(This article originally appeared in The Guardian)
There’s a war happening right now. No, it’s not in Ukraine (at least not yet). It’s on Main Street.
In Manhattan, where the New York police department reports shoplifting levels not seen in nearly 30 years, a Rite-Aid store announces it’s closing because of theft losses. Small retailers in New York have given their district attorney an earful. Residents and shop owners in San Francisco say that crime there has “spun out of control”. Chicago has been the target of “rampant” shoplifting incidents. Reports of “flash” shoplifting gangs have prompted legislators to introduce bills to protect businesses as far apart as Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Washington state.
Is this real or moral panic? Some columnists, such as Amanda Mull from the Atlantic, says that the “the deeper you search for real, objective evidence of an accelerating retail crime wave, the more difficult it is to be sure that you know anything at all”. The Los Angeles police department recently announced that robbery, burglary and theft are actually down in the city compared with 2019. An activist group in Seattle says that in some cases shoplifting is “justified”. One retail association says that retail theft would be less if Amazon and Facebook didn’t make it so easy to sell stolen goods.
When you ask retailers, they’ll tell you that shoplifting is a big and growing problem. Just ask the National Retail Federation.
Half of the respondents in that organization’s 2021 retail security survey said they saw an increase in shoplifting this past year. According to the report, theft and fraud cost retailers $62bn in 2020 and the average retail robbery netted more than $7,500 in product — a figure not seen since 2015. More disturbingly, about 69% of retailers said they have also experienced a significant increase in “organized retail crime” activity — thefts involving groups of people — over the past year. The reasons cited included the pandemic, lapse in policing and apprehension, changes to sentencing guidelines and the growth of online marketplaces like Facebook and Amazon.
Whatever the reasons, “inventory shrink” (retailer politesse for shoplifting) is above its five-year average and shoplifters are clearly striking quite a blow in their war with retailers. So how are merchants fighting back? Unfortunately, they’re having to spend.
Many of my shop-owner clients are taking the obvious internal steps. These would include making sure their stores are organized and tidy, that their employees are trained to be on alert for typical shoplifting tactics, and that mirrors are added to avoid blind spots among updated and prominent signs that warn of prosecution. A handful have hired security guards. Those with very high-dollar inventory (jewelry, say) are taking more steps to secure these products or removing them from their stores each night. Others are installing more protective glass on their exterior windows and display cases.
Many others are investing in new security systems or re-designing themselves to thwart shoplifting. A Safeway store in San Francisco, for example, has added automatic gates that immediately swing shut behind entering customers in order to prevent thieves from running out of the store with full shopping carts. Other retailers are setting up coiled wire or putting more of their items under lock and key.
The National Association of Shoplifting Prevention takes a different approach by offering retailers the opportunity to participate in “progressive shoplifting prevention” that includes encouraging “a shift in focus to long-term education and awareness solutions, rather than continuing to invest solely in physical prevention and apprehension” by making investments to “reduce recidivism to break the cycle and cure the shoplifting problem rather than continually spending money to repeatedly treat its symptoms”.
Or you could do what one small merchant in Denver is doing: charge all customers an additional 1% fee on top of everything else to cover his shoplifting losses. Calling it the “Denver crime spike fee”, the owner says it helps him to recover thousands of dollars in losses. “We’re talking about six figures [in losses] for a really small business like us, and that is meaningful,” he told the Denver Business Journal. “It impacts our employees, and, more importantly, it now is going to impact our shoppers.”
Maybe that’s what it takes to win the shoplifting war? I really hope not.