Employing media saturation as a major part of a 12-year campaign, the Greater Washington Board of Trade's retail bureau has waged a psychological war against shoplifters.

Although it is difficult to measure the success of the bureau's anticrime campaigns, officials insist they have had the desired effect.

Still, total losses from shoplifting at Board of Trade members' stores continue to hover around $480 million annually despite a slight decline in the past year.

But persuading the public that "Shoplifting is Dumb" -- the campaign's slogan this year -- apparently isn't the retail bureau's biggest challenge at the moment. Merchants themselves aren't buying the message.

"I hate to say that, but I think it's harder to convince the merchants," acknowledged retail bureau manager Leonard Kolodny.

A recent Board of Trade publication reported that fund-raising efforts in this year's anticrime campaign are "sputtering." Kolodny later confirmed that he is "meeting resistance" from merchants in his fund-raising drive to support the campaign.

"Even if we get all the pledges that have been made, we'll still be about $8,000 short" of this year's $72,000 budget goal, Kolodny said.

"That has been an age-old problem, but this year there has been more resistance. In previous years, by this time we would have reached our goal."

To be sure, the nonbelievers among area merchants generally aren't affiliated with the retail bureau, which has a membership of about 250, representing approximately 2,000 store locations. Having no affiliation with the board, a majority of the area's merchants apparently feel no obligation to contribute to its campaign.

The costs of producing and printing promotional materials are supported by voluntary contributions, but retailers still have to pay for posters if they want to display them in their stores.

The retail bureau mailed 1,000 letters this year, asking nonmembers for contributions. But its argument that all merchants benefit from the antishoplifting campaign hasn't been very persuasive.

"It has always been 'let the other guy do it,' " Kolodny complained. "Some merchants take the attitude that antishoplifting messages are going to be in the papers and on television anyway."

That raises an interesting question. Should nonmember merchants help subsidize the Board of Trade's antishoplifting campaign?

"I'll be selling you a service and, if you don't contribute, you're going to reap the benefit of the service anyway," Kolodny argued in a recent conversation with a merchant.

The campaign by itself won't stop shoplifting, Kolodny concedes. But when used as an educational tool to augment the massive outlay for security in the retail sector, it can be effective, board of trade members maintain.

"All the big stores look at the campaign as spending money to save money by reminding people not to shoplift," Kolodny says.

Ironically, although many merchants here apparently don't agree with that theory, retailers in other parts of the country have bought all or parts of previous campaign concepts and graphics developed by the local retail bureau.

The bureau takes credit for "educating a whole generation" through its campaigns, which have been extended to the schools.

Nonetheless, losses from shoplifting have increased overall in the 12 years since the bureau inaugurated its program with a budget of only $19,000.

Typically, the antishoplifting campaigns, which begin in mid-September and run through December, are geared to the biggest shopping season of the year.

Shoplifting losses totaled $479 million in 1981 compared with $486 million in 1980. Between Aug. 1, 1973, and July 31, 1974, retail bureau members lost $345 million.

At the same time, arrests for shoplifting in metropolitan Washington have risen steadily. Police nabbed 466 shoplifting suspects in a one-week period ending Sept. 27, 1981, and 523 in a comparable period ended Sept. 26, 1982. And in a one-week period ended Oct. 6, there were 540 arrests for shoplifting.

The total number of shoplifters is actually much higher than those arrest figures show. The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department doesn't maintain shoplifting statistics, and available figures are compiled from reports to the retail bureau.

Although incomplete, the arrest figures don't augur well for the antishoplifting campaign and may indicate a need for a different approach to combating the problem. Although new sophisticated security measures are resulting in more arrests, they don't appear to be deterring shoplifters.

"We are winning, but it's getting harder," says Kolodny.

It's possible that, after 12 years, the retail bureau's antishoplifting campaign has outlived its usefulness.

Kolodny admits that bureau members "hear that from time to time," but they continue to vote unanimous approval of the campaign.

It should be obvious by now, however, that board of trade members as well as other area merchants have a common problem that requires different solutions and a new spirit of cooperation.