Taking retail theft seriously
A mid-sized problem with some available solutions
I’ve lived in the District of Columbia for a bit over 20 years now, and in all that time I’ve regularly visited the CVS on the 1400 block of P Street. For the first 19 of those years, I never personally witnessed any large-scale shoplifting occurring there. But this year, I did see two guys grab a bunch of stuff off shelves, sweep it into bags, and walk out the door. Kate witnessed something similar, also this year. And friends in the neighborhood have also seen it — again, as a recent trend.
Those are anecdotes, not evidence of a clear national trend.
But when major national retail chains say shoplifting is a growing problem and cite it as a reason for some store closures, I’m inclined to agree with them. Among other things, companies just don’t have strong incentives to lie about this kind of thing.
That said, it is not easy to convincingly demonstrate that there has been a big national increase in shoplifting — see these skeptical stories from CNN and the Marshall Project — in part because in a country where the overall state of crime data is bad, the shoplifting data is really bad. Jeff Asher tried to run the numbers to see if crime is really worse at the locations of the recently closed Target stores. It doesn’t seem to be, but you can’t really tell because property crime underreporting is massive and also because a raw count of thefts doesn’t tell you how much was stolen.
What does seem verifiably true and is perhaps more important is that stores have been ratcheting-up their deployment of anti-shoplifting tactics, including keeping items behind locked doors on shelves, investing in more surveillance technology, and having systems with multiple doors so you could potentially trap thieves without asking staff to physically confront them.
This strikes me as in some ways the more relevant issue. If you imagine a town where over a five year span, everyone invests a lot of money in getting iron bars for their windows and installing new security systems and the level of burglaries stays flat, that’s probably a bad sign. I hear some people say the “real issue” with shoplifting is that retailers are trying to get away with running understaffed stores, and that might be true, to an extent. But it’s also one way of saying that the true cost of retail theft to society is not the losses to the retailers, but the increased cost basis of running a store. If it takes more people per square foot of retail space to safely operate, that means lower labor productivity, higher prices, fewer stores, and shorter hours.
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