For Maryland retailers, the struggle against shoplifting has become a full-fledged war. It is a war with no end, but store owners believe they may be gaining on their adversaries.

Pitted against legions of shoplifters who make off with millions of dollars worth of merchandise each year, retailers have equipped themselves with an arsenal of devices ranging from hidden cameras and two-way mirrors to sensitive micro-wave equipment.

At Woodward and Lothrop's store in Landover, electronic sensors stand like sentinels on each side of the door, and at stores all over suburban Maryland employees keep a wary eye on the customer who lingers long by the circular rack full of suede jackets. Often, metal chains attached to large rings tether garments to racks so that they can be removed only by store employees.

All of this caution is aimed at combatting losses that add about $200 per year to the average customer's tab in retail stores, according to Washington Metropolitan Board of Trade estimates. Retailers in the Washington metropolitan area estimate they lost about $391 million in the year ending Aug. 1, 1976, the Board of Trade said. The figure is equal to about 4 per cent of total 1976 retail sales volume for the metropolitan area.

Montgomery County police reported 1,827 arrests for shoplifting in 1976, down from 2,057 in 1975. In Prince George's County, where arrest figures are not available from police, it is "an acute problem," according to Mike Long, manager of Beyda's Children's Wear in Iverson Mall.

Woodward and Lothrop's, with 13 stores scattered over the metropolitan area, including eight in Maryland, spends "more than $1 million a year on asset protection payroll and equipment," said Lewis C. Shealy, director of security there.

The store's security operations are centered downtown, but not all of its problems are there. Stores located near the Beltway are problem spots because of the ease with which shoplifters can get to and away from the stores, Shealy said.

In Maryland. Woodies looks out for shoplifters through two-way mirrors that survey the floors (but not the dressing rooms), cameras (including some hidden from sight) and employees (who can alert security personnel by silent alarms). In its Landover store, Woodies has installed a gadget called Sensormatic, which sounds an alarm if a bulky plastic tag has not been removed. The tag bears a microdot which activates the alarm system.

The Maryland Woodies' stores are also guarded by an elaborate, 24-hour central alarm system located in the downtown store. The monitoring system alerts store security personnel if boiler pressure drops, if someone tampers with a telephone, if a fire breaks out or if anything else unwanted happens. Direct telephone lines in the control room put Woodies personnel in immediate contact with public safety agencies.

Other retailers rely less on devices and more on their employees. "We hammer away at the fellows to make sure they are alert in the stores," said Joseph Goldberg, owner of Variety Records, which has shops in Wheaton Plaza, Montgomery Mall, Tysons Corner, Landover Mall and the Landmark Center in Virginia. "They are trained to be on the lookout for large shopping bags or packages, for people hanging out in groups - to try not to be distracted by one of the group.

Goldberg also said that the stores had been laid out with an eye toward controlling shoplifting losses. "They're laid out in such a way that the sales personnel have good visual control," he said. "Fortunately, through the years our losses have been kept minimum."

Goldberg said he tries "to soft pedal the approach as much as possible," though during the Christmas season - a big season for shoplifting, according to retailers - he may use a uniformed guard.

"People will do strange things. They'll take displays that aren't worth anything just to put in their rooms," said Goldberg. Most of the shoplifting in the record stores is done by teenagers, he said. "Most don't have to do it financially. Most of it is done by teenagers just doing it for a lark or to see if they can get away with it - to say, "Hey, I shoplifted something in somebody's store," he said.

Merchants in Iverson Mall help each other look out for potential shoplifters, said Long. "In some areas of the mall we work together. If we see someone suspicious, we'll call each other, like a telephone chain."

Besides the methods used in stores to try to deter shoplifting. Maryland merchants also prosecute all shoplifters. Paul Diepz, chairman of the Prince George's County Chamber of Commerce retail committee, said that group has lobbied for minimum fines for shoplifters and to increase the maximum fine. "Too many people are let go."

In Montgomery County all shoplifters are taken to trial, according to State's attorney Andrew L. Sonner. However, "the great majority of first offense shoplifters get what is known as probation before judgement," said Sonner.

Such an outcome amounts to no record and a period of unsupervised probation. If there are no subsequent problems, the case is dismissed by the court.

Shoplifters who appear to be professional are dealt with more harshly, he said. "I think all cases should be judged individually," said Sonner. "There are some cases where people shoplift because they are crying out for help. Giving them a criminal conviction and a fine sometimes isn't in the interest of the public . . . Usually what happens is the arrest itself lances the sore that causes the difficulty."

Some shoplifters, according to metropolitan areawide figures, are teenagers such as those Goldbergencounters, but two-thirds are older than 21, according to a 1976 survey of arrests in 35 stores. By a small edge, they are predominantly male - 51 per cent. About 20 per cent of those arrested areawide are from Washington, and about 80 per cent are from the suburbs. Only about 1 per cent of them have ever been arrested before, and only about 1 per cent will ever be again, according to one estimate.

Less variable, according to many retailers are the reasons people shoplift. People simply want something for nothing, many retailers said.

"If we're ever going to stop it, we've got to go back to the home. We've got to start teaching that stealing isn't right" said Shealy of Woodies.

The items shoplifted most frequently from department stores are clothing, especially suede and leather and sportwear, retailers said. According to the survey of 35 Washington and Baltimore stores, the average theft in 1976 was worth $138, compared to $67 in 1973.

"When we carry suedes and leather, we have to take so many precautions, it's almost not worthwhile," said Long. People take "suits, $50-$60 coats - big ticket items," he said.

Sometimes a retailer can't add the costs of shoplifting losses to his prices and stay competitive. A number of Washington area stores have gone out of business, in part because of the toll shoplifting took said several Washington area merchants.

When the merchant helps offset losses by increasing his prices, you're paying for actions taken by other individuals," said Goldberg. "If you went in and bought something, it might be a few dollars higher because the store has lost lots."

Various steps taken to control shoplifting have helped except in one year, 1973, said Leonard Kolodny of the Board of Trade, and others. Kolodny thinks the board's campaign that year was unsuccessful. Their slogan was "Sh-plifting is a crime," with the "o" in shoplifting missing. People who displayed the bo ard's posters kept offering to paint the missing letter in, he said.