In December 2018, Google searches for the term “porch pirate” reached a peak. The phrase describes a particular kind of thief unique to modern living: someone who takes packages ordered online and left unattended at doorsteps. Since the pandemic, when a huge surge of Americans started buying much of their everyday goods and luxuries online, many more people have had at least one run-in with a porch pirate.
A New York Times analysis of package theft in 2019 found that 1.7 million packages went missing every day in the US, amounting to a loss of about $25 million a day. In the first year of Covid-19 lockdowns, the United States Postal Service saw a 161 percent increase in mail theft complaints compared to the previous year, a trend that continued to grow in 2021 and 2022. More recent post-pandemic estimates of package theft are harder to come by, but a 2021 Consumer Reports survey of 2,341 adults found that more than one in 10 had a package pilfered in the previous year — and almost two-thirds of that group had been hit twice.
Experts tell Vox that package theft isn’t a massive crime wave threatening to topple home delivery as a whole. As more Americans turn to online shopping as their primary way of buying goods, however, stolen packages are proving an annoyance and frustration for customers, and a looming dilemma for retailers and shipping companies that, with few exceptions, are still figuring out how to address them. For retailers, that is a tightrope act that requires keeping customers happy and not losing money, all while trying to navigate the maze of providing fast, cheap, and secure delivery of billions of dollars of clothes, electronics, medicine, and so much more to every corner of the country.
In this sense, package theft is about more than package theft. It rubs at a bigger question of online shopping and our consumption habits: Is this pace of so much buying and shipping and delivering even possible to keep up without consequences for retailers, for shippers, and for us? Or will consumers of the future have to sacrifice the fast, cheap convenience that has become core to the experience of shopping online?
Why don’t retailers do more to stop package theft?
Much ink has been spilled on the supposed tsunami of organized retail theft leading to convenience stores locking up toothpaste and shampoo, yet there’s shockingly little information on how much merchandise and money retailers lose specifically to package theft. Vox reached out to several major e-commerce retailers, including Amazon, Walmart, Target, Best Buy, eBay, and Costco. None shared any estimates of “shrink” — the retail industry term for all kinds of inventory loss, including damaged, misplaced, and stolen goods — stemming from package theft. The National Retail Federation (NRF) told Vox that it does not keep track of the trend, nor the money lost to issuing refunds and replacements due to stolen deliveries, and said that retailers differ on whether they count this sort of theft as part of their overall shrink statistics; in a 2022 NRF report on customer returns, however, complaints of items not being delivered were among the top challenges reported by retailers.
The reason for being tight-lipped is simple: Merchants generally want you to focus on how seamless it is to shop with them from the convenience of your home, and not fret over the possibility that your fancy new air fryer will be swiped before you’ve even realized it arrived.
“I don’t think retailers highlight it too much because they want customers to feel confident in having things delivered,” says Neil Saunders, a managing director of retail at the analytics and consulting firm GlobalData.
To that end, big retailers typically take a generous approach to helping customers who report missing orders, quickly sending out new shipments. Giants with a bulk of market share like Amazon can afford to bake in refunds and replacements for disappearing deliveries as part of their operating expenses.
That’s not to say that taking the loss is cheap. Retailers already spend a huge amount of money on preparing online orders — picking them, packing them, and moving them between waystations until they’re loaded onto the final vehicle for delivery to someone’s home. Home delivery can eat 10 to 15 percent of an online retailer’s sales, according to Deutsche Bank Research. (It’s much cheaper to have goods delivered to a brick-and-mortar store, which takes up just 2 to 3 percent of revenue.)
When a package is reported stolen, they “have to take that as a loss, then on top of that, they have the new product that they’ve got to ship out free of charge,” says Saunders.
This is why some companies tell customers up front that they’re not liable if the package fails to make it into your hands. The FAQ for clothing retailer Forever 21, for example, notes that it’s not responsible for stolen packages and leaves it up to customers to contact the delivery company. Shein, the popular fast fashion retailer, writes vaguely that customers with delivery issues should contact them after checking to make sure that they really haven’t received the item; the company told Vox that after an investigation, a refund or replacement could be issued, if appropriate. For online marketplaces such as eBay and Etsy, resolution of missing packages can be messier because it’s up to individual third-party sellers to honor claims of theft with a refund. Etsy recommends sellers send a replacement or refund, but notes that it “doesn’t hold sellers responsible for items that are lost in mail.”
The evidence of the costliness of fulfillment — including replacements — can be seen in companies’ financial reports and earnings calls, as well as recent shake-ups in their free shipping policies. Last year, Amazon raised its Prime membership cost, which includes free delivery on many items, from $119 to $139. In its annual report, the company noted that improving its fulfillment costs and delivery speeds was a “critical challenge” as the cost to get a product to customers keeps rising.
Amazon’s response to that critical challenge matters because the majority of stolen packages are from Amazon, if for no other reason than the fact that the online shopping behemoth makes up about 40 percent of all e-commerce sales. Amazon also has the resources and appetite to aggressively attack package theft. It acquired home security camera company Blink in 2017, and in 2018, Ring, which makes an extremely popular line of doorbell cameras (whose user-shared footage of porch pirates has become legendary). The company is also expanding the number of secure lockers and pick-up counters across the country, which currently total more than 16,000, according to one user-created map; and it has announced that it would be partnering with local businesses such as convenience stores, coffee shops, and clothing shops that have the space to securely store Amazon packages and deliver them to customers in the neighborhood.
For companies that don’t make over $500 billion in sales in a year, it’s harder to address the problem head-on.
Some retailers with a large brick-and-mortar presence are leaning into curbside and in-store pickups, which aren’t only cheaper to fulfill but more secure, too. Target in particular has adopted the strategy as it opens new stores, making them fulfillment centers as well as places where customers can browse the aisles. It’s clearly an attractive alternative for consumers: Pymnts’ Global Digital Shopping Index shows that, in the US, store pick-up grew 37 percent in 2022 compared to the previous year.
If this is a viable solution to prevent package theft, it’s one that acknowledges that the whole premise of home delivery is flawed — that for the customer worried about getting hit by another porch pirate, the best alternative is to give up a little convenience for more certainty.
Shipping companies get the brunt of the blame
While retailers often pay the price for package theft, plenty of people blame delivery companies for not doing enough to prevent it, according to a 2022 report by market research firm C+R Research. (Though increasingly, as in the case of the biggest e-commerce companies like Amazon, retailers and delivery companies are one and the same.)
If it’s already expensive just getting a product packed and out the fulfillment center door for a first-time delivery attempt, it’s obviously even more expensive to have to ring someone’s doorbell again on another day. Re-delivering a package, due to theft or some other issue, costs retailers more than $17 per order, according to one study from 2021. Eight percent of all deliveries in the US fail on the first attempt; in urban areas, as of a 2018 study, that number was closer to 15 percent — a number that includes delivery failure due to package theft.
Shippers bear the brunt of the finger-pointing from both retailers and consumers even though there’s not much that they’re required to do about package theft. Often, when someone reaches out to a retailer’s customer service, they’re told to first check with the shipping company or to wait for tracking information to update. Shippers, for their part, will try to show customers that their couriers snapped a photo proving delivery — another innovation born of the porch pirate — and advise filing a police report. Merchants might duke it out behind the scenes with shipping companies, but generally, shipping companies don’t cough up money for missing items unless there’s proof that it was their negligence that led to a customer not receiving a package. In practice, it means that retailers and customers are left to negotiate who pays the cost of package theft.
“At the end of the day, these costs come back to consumers in the form of higher prices,” says Kirthi Kalyanam, executive director of the Retail Management Institute at Santa Clara University.
For customers, package theft is more than an annoyance
Online shopping is all about ease. As Amanda Mull writes in the Atlantic, in its ideal form, it “glides placidly along, setting off only the gentlest of ripples in your attention.” So big retailers do a fairly good job of making customers whole for items that get reported as stolen. They tend to take your word for it, but there’s no guarantee that it’ll stay this way, particularly because as long as online shopping keeps growing, we’re pretty much guaranteed to notice more package theft around us.
Even with customer-friendly policies, missing packages are a headache for consumers, too. Having an expensive video game console disappear at the holidays before someone has even had a chance to wrap it is stressful enough to make a consumer wish they’d just gone to the store. And getting a refund is a soothing mechanism in the aftermath of theft, not a prevention method.
What’s more, these policies are totally at the discretion of retailers, and pro-consumer only up to a certain point: Customers who report too many stolen packages over a certain period may be dinged, even banned.
The ping-ponging of blame between retailers and shippers can leave consumers feeling as though they’re chasing their tails. Daniel Wroclawski, a writer at Consumer Reports, which publishes detailed product reviews and advocates for pro-consumer policies, told Vox that he believes it may be time for legislation protecting consumers from package theft. According to a Consumer Reports 2021 consumer survey, only 9 percent of people who experienced package theft reported it to the police. Most surprisingly, 10 percent said they simply reordered the item without notifying the retailer, shipping company, or anyone else, choosing to pay for the item twice. “It just shows it’s more trouble than it’s worth in some cases to go through getting it refunded or replaced,” says Wroclawski. “That is very anti-consumer.”
If a cost-benefit analysis tells companies it’s worth being nice to customers, then companies will keep being nice. We may already be rubbing up against the limits of that calculus, however. “Home delivery is really expensive,” says Kalyanam. Especially in retail categories where returns are high — like apparel — home delivery is a “really bad deal” for companies, he said. Retailers could become less inclined to refund or replace items as package theft rates climb.
In the absence of better solutions, consumers often take it upon themselves to allay their porch piracy anxieties. The C+R report noted that half of respondents said they intentionally stay home on days when they know they’ll get a delivery. They spend extra money to protect their purchases, investing in security cameras or parcel lockboxes or shipping insurance.
The problem has spurred a thriving secondary market for parcel security. Parcel storage containers placed outside homes are one popular option, but they can range from a few hundred dollars to over a thousand. “We’ve definitely had an increase in our business over the last couple of years,” says Liz Picarazzi, founder and CEO of Citibin, which manufactures outdoor storage boxes for trash and for packages. Demand for secure bins soared in the first year of the pandemic.
Wroclawski of Consumer Reports notes that there are some limits to storage boxes: In his experience, most delivery people, tasked with handling a huge load of packages, didn’t use them. “I think probably because they just have so many deliveries to do — time is money, and they gotta hustle,” he tells Vox.
There are also package-receiving services like Stowfly, a startup allowing people to have their items delivered to a secure location, often a local business, for a few dollars per package. “Customer angst was building,” says Sid Khattri, the company’s CEO. The company currently has around 150 delivery locations available, primarily in New York but also in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle.
One of the long-term ways package theft might be addressed is by building homes tailored to prevent it, Kalyanam tells Vox. In the future, single-family homes could be designed so that porches have built-in storage space for parcels, rather than just mailboxes, or a residential community might have a central location where packages can be delivered and kept safe. Newer apartments in many cities already offer package storage areas as an attractive building amenity.
The existence of such innovations shows that, like so many other modern comforts, from Seamless to Uber to Airbnb to Netflix, online shopping is now reaching a crossroads, as some realize it’s not the panacea of carefree consumption that they wanted it to be. Customers are more likely to use services like package insurance and minute-by-minute delivery updates by text, and shippers now use the industry standard of providing a photo of a package on your doormat — but the package theft gripes continue.
“It’s the case with every industry — first you focus on growth, growth, growth,” says Khattri. E-commerce is now too big for retailers to keep eating the high cost of shipping indefinitely — the package thefts, redelivery attempts, all of it. That’s a problem for retailers, shippers, governments, and consumers. At a certain point, the weight of so many packages may crush us all.