It's midafternoon in downtown Washington and customers in a drugstore watch incredulously as the manager confronts two men in their middle to late twenties. The two brush menacingly past the manager and swagger from the store, carrying stolen soft drinks and snacks stuffed in the pockets of their baggy trousers. In what sounds more like a plea than a warning he is prepared to back up, the manager orders the pair not to return.

It was a futile gesture borne of frustration. Both the manager and a sales clerk later acknowledged that the same two thieves had ripped off the store more than once. Asked about tighter security measures to curb such incidents, the manager, seemingly resigned to playing a cat-and-mouse game with shoplifters, replied: "Security is a joke."

Generally, thieves like these and others who roam in groups are easier to detect than the typical shoplifter. The same drugstore thieves wouldn't get past the front door of a nearby jewelry store.

Only customers who appear to be honest, law-abiding citizens are permitted to pass through the door, which employees open via a remote-control device behind the counter.

This screening process may be useful as a deterrent but can create a false sense of security, as many merchants often discover after installing sophisticated security equipment. Chances are a well-dressed customer from a middle-class family -- possibly a woman with a college education -- will eventually rip off the unsuspecting jeweler.

Statistically at least, that approximates the profile of the person who is more likely to shoplift from the jeweler, the drugstore or a department store in a suburban shopping mall, figures compiled by the retail bureau of the Greater Washington Board of Trade show.

Still, retailers have no foolproof way of spotting a would-be shoplifter. "Everyone, if you will, is the profile of a shoplifter," retail bureau manager Garry R. Curtis said.

Indeed, the person who steals a bottle of fragrance, a pair of gloves or a sweater could be a young adult, a middle-aged professional, a student or a retiree, as arrest records show. All of those "ordinary citizens," as the retail bureau describes them, are targets of its 21st annual anti-shoplifting campaign.

Both the incident in the drugstore and the retail bureau's anti-shoplifting campaign can be misleading, however. Neither provides a clue to the more serious crime problem that affects both retailers and consumers: employee theft.

It's a multimillion-dollar problem that requires a radically different anti-crime campaign.

Primarily a public-service educational program, the anti-shoplifting campaign is designed to make area residents -- especially young people -- aware of the consequences of stealing.

By involving youngsters at an early age in their educational program, retail executives hope to make a lasting impression that will result in fewer losses attributable to shoplifting.

In so doing, they have selected a simple yet strikingly graphic poster by a fifth-grade D.C. student as the principal medium to convey the theme of this year's campaign: "Shoplifting will tie your hands forever."

Grade-school students, however, are the least likely to be apprehended for shoplifting, having committed only 6 percent of the offenses recorded last year. Only 12 percent of those who were apprehended for shoplifting were teenagers.

With all the statistics at hand about shoplifters, retailers have yet to put much of a dent in this criminal activity, which resulted in losses totaling $477 million last year, the 12-month period that ended July 31.

That's down 4 percent from the previous year but substantial, nonetheless. Only 19 of the top 100 public companies in the Washington area had sales greater than $477 million last year.

Although losses reported by retail bureau members have fluctuated since 1980, when they topped $496 million, the yearly total since then has never been less than $453 million.

In fact, a whopping $5 billion in losses have been attributed to shoplifting since 1980. And that's only what merchants affiliated with the retail bureau have reported.

As alarming as those figures are, they fall woefully short of telling consumers just how much they really pay each year for theft at Washington-area retail establishments.

The Board of Trade reports that each Washington-area resident pays about $300 a year in hidden costs passed on by merchants to offset losses due to shoplifting.

That figure hasn't changed significantly in three or four years. It is, in any case, only a fraction of what consumers actually pay in hidden costs associated with retail theft.

Shoplifting may be down 4 percent from 1980 but consumers continue to pay a hefty amount for what retailers call shrinkage -- a catchall term for shoplifting, clerical errors, in-house damage to merchandise and employee theft. None take as big a bite out of inventories and consumer pocketbooks as employee theft.

That's not to say that shoplifting isn't a serious problem. Rather, it reflects a candid assessment by retailers who say their biggest theft-related problem is internal.

"It is still true to form that internal {theft} is more than external," said David H. Eisenberg, president of Peoples Drug Stores and chairman of the Board of Trade's retail bureau. Almost no one is prepared, however, to say what consumers ultimately pay for the movement of goods in the underground economy where retail employees operate.

Theft-prevention measures alone, Eisenberg said, cost local retailers about $200 million a year. Peoples, for example, employs 177 full-time guards to curb theft by outsiders and employees.

"You're looking at a $750 million problem," Eisenberg estimated, calculating the industry's costs for security measures and shoplifting losses. "Somewhere along the line," he added, "you and I pay for it. Retailers have to make a profit."

Indeed, they do.

Add the costs of internal theft, however, and you're looking at a much bigger problem -- and a much bigger bite out of the consumer's hide. That's no small matter in an area where the cost of living is already among the highest in the country.

Its significance looms even larger at a time when the region's economy is rapidly slowing down. At least we know a little more about what shoplifting costs consumers.