The price of shoplifting is getting dangerously high

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When young, the writer Susan Sontag used to frequent the Pickwick bookstore in Los Angeles and shoplift works of literature. “Each of my occasional thefts cost me weeks of self-revilement and dread of future humiliation, but what could I do, given my puny allowance?” she later wrote.

That made her a snitch, in the definition laid out in a classic study of retail theft in a Chicago department store in the 1960s. Snitches were amateurs, mostly women who would pilfer purses and accessories from the beautiful displays. Then there were boosters, a much smaller number of professional thieves who were systematic and ruthless.

This is the age of boosters, judging by the complaints of supermarkets, department stores and electronics retailers about an onslaught of theft. The US chain Target said this week that it will close nine stores in cities including New York and San Francisco because “theft and organised retail crime” are becoming a threat to the safety of its staff and customers.

Target is among many retailers warning of a rise in organised theft, including “flash robs” of young thieves threatening staff, and others brazenly exiting with big bags filled with booty. Dame Sharon White, chair of John Lewis, this month called shoplifting an “epidemic” and the Co-op supermarket chain says repeated robberies could lead to some districts being blighted.

Robbery is not an existential threat to all stores. The US National Retail Federation this week estimated that “shrinkage”, including theft by staff and customers, together with stuff getting lost, rose to $112bn last year. But the 1.6 per cent of sales that this represents is only back to pre-pandemic levels, and external theft accounted for only about a third of the total.

The modern-day snitch is still responsible for a lot of shoplifting. Detectives used to complain of women slipping into stores to pick up status-enhancing goods, but necessities are now out of reach for some families. High inflation and poverty lead to temptation: even the NRF says that social challenges “deserve an empathetic solution.”      

Nor are all store closures due to theft. Target, which will still have more than 1,900 US stores left after closing nine, has been hit together with other chains by shoppers cutting back spending as prices have risen. It is convenient to place the blame on shrinkage if you need to shrink anyway.

But it would be idle to pretend there is no problem. Everyone I spoke to about it this week recounted some experience, or knock-on effect, of retail crime. Supermarkets limit the number of trolleys to prevent them being used for theft; clothing stores lock their doors and make customers buzz to be admitted; ever more items are locked in cabinets.

The people who suffer most are retail workers. Even if crime is in line with historic standards, many face greater abuse from angry shoppers in these anxiety-ridden times. Those in the worst affected outlets must endure repeated criminality and sometimes violence; they are not paid enough to compensate for such stress.

The technology is readily available on the internet. One criminal entrepreneur offers “booster bags”, lined with metallic fabric to seal off antitheft tags when goods are inside, shipped from Poland. There are also keys to unlock tags and jammers to block scanners: everything a modern booster could need.

At this level of preparation, shoplifting shades into what stores define as organised retail crime, perpetrated not for consumption but to flog the loot for cash. It also involves the division of labour: the kids rifling stores pass goods along to fences to be sold in bulk online. They get only a small slice of the proceeds in return for joining a Fagin-like criminal enterprise.

This is not exactly Ocean’s Eleven: semi-organised might be a better description. As one NRF study noted, such groups often employ the homeless or addicts as boosters. Indeed, members of drugs gangs moonlight by stealing stuff from stores in their spare time. The greater the urban dysfunction, the bigger the pool of potential recruits.

It is not obvious how to stop it. Stores complain of a lack of police action against crimes that do not individually amount to much. There is some logic to repeatedly raiding the same place if each theft falls below the threshold of a felony. Or perhaps too many people casually believe that shoplifting from chains is a victimless crime.

I don’t know, but one difference between Sontag snitching in the 1940s and gangs boosting through Los Angeles now is that physical retailing is on much shakier ground. There are enough vacant shops in many towns and cities already without retailers constantly being taught that leaving goods on open display is a fool’s game.

True, supermarkets save money by allowing shoppers to fill their own baskets and check themselves out, but being able to browse freely is an everyday miracle, as well as very convenient. Society would lose a lot if that freedom became a perk of the privileged, or those who live in places where stores do not fear being ransacked.

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