The Murky Shoplifting Narrative

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Written By Pinang Driod

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Despite inconclusive evidence, some retailers have seized on the narrative that theft is a major issue, pressuring lawmakers to crack down and changing the shopping experience as a result.

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The specter of shoplifting is haunting America. Viral videos show frightening scenes: people in masks smashing windows, groups swarming stores, thieves attacking workers. Retail executives have referred to theft as a serious threat, suggesting that their companies are victims of a national crime wave. Already, they have made a number of decisions—including locking up items, closing stores, and advocating for harsher larceny laws—under the auspices of trying to deter theft. Despite some disturbing reports of both violent and nonviolent crime in stores, data do not conclusively show that instances of shoplifting are up everywhere; shoplifting has risen overall during the past four years in New York and Los Angeles but dropped off in more than a dozen other cities, according to a recent report from the Council on Criminal Justice.

External theft makes up one slice of what retailers call “shrink”: the difference between the inventory that stores expect to have on hand, and what they actually have. Shrink totaled $112.1 billion in losses in 2022, about 1.6 percent of companies’ sales, up from $93.9 billion the year before, according to the National Retail Federation, a trade group that lobbies on behalf of retailers and publishes surveys of its members. The NRF’s most recent survey found that external theft—committed by nonemployees—was effectively flat relative to total shrink over the past couple of years: It accounted for 36 percent in 2022, compared with 37 percent in 2021. (The NRF does not list the brands that participate in its surveys.)

Companies are not typically required to disclose exact losses from shrink in their earnings reports, making it hard to compare this year with previous years. But Sucharita Kodali, a retail analyst at Forrester, a research and advisory firm, told me that, despite inconclusive evidence, “it’s very easy [for companies] to pin the blame on these highly publicized thefts” and frame such problems as a temporary setback in weaker fiscal quarters. Some companies have blamed retail theft in particular for store closures—though executives have also later hedged such claims. To be sure, retail thefts do happen, and they can be harrowing for employees who bear the brunt of violent robberies. But retailers are using theft as an explanation for troubles in a period when other headwinds are playing a role too.

Dylan Carden, a retail analyst at William Blair, an investment bank and financial-advisory firm, explained to me that pandemic disruptions to shopping made shrink levels go down in 2020. As they returned to more normal levels in 2021, sensational videos in news articles and on social media about theft helped sow public panic. In general, Americans are concerned about crime: Recent polling from Gallup found that 63 percent think crime is a very serious national problem, up from 54 percent in 2021.

How we talk about retail theft matters, because these perceptions are fueling policy changes. Alarm about theft has led retailers and advocates, including NRF, to push for government crackdowns both on thieves and on the online marketplaces that may fence stolen goods. New, more punitive larceny laws have been passed in nine states so far this year, but whether these new laws will be effective at curbing theft is unclear. “In my opinion, these policy changes are purely a sign of moral panic,” my colleague Amanda Mull, who wrote about the “great shoplifting freak-out” in 2021, told me. “Many of these policies involve lowering the amount you have to steal in order to be charged with a felony or increasing penalties for shoplifting, and the data suggest that these types of measures do not correlate in any way to reductions in theft rates.”

Meanwhile, the “moral panic” Amanda mentioned is affecting shoppers’ day-to-day experiences. “For generations, shopping in the United States has been almost entirely self-service until you get to the checkout counter, and stores are structured and staffed to reflect that,” Amanda explained. “Now you often have to find an employee if you want to buy cold medicine or new shampoo, and these same stores haven’t increased staffing or changed their layouts to make that easier.” In understaffed stores, or ones that rely on customers to check out their own goods, opportunities to make off with goods relatively unimpeded abound.

Hiring more workers could make the experience of shopping better for customers—and help deter theft in the process. But that’s not exactly flashy, or cheap. Instead, stores have largely relied on technology and attempted to get lawmakers and law enforcement involved. As Amanda told me, “There’s very little evidence to suggest that theft has actually spiked in a significant way … The legal system is responding emotionally instead of rationally.”

Related:

  • The great shoplifting freak-out
  • Self-checkout is a failed experiment.

Today’s News

  1. Tonight, Ron DeSantis will face off against Gavin Newsom in a Fox News debate moderated by Sean Hannity.
  2. A U.S.-military Osprey aircraft carrying eight people crashed yesterday off the coast of southern Japan, with at least one fatality. The cause of the crash isn’t currently known.
  3. A New York State appeals court has reinstated the gag order prohibiting Donald Trump from making public statements about the staff of the judge in his civil fraud trial.


Evening Listen

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Watch. Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, a Leonard Bernstein biopic in select theaters now, dodges the common pitfalls of biographical films by focusing on Bernstein’s passions—and personal tragedies.

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