anticrime campaign warned consumers against shoplifting as well as writing bad checks and credit card fraud. Statistics on credit card fraud haven't been compiled, but 14,839 persons were arrested last year on charges of writing bad checks, down considerably from 18,556 in 1980.

The campaign, which began in 1970 with a budget of only $28,000, required almost three times as much last year.

As a highly visible program of short duration to educate the consumer, the anti-shoplifiting campaign has had relative success. However, a year-long program in which retailers participate, and the fact that many merchants have become more sophisticated in their own anti-theft programs, have been "very strong factors," Kolodny said.

Examples of some of the more modern surveillance techniques and devices in use today include "Gertrude," a mannequin that conceals a camera, and the Trojan Horse, a merchandise display unit in which security personnel sit and observe shoppers.

The local program has been cited in the past by the National Retail Merchants Association as a model for retailers in other areas. Indeed, the Board of Trade's retail bureau has sold campaign ideas and materials to other cities.

Last year it sold adaptations of previous campaigns to West Palm Beach, Fla.; Houston and nine major department stores in New York City, including Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy's.

Ironically, the bureau has had less success persuading retailers in metropolitan Washington to participate in the program.

Of the 30,000 to 40,000 stores in metropolitan Washington, fewer than 200 contribute to the anticrime campaign sponsored by the retail bureau. In all, retailers representing about 2,000 locations participate.

"I would say that if any of several large businesses had participated in our program they would have saved money. But they completely ignored our appeals," Kolodny ventured.

It's no secret that several major retailers in metropolitan Washington have been forced out of business in the past decade or so because their shrinkage rates were too high to absorb. Shrinkage, of course, is the catch-all euphemism that retailers use to describe shoplifting, bookkeeping mistakes and internal theft.

In many instances, the latter has been largely responsible for the disappearance of established retailers from this area.

"There's no reason why larger firms should completely ignore us," Kolodny complained.

Some merchants, he said, prefer to continue an archaic policy of passing on losses from thefts to consumers while refusing to institute tighter security measures.