For Virginia 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 twoway mirrors to sensitive microwave equipment.

At some stores, electronic sensors stand like sentinels on each side of the door, and at stores all over Northern Virginia employees keep a wary eye on the customer who lingers a long time. And, in some stores 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 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 retail sales volume for 1976.

Arlington County reported 299 thefts of $7,115 worth of goods in 1976, down from 374 worth $10,683 in 1975. The city of Alexandria prosecutes more than 500 cases a year, according to Commonwealth Attorney William L. Cowhig.

"It's an extremely serious problem in Alexandria," said Cowhig. "Stores are spending millions of dollars on prevention such as hiring store detectives and other measures, and all that gets added to the costs consumers pay."

Woodward and Lothrop, with 13 stores scattered over the metropolitan area, spends "more than a million dollars 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.

Relative to the size of the store, the worst shoplifting problem in any Woodies' store is in its Pentagon branch, said Shealy. "It's a small store, like a little PX, with a high ratio of shoplifting," he said. Stores near the Beltway also tend to have increased problems because of the relative ease of aceess and getaway, he said.

In Virginia, Woodies looks out for shoplifters through two-way mirrors that survey the floors (but not dressing rooms), cameras (including some hidden from sight) and employees (who can alert security personnel by silent alarms). Like other retailers, Woodies also locks some garments - especially suede and leather coats and jackets - to the garment racks.

The Virginia Woodies' stores are also guarded by an elaborate, 24-hour central alarm system located in the downtown store, which alerts security if boiler pressure drops, if the air conditioning stops working, if someone is tampering with a telephone, if a fire breaks out or if any of a number of other things happen. Direct telephone lines in the control rooom put Woodies' personnel in immediate contact with public safety agencies.

Since 1974, arrests for all Woodies' stores have dropped from 2,254 to 1,965 in 1976.

Shoplifting is a dressed-up word," said Fred Marshall, director of security for the Springfield Mall branch of J. O. Penney's. "Stealing is stealing."

Penney's in Springfield Mall doesn't use cameras or other electrical equipment except for two-way radios to try to put a stop to it. "People get used to the sight of cameras and they are no longer a deterrent," said Marshall. Security employees scan the floor from lookouts near the ceiling, peering through openings difficult to spot from the floor.

On the floor an attractive woman who looks like a suburban housewife with her arms full of purchases also keeps her eyes open for potential shoplifters. A display of merchandise may also provide a screen for another lookout, watching from inside what appears to be a partition.

"Our best deterrent is good customer service," said Marshall. "Ignoring people is the fastest way to get ripped off by people acting either by design or out of disgust, he said.

"We teach employees to approach customers. The average customer may say she is 'just looking.' We teach them not to just leave customers alone but to come back again. If someone's going to take something, it's aggravating. To a real customer it says we're helpful."

Marshall said he also teaches employees to spot trouble before it happens. "If a group comes in and you're alone, call for assistance, because there's a good chance you're being set up," he said.

Like other retailers, Penney's sometimes chains expensive merchandise to racks or to the floor. The drawback to that is that it may discourage customers as well, Marshall said. Part of the job is striking a balance between providing protection and detracting from the store's attractiveness to customers, he said. "You don't have to develop a police state image to get the job done."

Ray Wolff of Wolff's For Men and Boys in Springfield and Oakton said that "eyes mainly" provide protection in his stores. Groups are hitting the stores now, he said. "They come in groups, and two or three will keep you occupied while the others steal. They can take you for a ton," he said.

"You just try to control it. You try to bring it to the employees' attention as much as possible," he said. "The biggest problem I see with shoplifting today is that employees want to overlook it."

Retailers also pursue a policy of prosecuting all shoplifters as a deterrent. Virginia merchants can detain suspected shoplifters, and, if the theft is not major and the suspect is a Virginia resident, can release them with a citation similar to a parking ticket that requires them to pay a fine or appear in court.

"We're getting anything from a glimpse of the lockup to one day in jail for first offenders," said prosecutor Cowhig of results in court. "Our office takes a little harder look at these things . . . I wish we had a harsher system. A person who is stealing doesn't know that is going to happen to him if he gets caught," said Cowhig."I'd like to see a mandatory minimum sentence."

Some shoplifters, according to metropolitan areawide figures, are teenagers, but about 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.

Most of the shoplifters Marshall encounters are middle income and upper middle income, he said. Many are teenagers and many are housewives, according to the security director.

"Shoplifting is not an age thing. You get your 10-, 11-, and 12-year old kids, your teens, and young adults. Women are some of the heaviest," said Wolff.

Less variable, according to many retailers, are the reasons people shoplift.

"People are stealing out of greed, not need," said Commonwealth Attorney Cowhig.

"In the past 10 years it's become more of a problem," said Marshall. "With changing mores and attaning affluence we've had our views distorted from the Golden Rule. There is more emphasis on how you get it . . . Nobody advertises that it's going to take 32 to 60 months to pay for this. Nobody advertises that you're going to have to work hard," he said.

The cost of shoplifting "comes out of the owners' profit at the end of the year. You can't add it to the markup because then you're not competitive," said Wolff.

"The merchant that is really is the individual merchant who cannot hire security people and private detectives," said Cowhig. "They are the ones who suffer more than anyone else."

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" is shoplifting missing. People who displayed the board's posters kept offering to paint it in, he said.