When the police arrested a specialized shoplifting chain that operated a liquor store last spring (autumn in Brazil), they calculated that the people involved had stolen at least US$ 73.000 (most R$ 2 million) in merchandise from retailers such as Walmart, Lowe’s (building materials store) and Walgreens (pharmacy chain). The duo that led the gang recruited petty thieves, including several with a history of arrest for drug trafficking, to blatantly enter stores, steal expensive merchandise, and flee in cars with fake license plates.
Although police and prosecutors often classify shoplifting as a non-violent crime, the gang’s binges have resulted in several physical confrontations, including one where a gang member attacked a store employee with a stun gun. This may seem similar to the organized looting that plagued luxury stores in San Francisco and other northern California communities recently, but this gang was operating out of Daytona Beach, Florida — and had been doing so for nearly two years.
Actually, retail crime has been on the rise in the US over the past five years, with organized criminal networks targeting stores everywhere from Woonsocket (Rhode Island) to Greensboro (North Carolina) and Grafton (Wisconsin). The National Retail Federation reported that losses in stores increased by US$ 400.719 for US$ 1 billion in sales in 2015 to US$ 540.8012940873001 in 2020. The biggest increase in this period occurred not during the pandemic, but in 2019, when total losses with shoplifting rose to US$ 61 billion, above US$ 50 billion in the previous year. The lockdowns because of Covid-19 in 2020 and early 2021 moderated losses, largely because stores were closed or reduced hours operating. Now that retail has resumed, crime has increased again.
Even more Of concern is the fact that shoplifting no longer fits its traditional mold as a nonviolent crime perpetrated primarily by teenagers or adult drug users. Nearly two-thirds of retailers surveyed by the National Retail Federation said violence associated with shoplifting has increased, led by organized gangs who resell the goods they steal. Corie Berry, CEO of Best Buy (the electronics chain), recently said that in-store crime had become so pervasive that it was cutting into profits and traumatizing employees. Like retailers, police blame part of the rise in crime on a general decrease in penalties for shoplifting. “As we witness blatant thefts, the consequences are paramount,” Laura Cooper, president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said ahead of Thanksgiving. “Without penalties and accountability, the victims will be communities and companies will be terrorized.”The recent wave of shoplifting in California has drawn attention to the Proposition 2015 — a statewide voting initiative of , supported by a number of left-wing and libertarian groups, which, among other things, raised the criminal threshold for shoplifting by US$ 375 on goods for US$ 768. Soon after it was passed, California retailers began reporting a sharp increase in retail theft, often in full view of helpless employees and distressed customers. “This is an epidemic that has far-reaching effects, and it’s scary and disturbing to witness,” a resident recently reported to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Amid the frenzy, national chains such as Walgreens and Target have announced they are closing their stores in San Francisco, while others have reduced opening hours. Some officials initially denied that crime was on the rise, but recent incidents forced California Governor Gavin Newsom to announce that he would increase funding to combat retail theft. Meanwhile, local officials like San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who prosecuted fewer shoplifters than his predecessor, have recently begun to indict the gangs.
What has received much less attention, however, is the fact that the Proposal 43 California was no exception between states. In the last ten years, nearly half of all states have increased their limits on retail theft. Thirty-eight states now do not consider shoplifting a felony unless $1. or more in goods are stolen. A report by the National Federation of Retailers of 2015 on organized crime in retail found that two-thirds of retailers in states that have raised minimum shoplifting rates have reported — check it out — increasing retail theft. As a result, stories like San Francisco have become more common.
Grafton , a suburban community about 32 kilometers north of Milwaukee, is located off the Interstateand is home to several large shopping malls — ideal targets for gangs. Two-thirds of all reported crimes in the district are now retail theft. “People are literally leaving with carts full of power tools and air conditioners,” the city’s chief of police said in early November. “They pick up and leave quietly.” In Wisconsin, the limit for criminal theft is $2.500, one of the highest levels in the country. Meanwhile, police officers in rural Cabarrus County, North Carolina, dismantled a five-person retail robbery ring last September, finding $. . on merchandise stolen from stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot, including power tools still in their boxes and small appliances. It took more than hours to inventory everything.
Changes to bail laws also played a role in the crime wave, retailers say. Increasingly, those who engage in property offenses—considered a nonviolent offense—are quickly back on the streets, where some are back to stealing. New York City retailers were threatened by a thief known as the Man of Steal, arrested 43 times only in the first nine months of 2021, including 29 times for theft in stores. He is one of the 57 habitual criminals with at least 20 arrests for shoplifting on the streets of New York, thanks to reform of the state’s bail law, called “disastrous” by the Police Commissioner Dermot Shea.
The unintended consequences of other government policies contributed to the problem. Mandatory mask wearing allows criminals to cover their faces in stores without attracting attention. The ban on single-use plastic bags made it acceptable for consumers to walk through stores with their own non-transparent reusable bags, allowing thieves to carry them in aisles and head to exits. Some use aluminum-lined bags to avoid detection by retail security systems.The rise in shoplifting was accompanied by a general escalation in crime, including violent crime, at a time when police resources were dwindling. Only murders increased 32% in the US on 2021, straining police departments and making the increase in shoplifting seem like a minor problem in comparison.
Only now, after years of increasing retail theft and recent incidents of shoplifting in California, has the problem begun to get media attention — a reminder that when low-level crime grows out of control, they inevitably evolve into something more dangerous and expensive. Retailers and law enforcement are looking for new ways to help stem theft. They would like local governments to change shoplifting laws so that the aggregate value of goods stolen from a repeat offender can count towards reaching the threshold for criminal charges, rather than simply counting the cost of goods stolen from each incident separately.
Similarly, companies and security experts want higher bonds for repeat offenders, even if the crimes in question are only misdemeanors. They also want a federal law against shoplifting gangs operating in several states — an increasingly common phenomenon.
Finally, physical retailers want the federal government to crack down on online sites that sell stolen goods. The rise of online retail has given organized criminals an easy way to get rid of their loot. Last summer, a security expert at the CVS drugstore chain told the Wall Street Journal that he expected to close 50 online stores that were selling illegal goods worth US$
millions. Stores complain that operators of large online marketplaces, especially Amazon, do not do enough to verify that items sold on their websites are legitimate. Retailers have lobbied for a federal law requiring online sellers to disclose more information about their operations, though Amazon and other big tech companies are resisting.
Shopping this past Christmas approached pre-pandemic normality. The only question now is whether this normality will also include trawlers, thieves who have lost the shame of acting in daylight, and terrified employees and customers.
*Steven Malanga is the Senior Editor of the City Journal and a George M. Yeager Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.