Retail Theft in the U.S.: It's a Crime

Policy changes are needed to stem the shoplifting epidemic.
Don Longo
Editorial Director Emeritus
Shoplifters will be prosecuted sign

Retail theft costs retailers more than $110 billion a year, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF). A recent study by Zebra Technologies, a retail solutions provider, found that eight in 10 retailers agree minimizing fraud and shrink is a significant challenge. And in the Convenience Store News 2023 Technology Study, nearly half of the c-store retailers surveyed (44 %) said they planned to invest in technology to reduce theft and shrinkage.

Of course, all consumers bear the cost of increased theft and shrinkage, not just in higher prices, but also in the worse cases, the actual flight of retail operations from high crime neighborhoods. We're all aware of the closings announced by such major retailers as Target, Whole Foods, Walmart, Walgreens and others, often in neighborhoods that could least afford to lose a food store, creating food deserts where people have limited access to healthy and affordable food.

[Read more: RILA Joins With Law Enforcement to Tackle Rising Crime & Violence Issues]

It's gotten so bad in the city of Chicago that the mayor has proposed a city-owned grocery store to fill the void left by retreating retailers. The idea has little merit, though. While a government-run store could probably sustain the inevitable losses longer than a private firm can, those losses would be borne by all the city's taxpayers.

A better way to address food insecurity is to prevent crime and theft in stores, so they won't have to close. Lax policies, such as reducing theft from a potential felony to a misdemeanor and no-bail policies for nonviolent crime, have contributed to a nationwide shoplifting epidemic. In the absence of a nationwide policy on how to deal with shoplifting, many retailers encourage their staffers to do nothing at all in an effort to keep them safe.

Chicago and other major cities would be better served if they'd support legislation and enforcement of anti-shoplifting laws and protections for retailers to allow them to prosecute thieves effectively and safely.

A month ago, more than 30 retailers went to the nation's capital to support the Combating Organized Retail Crime Act of 2023. Joined by several congressional leaders from both major parties and the NRF, the retailers are backing bipartisan legislation to establish a national coordination center and combine expertise and resources from federal, state and local enforcement agencies and retail industry representatives to curb organized retail crime.

"It's not only about the dollars involved here. It is about, in some cases, the tragic loss of life, the violence, the aggression that's playing out in these retail locations," said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. "Retailers have done everything they can to make their stores and their places of business safe. And, in spite of all that, we still need additional help and additional support. And that's what the Combating Organized Retail Crime Act will provide us."

C-stores, of course, are not immune from the shoplifting epidemic. They should back this legislation as a first step to stemming the flood of losses they incur from thieves.

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