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Why are retail thefts on the rise?

It’s organized retail crime — where the thefts are planned, and part of organized rings.
Posted at 3:41 PM, Jan 31, 2023

Retail thefts are on the rise. Some do it discreetly and others are downright brazen, like a couple walking out of Targetwith shopping carts full of stolen merchandise. And it’s hurting retailers’ bottom line.

The National Retail Federation’s annual 2022 survey found that the average shrink rate — an industry term for lost inventory — was 1.4%. That translates to nearly $95 billion in losses.  

"We're getting more information on 2020 and '21, because the pandemic and then all the wild looting and burning and all the serious crimes it started affecting retailers in a different way, have kind of kind of skewed what we've got there," said Read Hayes, a research scientist at University of Florida and director of the Loss Prevention Research Council.

And it could only be a matter of time before it affects Americans’ wallets and how they shop. 

But the NRF says this is something bigger than shoplifting. 

It’s organized retail crime — where the thefts are planned, and part of organized rings targeting everything from high-end items to razors and toothpaste.

"These are all items that are portable and they're very valuable and are readily converted to cash by the offender. So they fit the what we call the 'crave model,'" Hayes said. "But handbags and shoes, particularly handbags, are a very, very high loss right now."

Eight in 10 retailers surveyed in the NRF’s annual report say that violence and aggression related to organized retail crime increased in 2021.  

US inflation and consumer spending cooled in December

US inflation and consumer spending cooled in December

The overall spending figures for the final two months of 2022 were the weakest in two years.


Lisa LaBruno with the Retail Industry Leaders’ Association says many shoplifters feel it’s a high reward, low risk crime.  

"It’s getting more brazen. It’s getting more violent. And that’s caused in part by the lack of accountability that these criminal actors are being held to," LaBruno said. "Which I think is a significant factor. These criminal actors feel as though nothing’s going to happen to them."

Online marketplaces are also enabling shoplifters, allowing them a quick cash turnaround— while remaining anonymous.  

The Biden administration is hoping to slow things down. Last December the president signed the Inform Act.

It’ll require high-volume third-party sellers to be transparent by providing bank information, and government issued identification. The act goes into effect this summer.

"That will mean that online sellers need to start to disclose more information about online sellers to make sure that they're legitimate. They're not using different spoofing techniques, which they're doing right now," Hayes said. 

In addition to federal response Illinois and Colorado now have their own retail theft task forces. And cities from coast to coast are implementing local task forces.

"Many of the police departments are working together to make sure that we’re all on the same page and using best practices to make sure that this is addressed quickly," said Raj Vaswani, deputy chief of investigations at the San Francisco Police Department. "A tremendous amount of resources are spent on this and it’s very important that the public realize that we are fully committed to making sure this doesn’t continue."

But if it does — consumers could be the ones paying the price.