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America’s shoplifting problem, explained by retail workers and thieves

Retailers would rather complain about shoplifting than invest in fighting it.

Paige Vickers/Vox
Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Jonathan wants me to guess how often retail workers see someone steal. It’s a challenge he likes to make to friends, who always underestimate it. “It’s multiple times a day, maybe as often as once an hour. And that’s the stuff you can see, like the really blatant ones,” he says. “A lot of people picture a scared kid with a candy bar under their jacket, and you get that, but the majority of it is seasoned shoplifters going out with carts full of beer and liquor and hygiene products and electronics and laundry detergent, etc.”

He recently quit his job at a major retail pharmacy chain over the issue. (Jonathan is not his real name, and he spoke with me on the condition that he be granted anonymity and the company not publicly named. All of the workers I spoke to for this story were given pseudonyms and/or anonymity.) His frustration isn’t so much with the thieves, per se, but instead with how his former company has dealt with them.

Corporate ignored employees’ requests to put booze in locked cases because the liquor aisle is an area of the store that attracts some especially “sketchy” characters. It also blew them off when they warned of camera blind spots that shoplifters were aware of. “The company didn’t really seem that interested in solving the problem, they seemed more interested in, I don’t know, complaining,” he says. The cops weren’t much help, either. They’d show up hours after being called and ask whether the perpetrators were still there (they obviously weren’t) and which way they’d gone (what does it matter if it was six hours ago?).

Retail theft is a problem, albeit one that can be difficult to unpack. Some people overstate the spike in shoplifting, others underplay it. Part of the matter is there just isn’t great data out there on what’s going on.

Figuring out what to do about it all was above Jonathan’s pay grade. He’s got some ideas, like increasing staffing and, really, locking up the liquor, which would mean more work for employees but would also have increased safety. But these solutions would all cost money the company was apparently not willing to dole out.

I interviewed more than a dozen workers in retail and loss prevention — and two retail thieves — about what the country’s supposed shoplifting epidemic looks and feels like on the ground. In conversation after conversation, one thing became clear: While many corporations are frustrated by retail theft, they’re not doing enough to try to solve it.

As David Rey, the author of Larceny on 34th Street: An In-Depth Look at Professional Shoplifting in One of the World’s Largest Stores – A Memoir, explained to Vox in an interview, “Most retailers really don’t spend [money] when it comes to asset protection, when it comes to the resources needed to protect themselves from shoplifting ... because there’s no return on the investment.”

Slowing down stealing isn’t free

Some amount of shoplifting is always going to happen. “Shrink” — retail-speak for missing inventory that may have been stolen by outside parties or its own workers, damaged, or just plain lost — is inevitable. According to the National Retail Federation, the average shrink rate increased from 1.4 percent in 2021 to 1.6 percent in 2022. Taken as a percentage of sales, that translates to an increase from $93.9 billion to $112.1 billion in losses. That’s a big number — it’s also one that companies could take more steps to bring down, workers say.

Last year, the Walmart that Riley worked at outside of Baltimore was well above the NRF average. It lost nearly 3 percent in sales to shrink — he says it’s a number that wouldn’t have been acceptable a few years ago but is now par for the course. Still, Riley, who worked in asset protection, says there are plenty of steps the company could have taken to make things better that it just didn’t, like hiring and retaining more associates. “If they had better sales coverage, a lot of this stuff wouldn’t happen, or if they didn’t have such high turnover,” he says.

He recalls watching a security video of a man cutting into a merchandise case, looking around as he committed the crime and seemingly noticing there was nobody in the department around to see him. He says new cashiers often fall for scams with gift cards at the register because they haven’t been properly trained, and self-checkout aisles go woefully underwatched because the store doesn’t have the labor budget to staff them. “Walmart’s really going heavy on the technology side of it right now, but all the upgraded tracking systems and computers in the world can’t make as much of a difference as having somebody actually in each aisle, or even in each department,” he says.

One former manager at Ulta Beauty in Illinois recalled seeing the same handful of men coming into the store over and over, loading up on fragrances, and walking out the door. It spooked workers and customers alike. Reporting the thefts, doing inventory, and restocking added to her workload, not to mention the extra time on talking to police and even going to court. Having a security guard at the door — even if the guard couldn’t really do anything — did make some difference, but the company wasn’t always willing to pay for it. The same goes for extra payroll. “It was just a cycle,” she says.

A worker at OfficeMax says she finds empty ink cartridge packages lying around almost every shift, their contents having been lifted. She and her coworkers get lectured over it, but what are they supposed to do? She can’t go past aisle 5 while still keeping an eye on the register. “We’re stretched so thin,” she says.

“All these companies that are screaming about theft, they’re kind of complicit in it because they keep reducing staff,” says Steven Rowland, the host of The Retail Warzone podcast and a former retail store manager. “From an hourly standpoint, a lot of these folks feel like they’re not paid enough to care anyway. And then you have store managers who are bleeding out, basically, because they have a lack of payroll, they don’t have enough staff just to get their basic functions done.”

Nobody wants retail workers to be acting as vigilantes — indeed, employers actively encourage them not to be, as situations can turn dangerous and even deadly. In mid-October, a GameStop employee shot and killed a man who attempted to steal five boxes of Pokemon cards. Months earlier in April, a shoplifter shot and killed a Home Depot employee who tried to stop her.

Mark, a loss prevention specialist who has worked for companies such as Walmart, Lowe’s, and Home Depot, says sometimes the issue is firms aren’t even sure what exactly they want to focus on. “Are you guys focused on theft? Or are you guys focused on shrink? Because there’s a big difference between the two,” he says. “One is more glamorous and more showy, while the other, focusing on shrink, you’re attacking your business model and your operational spend.”

Companies can be quick to blame shrink on external theft, but it might be employees who are stealing, or merchandise that’s lost in transit. Say it’s a hardware store and 10 $400 leaf blowers are supposed to come in a pallet and nine show up, or one is a $200 model but nobody checks. “It’s extra time and extra money to look into something like that,” he says.

It’s difficult to estimate exactly how much it would cost companies to really go after the shoplifting problem. Many retailers say that they are spending more to combat retail theft than they have in the past. In its 2022 annual report, Home Depot made note that combating shrink and theft and keeping stores safe requires “operational changes” that could increase costs and make the store experience worse for customers and associates alike. (Nobody likes the whole unlock-the-box-to-buy song and dance.)

It’s not even clear exactly how much money is being spent to fight theft right now, explains Jeff Prusan, a security and loss prevention consultant to the retail industry. Retailers don’t generally disclose the data, payroll increases vary by retailer and job purpose (employee versus loss prevention specialist versus private security guard), and the amortization of long-term security solutions, such as cameras and alarms, can be complicated to factor in. “There are so many variables in these situations that it is difficult to quantify,” he says.

There’s no strong consensus about what would really work, investment-wise. And loss prevention doesn’t bring in revenue, it’s just an expense. “Corporate offices want to see profit. Marketing brings profits, the buyers bring in profits. Loss prevention, in and of itself, does not bring any profits. We just try to deter loss,” says one loss prevention agent who works at a corporate office for a national retailer. “Loss prevention, typically, is the most underfunded department of any company.”

The financial incentives around retail theft make it a toughie

I’m not going to litigate the size and scope of shoplifting in America, offer opinions over whether it’s really a “victimless” crime to steal makeup from a multibillion-dollar corporation, or question if retailers are overplaying their hands by blaming so many of their problems on shoplifting. I’m not getting into public policy questions, either, on whether bail reform or the amount at which a state considers theft a felony impacts shoplifting rates. But I do think it’s important to acknowledge that this is a tough nut to crack. At the core of retail theft are all sorts of financial incentives on multiple sides that contribute to the problem.

Companies can and do try to crack down on theft by locking items up, but unless they really have enough workers to unlock everything, it’s a pickle, business-wise, not to mention an annoyance for customers. “Lock up your whole store and you’ll never lose anything. You’ll also never sell anything,” says Joshua Jacobson, a loss prevention professional in California. “Sales are more important to a company than shopping theft.”

Organized retail crime operations made up of boosters — people who steal the goods — and fences — those who purchase or receive and resell the merchandise — do actually exist, and they are difficult to combat. Stores and police departments can and do build up cases against them and make arrests, but it can be a bit of a game of whack-a-mole.

Most workers say that even when they catch boosters in the act, they blow right past them, and they’re often not allowed to say anything at all for safety reasons. That includes security staff, many of whom aren’t permitted to make physical contact with thieves (some say they want to be allowed to be “hands on,” though you can see where this could start to become a problem on multiple fronts, from liability to safety). Stolen products wind up sold in the open on the street or online on platforms like Amazon and Facebook. In June, the INFORM Consumers Act became law at the federal level, which requires online marketplaces to verify and disclose information on “high-volume third-party sellers” in an attempt to crack down on organized retail crime. It’s not yet clear how much of an impact it’s making.

I found someone on Facebook Marketplace recently selling deodorant and a variety of hygiene products in Brooklyn for well under the price I’d find at a store. When I asked where they got them from, they replied, “On clearance.” I have my doubts.

One former booster told me he got into retail theft on a “massive scale” to support a drug habit. (He’s now been sober for over three months and has a regular job.) He described going to Home Depot and Lowe’s dressed relatively nicely — with a collared shirt, maybe a Bluetooth piece in his ear — and asking workers to get him generators or tools down from shelves. He’d put them on a cart, walk out the door, sometimes with a manufactured receipt in his hand, and get into an Uber or Lyft he’d ordered. “The times I was stopped, I never would acknowledge the fact that I’d just been caught,” he says. “If it’s already on the cart, I’m committed.” He’d then sell the items to a local pawnbroker or even to a foreman on a construction site. They had to have figured out what he was up to, handing over a brand-new generator for a fraction of the cost, but they didn’t ask. “They’ve got to be pretty stupid not to know.”

Asked whether he thought there was anything that would have stopped him, he says maybe customer service — where retail employees approach and sort of ask what’s up, if someone needs help, even acknowledge what’s going on — might have been a deterrent. He also notes the undercover loss-prevention people were often easy to spot, walking around aisles endlessly and picking up random items at random. “I go with my gut a lot,” he says. “At that point, I feel like they might know that I’m up to something and I’m not going to do it.”

Another booster in Hawaii described getting “orders” from fencing operations for a variety of items — Tide pods, baby formula, Spam. She and a friend stole Christmas lights for a woman who worked at a local clinic. After they dropped them off and were paid, the woman told them her coworkers had orders for them, too. “People aren’t going to ask, ‘How did you get this? Is this stolen?’” she says. “It’s a don’t ask, don’t tell kind of thing. They know it’s stolen, but it’s a better deal.”

Shoplifting isn’t her favorite — it’s a high risk for small amounts of money — but it’s something she’s done when she needs to for cash. (She told me her “passion” is credit card fraud.) As to what might stop her, it’s a hard question to answer. “People are going to do what they want to do regardless,” she says. She tries not to take anything from mom-and-pop stores, only big chain retailers. The Ross in her area regularly throws out a lot of its inventory in dumpsters behind the store to replace it with new. “We could wait until stuff goes in the dumpster, but why?”

“The professionals, unfortunately, are rarely deterred, and the biggest deterrent to them is having off-duty law enforcement, which is very expensive,” says Prusan, the security and loss prevention consultant. “You can’t catch everybody, no matter who you are.”

In certain progressive circles, there can be a bit of a “who cares” attitude around retail theft, especially when it hits big companies like Walmart and Home Depot. There’s also often skepticism about just how much stuff is being shoplifted, an assumption that companies are overstating the losses. Target recently blamed theft for its decision to close multiple locations even as other locations opened. While there may be some exaggeration (Walgreens has admitted it maybe “cried too much” over retail theft), publicly traded companies get into trouble when they lie to investors, so they’re probably not making this all up.

Most of the workers I spoke to weren’t agonizing over their employers losing merchandise to theft, but they weren’t unbothered by its effects. They wondered about hours and staffing being cut even further to try to make up for losses. They worried about their safety. They figured some of what’s going on may eventually lead to higher prices. They often asked why their companies weren’t at least trying to do more about it — having someone at the door, more people on the floor, just listening to their feedback — even if that was going to cost them a little more.

One night, Jonathan, who worked at the retail pharmacy chain, was about to close with just one other worker on staff when a man walked in with a gun. The guy told them to empty the store’s safe — he wasn’t interested in their personal belongings — and at one point suggested Jonathan check on his coworker to make sure she was okay. “That kind of stuck with me,” he says, “because the robber actually showed more concern for our well-being than my manager or the police did.”

We live in a world that’s constantly trying to sucker us and trick us, where we’re always surrounded by scams big and small. It can feel impossible to navigate. Each month, join Emily Stewart to look at all the little ways our economic systems control and manipulate the average person. Welcome to The Big Squeeze.

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Have ideas for a future column or thoughts on this one? Email emily.stewart@vox.com.

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