Are Retailer's Cries of Shoplifting Valid? It's Complicated.

Stores aren’t closing due to smash and grabs alone. Really.

Are Retailer's Cries of Shoplifting Valid? It's Complicated.

Something was off; I knew it immediately. When you’ve worked in retail for two decades, you can spot unusual behavior from miles away. It was here.

On a quiet Monday evening, five people were heading into my store in a hurry. I saw them coming, and I was worried. I was leaving for the day and was carrying all my stuff. The California sun dipped behind the mountains, and the sky was turning pink.

With my hands full and no walkie on me to alert the staff, I looked around quickly and saw the team members busy with customers. I was powerless, so I stood still and watched them rob us.

They knew what they were after and where it was.

Four people split up, and one stood as a lookout. He didn’t see me right away, but he would.

They targeted all of our best brands and began grabbing armfuls of product. They shoved it into oversized shopping bags and carried as much as possible. They knew what they were after and where it was. They’d been in before; this heist was planned.

Finally, the lookout saw me. I stared at him. As we locked eyes, I just shook my head, no. “Don’t do this,” I tried to say telepathically. “Please, don’t do this.”

Another manager in the building saw them as they headed for the door. She yelled after them.

“Let them go!” I yelled.

The previous week, a manager in another store had been pulled to the ground by one of these mobs. They grabbed her ponytail and yanked her to the ground, breaking her arm. I was not about to see anyone in my store get hurt. For clothes? No.

No, thank you.

The thieves jumped into a car parked out front, dropping items on their way out, and squealed off.

This robbery happened nearly four years ago.

“This isn’t what I signed up for,” I thought numerous times in my retail career. I went to work in retail because I loved fashion and team building. I never wanted to be a cop. I never thought my life could be threatened because I ran a store that sold skateboards.

But here I was. The whole team was in danger. Man, all we wanted to do was sell hoodies and board shorts, not wind up in the middle of an effing organized heist.

There are a few things at play here. There are a few reasons why shoplifting rings and organized retail crime (ORC) groups are getting so bad.

After spending over twenty years on a retail floor, here’s what I see.

Laws Changed in California Regarding Shoplifting

In 2014, California voters passed Proposition 47. The measure was listed on the ballot as Criminal Sentences. Misdemeanor Penalties. Initiative Statute. It was called the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act by its supporters.

Are you confused yet?

The proposition recategorized “nonviolent” offenses. The following list of crimes went from carrying felony convictions to a misdemeanor conviction. $950 was deemed the magic number.

  • Shoplifting, where the value of property stolen does not exceed $950
  • Grand theft, where the value of the stolen property does not exceed $950
  • Receiving stolen property, where the value of the property does not exceed $950
  • Forgery, where the value of a forged check, bond, or bill does not exceed $950
  • Fraud, where the value of the fraudulent check, draft, or order does not exceed $950
  • Writing a bad check, where the value of the check does not exceed $950
  • Personal use of most illegal drugs (Below a certain threshold of weight.

The prior threshold was $400.

Many critics look to this change in policy as monumental. Prop 47 sought to reduce incarceration rates and, in turn, save the state money. It did. But there have been repercussions.

In my retail career, my loss prevention managers cited it as the reason for the uptick in bold theft occurring throughout the state.

As a store manager, I did notice a change. Thieves were getting more brazen. They were swiping three stacks of t-shirts from our front table and running out with an employee right there. That didn’t used to happen. People used to try to hide the fact that they were stealing.

Thieves understood that we had been instructed not to chase them if they ran, and they knew that, if caught, the change in the law would mean they were hit with a misdemeanor, not a felony.

It was worth the risk.

Income Inequality

The elephant in the room here is income inequality.

In 2020, the United States had the highest income inequality among all G7 countries. That means we lag behind the UK, Italy, Japan, Canada, Germany, and France.

In more recent reports, journalists tell us that wealth inequality is no longer increasing, but it will not return to mid-twentieth-century levels soon.

Writer Austin Clemens notes that recent wage growth for middle-class households “wasn’t zero, so “stagnant” might be inaccurate in the strict sense, yet wage growth was slow at the bottom of the income ladder.”

Clemens also writes that while income inequality has declined between 2007 and 2019, that decrease has been “excruciatingly slow.”

Right. We know.

As we are slowly climbing from the bottom of the income ladder, COVID hits, police brutality again goes viral in the heart-wrenching death of George Floyd, and national outrage follows. Global outrage follows.

The American dream is shattered for so many during this painful, fragile time. It’s in pieces on our tiny kitchen floor.

Even if we work our guts out for some mega-corporation and earn an okay salary, the people at the top will still take more, give us less, and tell us we have it good.

What’s the point anymore? I don’t know.

No one does.

Then, we have the pleasure of watching billionaires launch themselves into space instead of donating money to help the unhoused crisis or help kids who don’t have food.

So, I’m not saying you should rob a Lululemon or an Apple store. I’m not saying that at all. But I get it. When all you see on social media is influencers raking in easy money, and the story on repeat on TV is Bezos in space, people start to think, “What about me? Where’s my slice? These retailers have insurance; let’s go.”

Again — please do not commit crimes.

Corporations Aren’t Telling the Whole Story

Drugstores are locking everything behind plexiglass cases. They’re blaming smash and grabs for their dismal shrink numbers. “What else can we do?” they ask with puppy dog eyes.

Here’s the thing: there are three types of shrink (ways companies lose money).

  • Internal — employees stealing from their jobs.
  • External — shoplifting, smash and grabs, and looting.
  • Paperwork errors — shipping/receiving issues. Markdown, tagging, and cashiering mistakes.

When companies report their shrink numbers, they don’t tell you where their loss is coming from. They throw out their number and then blame external theft.

NBC reported on this very thing this week. They also note that many retailers are not staffing their stores adequately (yeah, we can tell). ORC groups know it, and they head to stores with fewer employees. Neil Saunders, managing director at the consulting company GlobalData, is quoted in this article:

“In some ways, theft is a great excuse as it absolves a retailer of any responsibility as theft is somewhat outside of their control. I don’t think anyone denies the problem of theft, it’s just that a lot more transparency and nuance is needed in the discussion.” 
There needs to be some hope that the future can be better.

Have thieves become emboldened? Yes. Is this due to Prop 47? Maybe. Is income inequality a piece of the puzzle? Absolutely. Are retailers being transparent? No.

Retail robberies have hit every news channel and lit up social media. We watch, astonished that massive groups of people would choose to rush a store, grab merchandise, and run out.

Yes, it’s wild. Yes, it’s not okay.

But we need to look at this with an eye on history. This smash-and-grab phenomenon didn’t come from nowhere, and it won’t go away simply by making laws tougher.

This is a social problem, an economic problem, and an American problem.

Corporations need to stop blaming shoplifting for all their woes and take a look in the mirror. Retailers need to spend some of their capital (yes, money), hire more staff, and pay people more.

American citizens need to earn a living wage and be able to see that they have a chance in this world. There needs to be some hope that the future can be better.

Because all the last few years have shown us is disease, police brutality, and billionaires in space.

No, thanks.

Based in Southern California, Kit Campoy is a former retail leader turned freelance writer. She covers Retail, Leadership, and Business.  Join her weekly resistance, The Voice of the Frontline.

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