For Washington 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 microwave equipment.

At Woodward and Lothrop's downtown store, electronic sensors stand like sentinels on each side of the door, and at stores all over the city employees keep a wary eye on the customer who lingers too long by the circular racks of suede jackets. Often, metal chains attached to large rings tether garments to the hangars so that they can only be removed 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 - a figure equal to about 4 per cent of annual retail sales volume for 1976.

In Washington in 1976, there were 2,114 arrests for shoplifting, reported D.C. police.

Woodies, with 13 stores scattered over the metropolitan area, spends "more than $1 million a year on asset protection payroll and equipment," said Lewis C. Shealy, director of security for Woodward and Lothrop. Shealy oversees about 200 security employees. The Woodies system includes microwave sensing devices.

Woodward and Lothrop looks out for shoplifters through two-way mirrors that survey the floors (but not dressing rooms), cameras (including some hidden from sight), employees (who can alert security personnel by silent alarms) and a device called Sensormatic, which sounds an alarm if a bulky plastic tag is not removed from a garment.

"It's very effective, but expensive," said Shealey of the device. A microdot on the tag activates sensors located at the entrances to the downtown store.

Woodies has an elaborate, 24-hour central alarm system located in its downtown stores, a board that monitors almost everything happening in any of the chain's branches. The board 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 room put Woodies personnel in immediate contact with public safety agencies.

The protective devices have helped, according to Shealy, a soft-spoken Alabama native. "It's like being in a chapel compared to what it was with the addicts in the late 1960s," he said. Arrests, which used to average about 100 a month in the downtown store, have dropped to about 50, he said.

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

At September Men's Wear, the reliance is almost entirely on employees to guard against shoplifting, although Mark Goodman, the co-owner, said, "I'm not going to tell you everything we do about it, because I don't think it's a good idea to publicize it. It would be giving away trade secrets in what I consider to be really a war."

The men's wear store, with a branch in Georgetown and another near 17th and L. NW, gets its share of shoplifters. Unlike Woodies, where shoplifters have reportedly included school principals and a Nixon administration official, the men's wear store gets few middle-income shop lifters, Goodman said.

Shoplifting is "a greater problem in Georgetown, by far," said Goodman. "I think Georgetown attracts a much younger trade. It has that carnival atmosphere with a lot of lookers and pleasure seekers. And you have a greater incidence of what they can gang harassment - three or four kids traveling together who come into the store and spread out."

"You have to literally stop what you're doing at the expense of the paying customer for a one-on-one defense," he said.

Goodman spends time with employees training them in prevention, including what traits to look for - people wearing raincoats on sunny days, big bags, groups, "certain techniques and things they try to do to get you running back and forth," he said.

"A naive employee can be easily conned or too relaxed," said Goodman. "It takes learning how to keep your eyes open, to be alert. It's easy to relax at the wrong time in the middle of a crazy 8-hour day."

Garfinckel's keeps one or two security officers on every floor of its six branches. Many of them are obvious, but others are not. "They might walk around with a child beside them or in a stroller," said Helen Zinn, director of security. Security people also scan the floor from strategic vantage points, she said.

Retailers also pursue a policy of prosecuting all shoplifters as a deterrent. Store employees detain suspected shoplifters, then D.C. police transport and book suspected shoplifters.

Figures on convictions for shoplifting are hard to come by, since the crime is generally lumped together with other types of theft under the heading of larceny. Robert Shuker in the U.S. attorney's office said that "prosecutions in cases that do go to trial are quite successful." A computer compilation by the institute for Law and Social Research showed that 54.9 per cent of the prosecutions for larceny of a corporation a category which includes shoplifting) resulted in judgments of guilty. In a number of other cases the offender accepted referral to a first offender treatment program or some other diversionary program.

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 are from the city, and about 80 per cent 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. Many shoplifters are carrying more than enough money to pay for what they take.

"They just want something for nothing," said Helen Zinn of Garfinckel's. "I don't believe the majority really know that it is a crime. Many are people who wouldn't take from an individual," but who somehow rationalize that taking from a corporation is different. "In fact, they're taking from themselves and their families and other customers," added Zinn, who said that consumers have to absorb some of the losses to shoplifting.

"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 Woodward and Lothrop.

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

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

Goodman said he expected to confront the problem when he went into business but is still amazed at "the techniques and always amazed at the blatant attempts, the stupid attempts." One man shoved a suit into his socks, wrapping a piece around each leg, pulling stretch socks up over them and rolling his bell-bottomed pants legs back down.

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 board's posters kept offering to paint it in, he said.