Retail Theft on the Rise: How Businesses Are Adapting to Protect Their Stores

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Need to Know from SafeWise
  • Organized retail theft led to losses of $112.1 billion in 2022.
  • Some retailers are locking up everyday items like fragrances and even jeans, potentially causing 26% of customers to shop elsewhere.
  • Self-checkout losses are a major concern, prompting stores like Harris Teeter and Walmart to use smart cameras and discreet devices to combat theft.
  • Some cities are taking unique measures, such as distributing digital trackers and banning ski masks in public places, to combat shoplifting and protect their communities.

Shoplifting has become a serious problem in recent years, with businesses shuttering stores and investing heavily in security. Organized retail theft, which has a group of criminals burglarizing a store in a coordinated attack, led to $112.1 billion in losses in 2022, according to the National Retail Federation.

But some companies are fighting back. Large chains like Walmart, Target and Walgreens are taking a proactive approach to reducing theft. Cities and states are taking measures to prevent it too.

The rise in shoplifting

Shoplifting is nothing new. For as long as goods have been traded, criminals have come along to steal things.

Some might even argue that shoplifting itself is no worse than it’s always been. The Council on Criminal Justice reviewed shoplifting instances in big cities, where organized retail theft rings often thrive. Their research indicated that shoplifting instances were 7% lower than 2019 numbers in Los Angeles, Dallas and San Francisco. Rates in New York City are higher than pre-pandemic levels, though.

The alarm comes from the larger number of online videos showing the crimes. Since they’re often carried out by large groups of criminals, the videos can seem intimidating. For that reason, cities like San Francisco are increasing police activity in areas that are at high risk for organized retail theft.

But police aren’t the only ones working to fight these crimes. Seeing the toll crime rings take on their bottom line, businesses are boosting security, as well.

Enhanced safety measures

Combatting shoplifting can be tricky since it inconveniences paying customers. But businesses have suffered enough losses that they have no other choice. Here are some measures retailers and municipalities are taking to curtail organized retail theft.

Locking up vulnerable items

Locking up commonly shoplifted items is nothing new. But recently, retailers have expanded those lockdowns.

  • Walmart has begun putting jeans, air fresheners and some cleaning supplies behind glass in select locations.
  • Ulta Beauty and Sephora have begun locking up fragrances.
  • Walgreens is reportedly testing a store concept that has most items locked up. Customers order items on a tablet and pick them up at checkout.
  • Target has expanded its list of locked-up items in some locations. They include everyday beauty products. According to the company’s CEO, the response has been positive.

Locking up additional items comes at a price, though. According to data from Coresight Research, 26% of customers would go elsewhere or shop online if the items they needed were locked up. But 48% of surveyed customers expressed concern that excessive theft might shut down their favorite stores.

Policing self-checkout

As stores have prioritized self-checkout, loss has become a big problem. Reviewing receipts at the exit door and randomly checking carts can offend customers, potentially losing their business.

But technology could be the answer to politely policing self-checkout. Harris Teeter supermarkets now use smart cameras to remind customers when they forget to scan an item. Walmart uses discreet devices to allow employees to freeze the scanner when theft is detected. The customer is told the issue is a technical one and directed to a cashier to complete the purchase.

Shutting down stores

In some cases, stores see extra security measures as a way to keep stores operational. If crime continues, that store might be wiped off the map altogether. Citing employee and customer safety, Target, Nike and Walmart have shut down select stores in the wake of heavy losses.

Banning ski masks

Retailers aren’t the only ones taking action against theft. Some cities are handing out digital trackers to help curtail often-stolen items. In Washington, DC, police handed out AirTags to owners of Canada goose jackets after they were heavily targeted by thieves.

Philadelphia is tackling organized retail theft in a different way. The city recently amended the prohibited conduct portion of its charter to specifically ban ski masks in many public places, including on public transportation.

Tips for safe shopping

Retailers know that shrinkage isn’t the only way organized retail theft impacts their bottom line. The viral videos have made some consumers apprehensive about shopping. Here are some tips to help you stay safe.

  • Shop selectively: Some stores are less inviting to organized retail thieves than others. Skip large, warehouse-style stores and choose smaller shops where employees interact with customers.
  • Choose your times: Shoplifters are likely to strike when there are fewer people (i.e. witnesses) around. Shop during busy times to have safety in numbers.
  • Be vigilant: Before entering a store, scope out the parking lot. Trust your instincts while you’re shopping and if something feels off, leave.
  • Shop online: If your favorite shop has items locked up, buying online might be a better option. Target will even deliver your Starbucks order along with your curbside purchase.
  • Be patient: If you do choose to shop in-store, remember that retailers are trying to mitigate damage. When items are locked up or employees want to check your receipt, if it keeps your favorite store from closing, it’s worth it.

Retail theft is a problem that’s likely to continue. Supporting businesses by making regular purchases can help ensure they’ll stick around. As stores and municipalities find creative ways to curtail organized retail theft, criminals may eventually find it’s more trouble than it’s worth.

Stephanie Faris
Written by
Stephanie Faris

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