Locked down: stores struggle to deter rising thefts

Just how bad of a problem is shoplifting?

Security measures at a store.
Retailers say their bottom lines have been increasingly impacted by lost or stolen merchandise
(Image credit: Михаил Руденко / Getty Images.)

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Retailers are blaming rampant shoplifting for their shrinking bottom lines, said Hamza Shaban in Yahoo.com. "In waves of earnings calls" last week, major store chains like Dick's Sporting Goods, Target, Macy's, Home Depot, and Dollar Tree took pains to mention "the theme of missing merchandise" in hits to their quarterly profits. Videos of brazen smash-and-grab looting operations, sometimes involving hundreds of masked individuals, appear in the news almost weekly, adding to the sense of lawlessness. Retailers lost $94.5 billion in 2021 — nearly double the amount from 2018 — to "inventory shrink," an industry term that refers to lost or stolen merchandise. More retailers are responding by putting items in locked cases, and even taking often-stolen items out of stores.

These attacks aren't carried out by small groups of petty criminals, said Steven Malanga in City Journal. There is a sophisticated, illicit infrastructure underpinning this activity that's all about "reselling stolen items for profit." The merchandise "is sold by operators online — where they are hard to detect or track down." Often it winds up on large, anonymous marketplaces like Amazon and eBay. The illegal industry includes "'cleaners,' who strip goods of security devices, and money launderers, who process the transactions." But enabling this behavior are the states that have decriminalized low-level shoplifting under the misconception that most thieves "have turned to stealing to put food on the table." More than two-thirds of states now treat shoplifting as a misdemeanor if the value boosted is less than $1,000. Retailers aren't helping when they refer to this problem with jargon like "shrink," said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. "Plain language about theft, rather than the euphemism," would make the public better understand how bad the problem is and build support for "policies that would do something about it."

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"Shrink" is a purposely vague term, said Gabrielle Fonrouge in CNBC. Companies say repeatedly that "organized theft drove shrink" without explicitly breaking down "how much of the inventory loss is due to crime" or how it has changed over time. Shrink can just as easily be explained by "employee theft, administrative error, and inventory damage." In fact, internal pilfering has traditionally been the largest contributor to shrink, since retail employees "have access to entire cases of merchandise in backrooms" or warehouses.

But it's easier to blame gangs of criminals than to admit to having internal challenges or poor hiring practices. Shoplifting hurts more than just profits, said Stacy Torres in the Los Angeles Times. Shopping at Target or the supermarket used to be "my happy place," but "locked glass cabinets safeguarding merchandise are now ubiquitous." It's "demoralizing" to have to ask clerks to retrieve your deodorant. At my local Safeway, you have to enter through an automatic gate rigged with alarms if you try to exit the same way. Companies say these measures are there to make us all feel safer. But to me, they make it "feel like visiting a prison."

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