Guest Commentary: The Truth about Retail Theft

Shoplifting isn’t actually on the rise, but tough talk by retail giants and politicians distracts from what really creates safety.

By Sam McCann

In October, retail lobbyists demanded that Congress expand the prosecution and policing of shoplifting, making it easier to charge theft as a federal crime. The National Retail Federation (NRF) claimed that organized retail crime—shoplifting rings that the media has sensationalized—were driving violence in their stores and forcing them to shutter locations. United States Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa introduced the retailers’ legislation and stood alongside the NRF—representing some of the largest corporations in the country—to push Congress to pass it.

The retailers’ central claim was that shoplifting rings’ operations were increasing and that they were now to blame for nearly half of all retail “shrink,” an industry-devised metric for merchandise loss that includes retail theft, theft by employees, and loss by administrative or operational errors. If true, the country was amid a massive spike in theft. The NRF issued press releases about it. They spoke about it at Grassley’s press conference. They even testified to it at congressional hearings.

NRF’s number was off by an order of magnitude. Experts determined that organized retail crime accounted for just five percent of shrink, a number well in line with historical trends—not 50 percent, as the federation had claimed. In fact, across most of the country, retail theft was lower in 2023 than it had been in years. The NRF blamed its misleading claim on “an inference,” before retracting it less than two months after the press conference with Grassley. Yet, both the NRF and Grassley continue to stand by the legislation pushed during this broader panic.

It’s a familiar cycle: exaggeration to retraction. Just last year, Walgreens’s Chief Financial Officer James Kehoe said that the company had “cried too much” about a surge in shoplifting, admitting the problem was not nearly as bad as previously claimed. Kehoe said that overstating the scale of shoplifting might have led Walgreens to spend too much on security measures.

This pivot is worth keeping in mind as politicians nationwide give their own rendition of Grassley’s press conference. This spring, New York Governor Kathy Hochul made retail theft the center of her State of the State address, offering similar prescriptions as Grassley did: more policing and prosecution. She earmarked tens of millions of dollars to police specifically for retail theft in the state budget. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom has backed legislation that would expand prosecution and policing for shoplifting, purportedly to target “professional retail thieves.” In the last two years, at least 14 states have passed laws stiffening penalties for “organized retail theft” offenses—a broad category of crime with murky legal definitions. The discourse has even drifted into the presidential campaign, with former President Donald Trump calling for police to shoot alleged shoplifters.

We all deserve to live in safe neighborhoods and run errands in peace. Nobody wants to have toiletries held under lock and key. But building safety requires us to break the cycle of misinformation and overreaction and to be sober-minded about what the problems truly are.

What the numbers really say

Independent data paints a much less dramatic picture of retail theft trends. The Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) studied 24 big cities that consistently reported police data, finding that shoplifting had decreased in 17 of them over the last five years. The CCJ’s analysis shows that shoplifting is actually, on average, lower overall than it was before the COVID-19 pandemic—a far cry from the dire picture painted by the NRF and many politicians. The study did find that some major cities, like New York and Los Angeles, saw spikes in retail theft amid this nationwide decline.

The truth is that, although organized retail theft exists, it is not the pervasive national crisis that retail executives claim it to be. Addressing it does not demand the dramatic spikes in policing and prosecution they are calling for. But what happens if the supposed solutions to retail theft pushed by politicians and retail executives—draconian punishment, far out of proportion to the behavior in question—are implemented? Research shows that increasing sentences as a “deterrent” does not actually reduce crime—a finding backed time and again. Moreover, time spent in jail can threaten a person’s employment, and spending even a single day in pretrial detention makes people more likely to be rearrested in the future. Incarceration and prosecution yield a raft of collateral consequences that can keep people ensnared within the legal system for the rest of their lives. On the contrary, providing treatment for substance use and mental health issues and economic support services can address the conditions that lead to theft in the first place. Indeed, declining to prosecute certain low-level offenses like shoplifting has been found to increase public safety.

The policing of “organized retail theft” is also racialized. One Texas-focused study found that—among people arrested for similar, lower-level instances of shoplifting—Black people are arrested on organized retail theft charges more than twice as often as white people, and Hispanic people are arrested on these charges 20 percent more often than white people. This is part of a nationwide trend that reflects racism in policing and prosecution. People of color are more likely to face enhanced sentences, too. Expanding enforcement and stiffening prosecution threatens to compound this racial injustice.

Giving into scare tactics around retail theft can be deadly, too: last year a San Francisco Walgreens security guard killed Banko Brown, a 24-year-old Black trans man, after accusing him of shoplifting. And in 2022, Amanda Bews died in a Los Angeles County jail while she was being held for alleged theft.

Who benefits from these scare tactics?

While the numbers undercut the retail industry’s claim that shoplifting is out of control, the story has nonetheless dominated political discourse. There are a few reasons why.

First, it is true that shopping experiences have gotten worse in many places. Stores are chronically understaffed, which makes theft easier. Yet, accessing items locked behind plastic cases—everything from pricey electronics to deodorant—requires shoppers to find one of the few employees working, making for a frustrating experience for shoppers. Retail executives have pointed to shoplifting to explain away that frustration, rather than acknowledging how their decisions affect their customers’ store experience.

And second, the panic around theft is driven by media. Viral videos of isolated crimes fuel a perception of pervasive lawlessness that is disconnected from reality. Misinformation, like the NRF’s shoddy claims, drives months of press coverage before a retraction ever comes.

Retailers, politicians, and police departments alike have a powerful interest in fueling this false narrative. For one, retail executives elude responsibility for their performance results by pinning losses on organized theft. The reality is that online retailers, with lower overhead costs, are eating into profits from brick-and-mortar stores. Shoplifting is an easy scapegoat; Walgreens and Target have both blamed it for store closures in big cities like San Francisco and New York, even as data has shown evidence that rates of theft are higher at locations that remained open.

Police departments and politicians both stand to gain, too. During an election year, candidates running against incumbents can employ a narrative of retail theft running wild, particularly in big liberal-leaning cities, to scare voters and criticize their opponents. Incumbents feel pressured to pledge for more policing and stiffer penalties to head off those attacks. And, because the primary policy response to a shoplifting wave has been an increased law enforcement budgets, police departments have a stake in the “organized retail theft” narrative. This is especially troubling because they are a primary source for the crime statistics that shape policy responses.

Supporting retail workers and addressing poverty

In New York City, nearly one-third of all shoplifting arrests in 2022 involved the same 327 people. Collectively, they were arrested and rearrested nearly 6,000 times. That speaks to the reality that theft is frequently a crime of poverty committed by people who need basic goods—such as hygiene products, food, or baby formula—either for their own survival or to sell in order to survive.

If legislators are serious about addressing shoplifting, economic justice is the place to start. We shouldn’t be throwing the book at people stealing out of desperation. Instead, we should invest in alternatives to incarceration and diversion programs that support people in building stable lives in their communities. Connecting people to stable housing, employment, and treatment services could make an effective approach to driving down shoplifting in the long term.

We can also reduce shoplifting immediately by investing in retail workers. Doing so will make the shopping experience more pleasant and lock fewer items behind plexiglass. The CEO of Lowe’s, a company that experienced inventory shrink of just over one percent last year, says that well-trained and compensated staff is the secret to its low levels of missing merchandise. Legislators should require stores to implement minimum staffing levels and provide workers with adequate training. The California legislature is considering a bill that would mandate staffing levels at drug and grocery stores. In New York State, the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union has endorsed legislation that would require employers to implement programs to prevent workplace violence, without leaning on more police and incarceration.

Regulating online retailers to make it harder to sell stolen goods would also help mitigate organized retail theft. Congress passed a law last year to do exactly that, and states are following suit. A bill in California would create a better way to track stolen merchandise and prevent it from being sold, dramatically reducing the incentive that drives shoplifting rings. The bill is good for consumers, too, making online marketplaces more transparent.

In the face of a coordinated push made in bad faith by businesses, politicians, and police, it is imperative that our elected officials keep their eyes trained on reality. Organized retail theft has not spiked nationwide, and sweeping responses to isolated increases leave the underlying economic injustices in place. Giving into this corporate interest-driven panic would only lead to more police, more incarceration, and more poverty—and less safety.

Sam McCann is staff writer with Vera Institute of Justice.  Originally published by Vera Institute of Justice.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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