In launching its 18th annual anti-crime campaign recently, the Greater Washington Board of Trade's retail bureau put shoplifting in a context that most consumers readily understand.

The average consumer in metropolitan Washington pays nearly $300 annually to make up for losses attributed to shoplifting, according to the retail bureau. A family of four could spend as much as $1,200 to make up for losses due to shoplifting, the bureau added as though the simple multiplication were needed to make the point.

The point, nonetheless, is that the consumer "feels the effect {of shoplifting} at the cash register," as the bureau candidly points out. The additional costs paid by consumers "emerge from fractions of the retail price that are necessary for retailers to recoup losses due to shoplifting," the bureau recently acknowledged.

Figures provided by the bureau show shoplifting rose 2.5 percent to $464 million in the 12 months that ended July 31. It was the biggest increase in at least seven years, according to shoplifting statistics compiled between August 1980 and July 1987.

In all, shoplifters ripped off area retailers to the tune of $3.3 billion over the past seven years, for an average of well over $465 million annually.

The seven-year total is roughly equivalent to the combined assets of the District's third- and fourth-largest banks. It exceeds Giant Food Inc.'s annual sales by at least $1 billion.

Still, the losses reported by the retail bureau are conservative estimates at best. In the first place, not all retailers in the area t participate in the anti-shoplifting campaign or are members of the Board of Trade. Secondly, losses resulting from shoplifting are only part of the broader retail problem known as shrinkage.

Shrinkage from all sources -- including internal theft, damages from handling and clerical errors -- costs retailers across the country billions of dollars annually. More accurately, shrinkage costs consumers billions of dollars.

Indeed, high losses within the retail industry tend to have a "domino effect" in the consumer community, the local retail bureau said.

For 18 years, the bureau has sponsored anti-crime campaigns. Previous campaigns have focused on fraudulent use of credit cards and bad checks as well as merchandise theft. Shoplifters have always been the primary targets of the campaign, however. And with good reason. Shoplifting losses in the Washington area are said to be 18 times as great as those resulting from bad checks and 45 times as large as losses stemming from fraudulent use of credit cards.

Neither increases in security staffs nor the use of sophisticated technology has produced a substantial decline in losses due to shoplifting.

It's doubtful that the symbolism of boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard as honorary chairman of this year's campaign will be any more effective in winning the battle than closed circuit television cameras and a battery of surveillance displays known as "Trojan horses." Neither is the theme of this year's campaign -- "One thing a shoplifter never forgets: getting caught" -- likely to be any more effective than those used in previous campaigns.

The retail bureau says the campaign is directed toward the "fence sitter," one who supposedly doesn't comprehend the "devastating" consequences of being caught in the act. That's really been the thrust of every anti-shoplifting campaign.

The expensive education program that is inherent in the anti-shoplifting campaigns apparently has failed to make an impression on the shoplifter, however.

Studies show that most persons apprehended for shoplifting have either cash, checks or credit cards to pay for merchandise they were charged with stealing. The same studies show that persons apprehended for shoplifting are more likely to be high school or college graduates. Moreover, 51 percent of all shoplifters are described as middle-income persons, while those in high-income brackets outnumber their low-income counterparts by 26 percent to 23 percent.

A further breakdown of the statistics on shoplifting shows that more female adults (31 percent) and male adults (15 percent) are apprehended than male teen-agers (13 percent) and female teen-agers (11 percent). Professional thieves (8 percent) and others generally commit far fewer shoplifting offenses.

In short, the stereotype of the shoplifter has been effectively destroyed by the body of evidence compiled from arrest records.

Still, the losses continue. They might even be higher without the deterrent created by the retail bureau's limited anti-crime campaign. It's doubtful, however, that the campaign, which is timed to coincide with the Christmas shopping season, will ever be enough to curb retail industry losses.

Nothing short of an all-out war on shoplifting will alter the trend. Whether the local retail industry chooses to coalesce under the umbrella of the Broad of Trade is immaterial. Sharing resources and information within the industry is more important.

By failing to address the problem as an industry, retailers imply that they don't care about shoplifting losses as long as consumers are left holding the bag.