When police busted a shoplifting ring operating out of a liquor store last spring, they calculated that the dozen or so people involved had swiped at least $375,000 worth of goods from retailers such as Walmart, Lowe’s, and Walgreens. The pair heading the ring relied on small-time thieves, including several with drug arrest records, to launch brazen “grab-and-go” operations in which they snatched expensive goods and then raced out of stores and fled in cars with phony license plates. Though police and prosecutors often categorize shoplifting as a nonviolent crime, the gang’s sprees resulted in several physical confrontations, including one in which a gang member assaulted a store employee with a stun gun. This may sound similar to the organized smash-and-grab lootings that have plagued high-end retailers in San Francisco and other Northern California communities recently, but this gang was operating out of Daytona Beach, Florida—and had done so for nearly two years.
In fact, retail crime has been rising throughout the U.S. for the past five years, with organized criminal rings targeting stores everywhere from Woonsocket (Rhode Island) to Greensboro (North Carolina) to Grafton (Wisconsin). The National Retail Federation reported that store losses mounted from $453,940 per $1 billion in sales in 2015 to $719,458 in 2020. The biggest increase over that period happened not during the pandemic but in 2019, when total losses from shoplifting surged to $61 billion, up from $50 billion the previous year. The Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020 and early 2021 moderated losses, largely because stores were closed or had curtailed operating hours. Now that retailing has resumed, crime has spiked again.
Even more troubling, shoplifting no longer fits its traditional mold as a nonviolent crime perpetrated mostly by teens or substance-abusing adults. Nearly two-thirds of the retailers surveyed by the National Retail Federation said that violence associated with store thefts has risen, led by organized gangs that resell the goods they steal. Corie Berry, CEO of Best Buy, recently said that store crime had become so pervasive that it was depressing profits and traumatizing staff. Like retailers, top law-enforcement officials place some of the blame for the crime surge on a widespread lessening of penalties for shoplifting. “As we’ve witnessed brazen smash and grabs, consequences are key,” Laura Cooper, head of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said before Thanksgiving. “Without deterrents and accountability, communities will be victimized, and businesses terrorized.”
California’s recent headline-making shoplifting sprees have brought widespread attention to Proposition 47—a 2014 state ballot initiative, supported by a range of left-leaning and libertarian groups, which, among other things, boosted the felony threshold for shoplifting from $450 of merchandise to $950. Soon after it passed, retailers in California began reporting a sharp uptick in retail theft, often in plain view of helpless store personnel and distressed customers. “This is an epidemic that has far-reaching effects, and it’s scary and upsetting to witness,” one resident wrote recently to the San Francisco Chronicle. Amid the frenzy, national chains like Walgreens and Target have announced that they’re closing their San Francisco stores, while others have cut operating hours. Some officials initially denied that crime was climbing, but recent incidents forced California governor Gavin Newsom to announce that he would boost funding to fight retail theft. Meantime, local officials like San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin, who has prosecuted fewer shoplifters than his predecessor, have recently begun issuing indictments against gangs.
What has received far less attention, however, is the fact that California’s Prop. 47 was not an outlier among states. In the past ten years, nearly half of all states have boosted their thresholds for retail felony theft. Thirty-eight states now don’t consider shoplifting a felony unless $1,000 or more of merchandise gets stolen. A 2020 National Retail Federation report on organized retail crime found that two-thirds of retailers in states that had raised their felony shoplifting minimums reported growing retail theft. Stories like those in San Francisco have consequently become more common.
Grafton, a suburban community some 20 miles north of Milwaukee, is located right off Interstate 43 and is home to several large shopping centers—an ideal mark for smash-and-grab gangs. Two-thirds of all reported crime in the district is now retail theft. “People are literally walking out with cartloads of power tools, cartloads of air conditioners,” the town’s police chief said in early November. “They’re just walking right out.” In Wisconsin, the threshold for felony theft is $2,500, one of the highest levels in the country. Meantime, cops in rural Cabarrus County, North Carolina, busted a five-person retail theft ring last September, finding $400,000 worth of goods stolen from stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot, including still-boxed power tools and small appliances. It took more than 12 hours to inventory the haul.
Changes to bail laws have also played a part in the crime wave, retailers say. Increasingly, those who engage in misdemeanor property crime—considered a nonviolent offense—are quickly back on the streets, where some go right back to stealing. New York City retailers have been menaced by a thief known as the Man of Steal, arrested 57 times through the first nine months of 2021 alone, including 46 times for shoplifting. He is one of 77 habitual criminals with at least 20 shoplifting arrests walking New York’s streets, thanks to what police commissioner Dermot Shea called the state’s “disastrous” bail-reform law.
The unintended consequences of other government policies have contributed to the problem. Mask mandates allow criminals to cover up their faces in stores without attracting attention. Bans on single-use plastic bags have made it acceptable for consumers to walk around stores with their own non-transparent reusable bags, enabling thieves to load up in the aisles and head for the exits. Some design so-called booster bags, lined with aluminum, to evade detection from retail security systems.
The rise in shoplifting has been accompanied by a general escalation in crime, including violent offenses, at a time when police resources have been strained by everything from defund-the-police efforts to vaccine mandates. Murders alone rose 29 percent in the U.S. in 2020, swamping police departments and making the increase in shoplifting seem like a minor problem by comparison.
Only now, after years of growing retail theft and California’s recent high-profile “flash mob” incidents, has the problem even begun to command media attention—a reminder that when low-level crimes are allowed to grow unchecked, they inevitably evolve into something more dangerous and costly. Retailers and cops are looking for reforms to help stem the thievery. They’d like local governments to amend shoplifting laws so that the aggregate value of a repeat offender’s stolen goods can count toward meeting the threshold for felony charges, rather than simply counting the cost of goods stolen from each incident separately. Similarly, businesses and security experts want tougher bail for repeat offenders, even if the offenses in question are only misdemeanors. They also want a federal law targeting interstate shoplifting gangs—an increasingly common phenomenon, in which thieves target stores located out of state and hundreds of miles away.
Finally, brick-and-mortar retailers want the federal government to crack down on online sites that sell stolen goods. The rise of online retailing has given organized criminals an easy way to dispose of their booty. Last summer, a security expert for drugstore chain CVS told the Wall Street Journal that he expected to shut down 73 online stores selling illegal goods worth $104 million in 2021. Stores complain that operators of big online marketplaces, especially Amazon, don’t do enough to verify that the items sold on their sites 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 have resisted.
Shopping this past holiday season came closer to pre-pandemic normality. The only question now is whether that normality will also include flash mobs, smash-and-grab thieves, and terrorized employees and customers.