What’s Behind The Fascination With Smash-And-Grab Shoplifting?
Retail theft has emerged has a hot issue in San Francisco as stores cope with a crime spike. But feelings about shoplifting can be complicated. What’s Behind The Fascination With Smash-And-Grab Shoplifting?
In June, a video shot in a San Francisco Walgreens went viral: It showed a shoplifter unabashedly filling a garbage bag with items from the drug store’s shelves and then rolling away on a bicycle, as patrons and a security guard looked on.
The suspected shoplifter was arrested less than a week later, but the episode continues to reverberate. Several similar incidents in various chain stores have been captured on social media, and shoplifting emerged as a hot-button issue in the Bay Area, and beyond.
Retail theft is now said to be responsible for $45 billion in annual losses in the U.S., according to one trade association, a figure whose recent growth reflects the disruptions of the pandemic era and the rise of online retail, which has made it easier to resell stolen items.
Walgreens has blamed organized shoplifting rings for the company’s recent decision to close five of its 53 San Francisco locations, including the one targeted in June, telling the New York Times that stores in that city experience retail theft that is “five times our chain average.”
The San Francisco Chronicle, however, found that those five stores averaged only two calls a month for shoplifting since 2018, according to police reports, and local observers pointed to other potential reasons for the closures, including a long-planned “store optimization” program and a pandemic drop in foot traffic. Meanwhile, conservative outlets have fixated on shoplifting sprees as totems of the lawlessness critics say is overrunning the famously progressive city.
But of course, it’s more complicated than that. Shoplifting is a centuries-old crime that’s long been tied up in American anxieties about youthful rebellion, mental illness, urban disorder and economic inequality. Hard numbers on its prevalence are somewhat elusive: Larceny-theft rates have dramatically declined over the past three decades, but shoplifting accounts for a larger share of this category than it once did.
In 2019, about 22% of U.S. larceny-thefts were shoplifting, according to FBI figures, compared to just 13% in 2000. Shoplifting seems to be largely untethered to overall crime trends, according to Rachel Shteir, author of the 2011 book The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting. It’s also a remarkably common form of lawbreaking: A large 2001 study found that more than 10% of respondents had shoplifted.
What is clear is that, whether via viral videos or grainy surveillance-camera footage of sticky-fingered celebrities, it’s an offense that cultivates a strange fascination. “Shoplifting has been a sin, a crime, a confession of sexual repression, a howl of grief, a political yelp, a sign of depression, a badge of identity, and a back door to the American Dream,” Shteir wrote.
“The act mirrors our collective identity, reflects our shifting moral code, and demonstrates the power that consumption holds over our psyches.”
CityLab spoke with Shteir, now the head of dramaturgy at DePaul University, to check on what might be behind the new moral panic over shoplifting. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
Let’s start from the beginning. In your book, you trace the history of shoplifting to 16th century London.
[During that time] there was the development of an urban center, and a center of commerce, where it wasn’t exactly clear when you met somebody in the street what their rank was. In other words, people could disguise themselves by wearing the clothing of a higher class than they were. That was one of the galvanizers for shoplifting, because some of the earliest accounts of it are either clothing or bolts of fabric.
So people would be stealing clothing to create a class-shifting disguise?
Yes, so that they could then either create outfits for themselves that would elevate their status, or wear some items they stole. You have to think of how these early stores were set up: You’d go in, and there was a counter.
And then there was the merchant behind the counter, like in a fabric store, let’s say. Even early on, there were sometimes teams of shoplifters where one would provide the distraction — make the merchant turn their back, or something — and then another would grab something and then pass it to somebody who is right outside the store.
Something fascinating about shoplifting is that it seems to attract all ages and classes: There are the teen shoplifters going through a rebellious phase, and the troubled, thrill-seeking celebrity cases. And then there are crimes of genuine economic desperation. Can you explain how society treats shoplifters differently, depending on age, class, and race?
Well, that’s a super-long conversation. What people tend to be very interested in is not people who are shoplifting because they’re hungry but rather people who don’t need to shoplift and are doing it for some psychological reason.
There was this crisis of middle-class women shoplifting in stores in the 19th century, and there was a good deal of fascination with that.
Why is that? Because of the compulsion element?
The 19th century also saw the rise of modern psychology, and Freud. And these department stores — certainly in the late 19th century until probably more recently when online shopping began to take over — if you walk into this beautiful department store, it’s a public space on the one hand, but then on the other hand it’s really not a public space. It’s a private space, belonging to the store.
To me it’s very interesting that there are these spaces that you can go into and they appear to be for everyone, but of course that’s illusory. People are very interested in the idea that despite the fact that you’re in the middle class or even wealthy you still want these objects; that these objects, whatever they are, can somehow change your life.
And also that stealing them — the French are very good on this particular topic — that stealing can give you this frisson. Just taking something that belongs to somebody else can be hot — it’s a quasi-erotic act.
There’s also not sympathy for these luxury stores, particularly in the pop-culture mindset and common wisdom, because, you know, people say you’re “stealing from the man” or something like that. There’s the idea that whatever theft has occurred, it’s not really a theft: You’re the individual, and you’re a renegade.
Recently, a video of a shoplifter in a San Francisco Walgreens made national headlines, with the shoplifter evoked as part of a larger narrative of crime, disorder and permissiveness in the city. Is shoplifting an appropriate metric to measure these broader crime trends?
The videos are fascinating. They’re sort of thrilling, in a prurient way, to watch. And they’re also sort of gross in a way, because they’re destructive, they’re defacing property.
“People in America don’t want to feel like they’re being surveilled when they’re in a store.”
What’s going on in San Francisco is more “boosting,” which happens in teams. Teams of shoplifters go back to the 16th century, to Shakespeare’s time, but then it really has become quite a problem for retailers. Boosting can sometimes be violent — in terms of smashing the windows of Tiffany’s, for example, or smashing the glass cases that the expensive designer handbags are located in. But then again, as I said, I think people have a hard time with considering Walgreens public property that should not be defaced.
I think that’s one reason why it’s impossible to stop shoplifting. It’s not like a political issue that is ever going to be seized upon. No politician is ever going to make that their platform. It’s sort of too strange an issue.
It does seem like something different is happening here, though — in San Francisco, it has become a political and a policy issue. Mayor London Breed has pledged that the city will “aggressively pursue, investigate and deter organized retail crime in San Francisco.” What’s the typical recourse to stopping shoplifting?
The felony threshold laws vary from state to state. Sometimes, they’re like $1,000. Anything below $1,000, then, is a misdemeanor. The extent to which it’s considered a crime, I would say, varies wildly. [California’s is $950.]
Some stores employ “loss prevention” agents. Either they outsource it to a firm that does loss prevention, or they have their own staff that they train, quote-unquote. But I wouldn’t call it a science or anything. There have been a number of stories about loss prevention people doing chokeholds. Some now have “no-chase” policies because they’ve had tragedies happen.
Some countries are much more law and order-ish on this topic than the U.S. — for example, Israel and the U.K. The types of surveillance equipment that is in stores in those countries is much more invasive, from a U.S. perspective.
Now, does that prevent shoplifting significantly? I’m not really sure what the data is on that at this point. What loss prevention people in those countries said to me at the time that I was researching those topics was that people in America don’t want to feel like they’re being surveilled when they’re in a store.
I’m wondering about the role the media has played throughout history in shaping the narrative of shoplifting. Does shoplifting get a disproportionate amount of coverage, given its stakes and its frequency?
There’s an enormous amount of coverage in the media, and there always has been. If you were at a dinner party or something, or at least when I was and I would mention that I was working on this book, people would just immediately volunteer their stories.
Many people have had personal experiences — as children or adolescents, typically, or as a starving graduate student. They know what it feels like to be a shoplifter, and they want to talk about this experience. It’s a story of scarcity and abundance, which the media is fascinated with.
Is there a reason why it’s so hard to track the rate of shoplifting?
Stores are very reluctant to give any accurate information or participate in any peer-reviewed type of studies where you would get an actual sense of how much shoplifting was going on. Because of that, the studies on shoplifting are very few. And stores just don’t feel that it’s in their interest. They are extremely stingy with any kind of information. And retailers feel like they have bigger problems.
Best Buy Tumbles As Increased Theft Worsens Margin Squeeze
Best Buy Co. tumbled the most since the start of the pandemic as increased robberies by organized groups of thieves add to an array of profit pressures while Wall Street frets about the outlook for holiday sales.
Burglaries range from dozens of people rushing into stores and grabbing merchandise to theft by smaller groups, some of them brandishing guns or crowbars, Chief Executive Officer Corie Barry told reporters Tuesday. Northern California has been a particular trouble spot, she said, but Best Buy has seen pockets of criminal activity all over the country.
“We are seeing more and more particularly organized retail crime,” Barry said on an earlier call with analysts. “You can see that pressure in our financials, and more importantly, frankly, you can see that pressure with our associates. It’s traumatizing.”
Best Buy flagged the impact of robberies just as it’s struggling to keep pace with soaring investor expectations, and theft is far from the only financial headache. While Best Buy topped expectations for third-quarter profit and sales, gross margin — a broad measure of profitability — got hit by stepped-up promotional activity and a drag from a new membership program. And slowing sales growth suggests that a pandemic-era boom is waning.
Best Buy shares plunged 15% at 12:21 p.m. in New York after sliding as much as 17% for the biggest intraday decline since March 2020. The shares had advanced 38% this year through Monday, outpacing the 28% gain of an S&P 500 index of consumer discretionary companies.
The retailer’s credit default swaps widened Tuesday, with the cost to protect the company’s debt against default rising to the highest level since March.
Gross margin edged down 0.1 percentage point to 23.5%, Best Buy said in an earnings statement. That slightly trailed the 23.6% average of analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg, and the decline in the core U.S. operation was steeper. The company also reported a 10% drop in domestic online revenue as more shoppers returned to stores.
U.S. same-stores sales, meanwhile, climbed only 2% after last year’s torrid 23% expansion. Sales in the fourth quarter, the heart of the crucial holiday season, “are tracking flattish” so far, Wells Fargo & Co. analyst Zachary Fadem said in a note to clients.
The pullback in Best Buy’s shares follows an almost two-month rally that contributed most of the stock’s year-to-date gain. Declines in gross margin at Walmart Inc. and Target Corp. spurred selloffs in each company’s shares last week.
Best Buy’s adjusted earnings rose to $2.08 a share, compared with the $1.96 average of analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg. Sales climbed to $11.9 billion. Analysts had predicted $11.7 billion.
Best Buy isn’t the only retailer contending with theft. Police in Northern California are looking for suspects after a series of robberies in recent days targeted businesses from a Louis Vuitton store to cannabis dispensaries to a Walgreens. A Nordstrom store in Walnut Creek was hit in an organized effort that included dozens of people.
Estimates of the financial impact of retail theft vary. A September report by the Illinois attorney general cited an estimate from the Coalition of Law Enforcement and Retail that organized theft accounts for $45 billion in annual losses. The Retail Industry Leaders Association has said as much as $68.9 billion in products was stolen from retailers in 2019.
Companies besides Best Buy have complained in recent years about the financial blow from crime — and the danger to workers and shoppers.
Home Depot Inc. said two years ago that the nation’s opioid crisis could be contributing to an unexpected surge in thefts from its stores. Lost merchandise had gotten so bad that it would narrow the company’s operating margins, executives said at the time.
Last month, Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. said it would close five stores in San Francisco because of rampant shoplifting. Theft rates in recent months had risen to five times the company’s national average despite increased investment in security measures, the company said.
Organized crime costs retailers an average of $720,000 for every $1 billion in sales, the National Retail Federation found in a survey published late last year.
The trade association, which represents many of the country’s largest stores, echoed Best Buy’s comments about the human impact of the crime. In an August report, the NRF said the repercussions “extend well beyond a company’s bottom line into actual threats against employees and customers.”
Retailers Sound Alarm On Organized Theft As States Warn Of Rise
Retailers say shoplifting is getting more brazen in the U.S.: A California Nordstrom store was recently hit by a flash mob of more than 80 people who made off with designer goods, while more than a dozen people pilfered from a Louis Vuitton location in a suburb of Chicago.
On Tuesday, the impact of shoplifting reached Wall Street, with Best Buy Co. shares plunging after the electronics retailer said widespread theft contributed to a decrease in one gauge of profitability. Last month, Walgreens said it would close five San Francisco stores after theft rates there spiked.
Organized retail crime costs retailers on average $700,000 per $1 billion in sales every year, according to the National Retail Federation. Another industry group, Buy Safe America, estimates that crime results in billions of dollars in lost economic activity each year.
Retailers and states say that theft is on the rise, although its prevalence is hard to measure on a national scale. California Governor Gavin Newsom said Monday that “the level of organized retail theft we are seeing is simply unacceptable” as he boosted police presence in major retail sites. The Illinois Attorney General’s Office said in September that organized retail crime “has increased dramatically over the last two years.”
Criminal-justice reforms have eased penalties for shoplifting in many cases in recent decades. Since 2000, at least 40 states have raised the thresholds for the value of stolen goods that triggers a felony charge, according to the National Association of Shoplifting Prevention, a group that seeks to raise public awareness of theft and push for solutions.
At the same time, options such as in-store pickup for online orders and the proliferation of e-commerce have opened up new avenues of attack, according to an August report from the NRF. Platforms like Facebook Marketplace and Ebay are easy, anonymous places to resell stolen goods. Shoplifters are also utilizing store loopholes, increasingly returning stolen merchandise without receipts for credit or giftcards, the NRF said on Nov. 18.
The most common items targeted are designer clothing and handbags, high-end liquor, laundry detergent, allergy medicine, razors and pain relievers, according to the NRF.
“At the end of the day, it’s still about supply and demand,” said Tony Sheppard, director of loss prevention solutions at ThinkLP, a software developer that helps companies prevent theft and manage its impact. “The demand for product online skyrocketed, and as a result, so too did the demand for stolen product.”
La Luxury Mall Latest To Be Hit By Smash-And-Grab Thieves
A group of thieves smashed windows at a department store at a luxury mall in Los Angeles, triggering a police pursuit just days after high-end stores throughout the San Francisco Bay Area were targeted.
The latest incident in a national trend of smash-and-grab crimes targeted a Nordstrom store at The Grove retail and entertainment complex. It came as the country’s largest consumer electronics chain said that an increase in organized theft was taking a toll on its bottom line.
Workers covered a large broken window at the Nordstrom with black plywood on Tuesday morning as security guards and shoppers alike came in and out of the store.
The thieves struck around 10:40 p.m. Monday, said Officer Drake Madison, a Los Angeles Police Department spokesman. Officers pursued an SUV involved in the crime and the chase ended with three people taken into custody, he said. The number of people involved in the crime was not known, Madison said.
The Grove incident followed a weekend of similar brazen thefts in the San Francisco Bay Area and Beverly Hills in which groups of people, some carrying crowbars and hammers, ransacked high-end stores and stole jewelry, sunglasses, suitcases, clothing and other merchandise before fleeing in waiting cars.
The thefts are believed to be part of sophisticated criminal networks that recruit mainly young people to steal merchandise in stores throughout the country and then sell it in online marketplaces. Experts and law enforcement officials say the thefts are ratcheting up as the holiday shopping season gets underway.
The National Retail Federation said a recent survey found stores are seeing an increase in organized thefts and perpetrators being more aggressive.
The electronics chain Best Buy on Tuesday cited organized theft as one of the reasons for a decline in gross profit margin in the third quarter.
“We are definitely seeing more and more particularly organized retail crime and incidents of shrink in our locations,” Best Buy CEO Corie Barry told analysts during a conference call Tuesday. “This is a real issue that hurts and scares real people.”
Barry told reporters during a separate call that the company is seeing organized theft increase across the country, but particularly in San Francisco. She said the company is hiring security guards and working with its vendors on creative ways to stage the product.
Yet loss prevention agents and security guards are generally trained not to engage with thieves, said mall and retail security expert David Levenberg. They are not trained or equipped to pursue or subdue suspects and the likelihood of violence is too great; instead they are supposed to “observe and report.”
“The value of the merchandise is not worth somebody being injured or killed,” he said.
Workplace security expert Hector Alvarez said retailers need to think about how to manage their customers while a smash-and-grab theft is underway. Stores have an obligation to keep their shoppers safe during these events, he said, like they would if a fire occurred.
Customers should not intervene or confront the thieves, he said, but focus on being a good witness for law enforcement.
While these brazen crimes are still relatively rare, “it’s now become hazardous in some instances to go shopping,” said Alvarez, president of California-based Alvarez Associates LLC.
No shoppers were reported injured in the latest incidents.
The flash mobs are usually organized by local people who recruit their crews and send them to steal specific merchandise requested by criminal organizations throughout the country, said Ben Dugan, president of the Coalition of Law Enforcement and Retail.
Those who do the stealing get paid between $500 and $1,000 to take as much as they can and bring it back to organizers who ship it to other parts of the country.
“Crew bosses organize them, they’ll give him the crowbars, and in some cases even rent them cars, or provide them with escape routes or a list of products to actually go out and steal. It looks very chaotic but it’s actually very well organized,” Dugan said.
“We’re not talking about someone who needs money or needs food. These are people who go out and do this is for high profit, and for the thrill,” he said.
In some cases, though, the thieves may be copycats rather than people working with organized networks, Levenberg said. He said the thieves may be thinking: “’Did you see what happened in San Francisco? Let’s go to the Grove and do it.’”
And while smash-and-grab thefts are occurring nationwide, Levenberg said cities with progressive prosecutors — like Los Angeles and San Francisco — are especially hard-hit because the consequences for perpetrators are not as harsh as in other cities.
“The consequences are minimal and the profits are substantial,” said Levenberg, founder of Florida-based Center Security Services.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday that his office met with retailers over the weekend who asked for more police patrols.
He said increased enforcement would start immediately “in and around areas that are highly trafficked and coming into the holiday season Black Friday in shopping malls.”
Retailers lose about $65 billion each year to organized theft, the bulk stolen by professional thieves, Dugan said.
Last week, fourteen suspects went into a Louis Vuitton store in Oak Brook, a Chicago suburb, pulled large plastic bags from their coats and filled them with clothing and other items, stealing more than $120,000 in merchandise, police said.
Smash-And-Grab Robberies Hit Stores Around The Country On Black Friday
Several localities across the United States have reported smash-and-grab robberies on Black Friday, contributing to a larger reported number of similar crimes in recent days.
In California, the cities of Lakewood, Los Angeles and Monterey all experienced smash-and-grab robberies on the busy post-Thanksgiving shopping day.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reported that on Friday evening eight people entered a Home Depot in Lakewood, which is a part of Los Angeles County, and went directly to the tool aisle. Officials said that roughly $400 worth of sledgehammers, hammers and crowbars were immediately taken from the store.
The department noted that the robbers may have gotten inside of a damaged, red Mercedes Benz upon taking off.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Police Department also reported a string of robberies in the city Friday evening. Several of those crimes involved physical altercations with staff: At one store a worker was reportedly sprayed with a chemical agent, while at another multiple employees were said to have been pushed to the ground as the robbers fled.
Meanwhile, in Monterey, $30,000 worth of sunglasses were taken by four people who robbed a Sunglass Hut store at a shopping center on Friday afternoon, police told Action News 8.
Police described the group as two women and two men between their early and mid-twenties; a store manager told the TV station that the thieves were out of the store in under two minutes.
WGN-TV in Chicago reported that four smash-and-grab robberies took place early Thursday morning and early Friday morning at a Canada Goose retail location, a Foot Locker store, a North Face store and a cell phone store.
The value of the stolen merchandise was unclear, but the TV station noted that items were taken from all four stores.
A Best Buy in Burnsville, Minn. was also robbed during Black Friday, with a group of between 20 and 30 people hauling off electronics and other goods from the store.
Earlier this month, a handful of high-end retail stores like Burberry and Louis Vuitton witnessed robberies and vandalism in the San Francisco area. Los Angeles had also already seen several similar crimes in recent days.
San Francisco Stores Board Up Amid Wave of Smash-and-Grab Lootings
Several San Francisco-area stores boarded up their doors and windows amid a wave of smash-and-grab looting in the city and across California.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, roughly six retail stores in San Francisco’s Union Square were boarded up this week, including a Louis Vuitton.
Twitter user Michelle Tandler shared several photos of the boarded-up retail stores in the city, writing: “This is what downtown San Francisco looks like right now.”
In a subsequent thread of tweets, Tandler shared photos of stores such as Zara, Burberry, Lacoste, and Louis Vuitton covered in wooden boards to protect them from potential theft.
This is what downtown San Francisco looks like right now.
— Michelle Tandler (@michelletandler) November 29, 2021
San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) Lieutenant Tracy McCray recently spoke with Fox News host Tucker Carlson about the city’s uptick in robberies.
“San Francisco, as you can see from all the video, the boarded-up shops, empty spaces for retail, is a city that is spiraling or already in the bottom of the toilet,” McCray said.
The decision to board up storefronts comes as San Francisco and several other California cities have faced a wave of brazen robberies in dozens of retail stores.
Last month, the Louis Vuitton store in San Francisco was hit by thieves who smashed windows and doors to steal dozens of items. On November 23, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin filed charges against nine individuals who are suspected of robbing that business as well as other retail stores.
“These brazen acts will not be tolerated in San Francisco,” Boudin said in an announcement of the charges. “Last weekend, there were similar incidents in Walnut Creek, Hayward, Oakland, and San Jose. Other Bay Area prosecutors and I have been collaborating to share information and develop strategies to combat these coordinated incidents.
We have filed felony charges in every single arrest related to these incidents, and we are working with SFPD to identify others involved so we can hold them accountable. Our office is also committed to dismantling the fencing networks that make this type of crime profitable.”
Several Los Angeles area stores also experienced smash-and-grab thefts. On November 25, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) reported two separate robberies. According to authorities, a group of people took several items from stores at the Beverly Center while another incident occurred at the Topanga Mall in which robbers stole from a Nordstrom store.
“Inter-agency collaboration toward a common goal: to ensure the safety of our community. CHP [California Highway Patrol] and LAPD came together at the Topanga mall for high-visibility patrol to deter flash mob/smash-and-grab robberies,” the Los Angeles Police Department said in a tweet on November 26.
Stores Like Home Depot And Best Buy Bolster Security After ‘Flash Mob’ Robberies
Retailers lock up more products and California police increase patrols to combat thefts by criminal groups.
Retailers and law enforcement around the country are ramping up security to combat a wave of thefts by criminal groups during the busy holiday shopping season.
Some of the most brazen crimes, sometimes known as “flash mob” robberies, have happened in recent weeks. In suburban Minneapolis dozens of people stole goods from three Best Buy stores over Thanksgiving weekend. The week before, approximately 90 people stole goods from a Nordstrom near San Francisco, according to the local police department. Stores from Chicago to Los Angeles have been hit.
The recent thefts mark an increase in intensity because of the size of the groups and the organized nature of the crimes, said some retail and security executives. During the Nordstrom theft, dozens of people arrived at the store in cars at the same time, rushed inside to cause chaos and steal items, and then drove away. The police made a handful of arrests.
“We do see flash mobs with some level of regularity. We saw some issues last week in California,” though the recent incidents have been larger scale, said Scott Glenn, vice president of asset protection for Home Depot Inc. HD 0.01% Several of the chain’s product categories, such as power tools, are frequent targets of theft. “The last couple of weeks is not surprising to us,” he said.
Retail and security executives said those events are part of a sharp rise in organized retail theft since the Covid-19 pandemic began, in part because e-commerce growth has led to more demand for underpriced goods online.
The National Retail Federation estimates that organized retail crime, a distinct category from shoplifting overall, costs retailers an average of $700,000 per $1 billion in sales. Stolen goods such as power tools, medicine and pricey handbags are often resold anonymously through Amazon.com, Facebook Marketplace and other platforms, these executives said.
A spokeswoman for Meta Platforms Inc. said Facebook prohibits selling stolen items and asks people or retailers to report criminal activity to local law enforcement. Amazon.com doesn’t allow sellers to list stolen goods and works with law enforcement and brands to stop bad actors and hold them accountable, a spokeswoman for the company Amazon.com Inc. said.
At Home Depot, theft apprehensions, when store personnel seize a suspect,are up about 10% year-over-year, a spokeswoman said. The home-improvement retailer is hiring more security for stores and changing the physical layout of entrances to prevent theft, for example adding more gates that only allow traffic to flow into stores at an entrance, not out, said Mr. Glenn.
Recently the company started adding technology to some items that makes a product inoperable until it is checked out at through a register, he said.
“We can’t stop everyone coming in and taking product,” he said. “We can make it harder.”
A group of district attorneys in Northern California recently said they would each be detailing a prosecutor from their offices to work together on stopping the thefts. “These are clearly carefully orchestrated crimes, working together in large groups to create a mob-like mentality,” said Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley in a statement.
After two businesses in the city of Alameda, Calif., were targeted in November, the police department advised local businesses to take special precautions, including installing a shatterproof film over store windows, adding motion sensor cameras, and removing high-value items from store floors.
The California Highway Patrol, which has had an organized crime retail theft task force since 2019, said on Nov. 23 that it would start increasing patrols on freeway corridors near major shopping centers to help combat the crimes. And Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody on Thursday announced a task force to specifically target organized retail theft and the creation of a database to track retail robberies statewide.
Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore announced Thursday the arrest of 14 people connected to recent retail thefts in the city. Chief Moore said there have been 11 organized group robberies of stores in Los Angeles from Nov. 18 to Nov. 28.
On Friday, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul said the state’s Organized Retail Crime Task Force had recovered thousands of stolen goods, estimated to be worth millions of dollars, at several storage units in Chicago. The units contained four semitrailers of merchandise, including clothes, beauty products, furniture, food and electronics, Mr. Raoul’s office said.
Organized group store theft has been around for years.
In the summer of 2011, around 40 people swarmed a suburban Sears near Philadelphia and stole thousands of dollars in goods, according to a Wall Street Journal article at the time. Earlier that year several chains, including North Face and Armani Exchange faced similar incidents in Chicago. That year the National Retail Federation said that flash-mob attacks were reported by 10% of the 106 retailers it surveyed.
Around 69% of retailers reported a rise in organized retail crime in 2020, according to an NRF survey this year with 41 responses. A similar number of retailers said organized retail crime groups “exhibit greater levels of violence and aggression than they have before.”
Retailers are employing a bigger security presence as a short-term response to the type of theft seen over the past few weeks, said Ben Dugan, director of organized retail crime at CVS Health Corp. and president of the Coalition of Law Enforcement and Retail, a group that facilitates planning between retailers and law enforcement.
CVS has doubled the size of its corporate staff working on organized retail crime this year compared with last, he said. Longer term, the drugstore chain is working with local law-enforcement officials in several states to coordinate theft response, as well as supporting federal legislation that retailers hope will make reselling of stolen goods online more difficult, said Mr. Dugan.
Retail theft, particularly by organized groups, is rising at Best Buy Co. BBY 1.88% and is eating into the company’s profits, said Chief Executive Corie Barry on a call to discuss earnings last month.
The electronics chain is finding new ways to lock up products with less inconvenience to customers, she said, such as allowing people to pay by scanning a QR code before leaving with a product from locked cases. Locking up goods on shelves, as many drugstores do, can hamper sales since it can deter some shoppers who need to find a staffer to access an item. Best Buy is also hiring security and changing store layouts, she said.
“You can see that pressure in our financials,” said Ms. Barry. “And more importantly, frankly, you can see that pressure with our associates. This is traumatizing.”
Snapchat And Other Apps Were Used To Plan Flash-Mob Thefts, Police Say
Suspects in recent crimes at Nordstrom, Best Buy and Louis Vuitton stores often don’t know each other, making investigations difficult.
A recent rash of thefts by fast-moving mobs at stores in the Bay Area and outside Minneapolis were organized on social media and committed by people who often didn’t know one another, according to law-enforcement officials investigating the incidents.
Snapchat was among the social-media apps and messaging services used by thieves in the Bay Area, one of the law-enforcement officials said.
The organizing tactics, which police say they haven’t seen before, make it difficult to catch or identify perpetrators, that official said. When suspects are arrested, they often don’t have names or information about others who were there.
“This isn’t ‘The Godfather’ by any stretch,” said Steve Wagstaffe, the San Mateo County, California, district attorney who is part of a newly formed alliance of Bay Area prosecutors tackling organized retail theft. “It’s the modern version of ‘Hey, there’s a party tonight’ and suddenly you have 100 kids showing up.”
Rachel Racusen, a spokeswoman for Snap Inc., said the company has looked into the issue and hasn’t found evidence of such activity on its app. She said that promoting harm of property on Snapchat would be a violation of its policies and terms of service.
Three of the estimated 90 people who overran a Nordstrom Inc. store in the wealthy Bay Area suburb of Walnut Creek, Calif., on Nov. 20 have been arrested, according to Walnut Creek police. The thieves stole more than $100,000 of merchandise in one minute before escaping in 25 separate cars that had their license plates removed or covered, prosecutors said.
In San Francisco, five people were arrested in connection with the Nov. 19 smash-and-grab burglary by 20 to 40 people at a Louis Vuitton store, according to San Francisco prosecutors.
Police in the Minneapolis suburbs, where a large group of thieves hit three separate Best Buy Co. stores on Nov. 26, have identified some suspects but made no arrests, said Lt. Joe Steiner of the Maplewood Police Department.
All the incidents were organized on social media, according to local law enforcement.
Law-enforcement officials say loosely organized groups known as flash mobs come together to commit the thefts after someone posts a target and a time on social media.
The officials declined to provide details on how they believe people are finding the posts, which might be in private social-media groups.
Similar crimes also occurred at stores in Los Angeles, Chicago and other parts of the Bay Area. Los Angeles police, who have made several arrests, declined to comment on how the thefts were organized.
The incidents come as social-media companies are facing multiple regulatory investigations, as well as congressional hearings, related to potentially harmful and illegal activity taking place on their platforms.
The law-enforcement official who said Snapchat is being used said some suspects might like the app’s feature in which messages disappear. Other social-media apps feature encryption, the person said.
Investigators say they believe the recent string of thefts in the Bay Area were timed around the verdict in the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, a teenager who was acquitted on Nov. 19 of charges in the killing of two people during unrest in Kenosha, Wis., last year. They theorize that robbers planned the thefts at that time because police would be distracted by preparations for possible protests over the verdict.
In response to these incidents, police have stepped up patrols in retail corridors across the U.S. Retailers in San Francisco’s Union Square, a shopping and tourist destination, have boarded up their glass windows.
California Woman Charged With Grand Theft For Allegedly Stealing More Than $300K In Merchandise
The 38-year-old woman allegedly stole about $328,000 worth of merchandise from retail stores between Oct. 7 and Nov. 23.
A California woman has been arrested and charged with grand theft after allegedly stealing more than $320,000 in merchandise from local retail stores.
Ekaterina Zharkova reportedly went into several TJ Maxx and Nordstrom Rack stores in Costa Mesa between Oct. 7 and Nov. 23, filled empty shopping bags with thousands of dollars in merchandise and left without paying, the Orange County District Attorney’s office said in a release.
Local authorities said the 38-year-old woman was attempting to resell the stolen items through a luxury item online consignment store.
Zharkova was arrested Nov. 23 by the California Highway Patrol’s Organized Retail Theft task force after investigators reportedly witnessed her stealing. However, she was released on Nov. 25 after posting bond.
Investigators later found more than $328,000 worth of stolen merchandise in her car and apartment leading to a second arrest on Sunday. She is currently in police custody with bail set at $320,000, according to online records.
She was then charged with four felony counts of grand theft, one felony count of receiving stolen property, and seven misdemeanor counts of petty theft, facing up to nine years in prison if convicted.
“These are not victimless crimes and if you engage in these kinds of outrageous theft schemes we’re going to arrest you, we’re going to prosecute you, and we’re putting you behind bars,” Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said in a release.
He continued, “I have assigned some of my most experienced investigators to work with the California Highway Patrol’s organized retail theft task force and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department to help protect Orange County businesses from being victimized and protect consumers from increased costs.”
Earlier this month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom spoke out about the recent increase in mass theft and criticized local officials for being reluctant to prosecute shoplifters, calling it “unacceptable.”
“If people are breaking in, people stealing your property, they need to be arrested. Police need to arrest them. Prosecutors need to prosecute them. Judges need to hold people accountable for breaking the law,” Newsom said, CBS Los Angeles reports.
Stores Deploying Unique Methods To Combat Smash And Grab
A retail industry group said, “organized retail crime costs retailers an average of $700K per $1B in sales”.
Stores looking to crack down on theft and smash-and-grab type robberies this holiday season have resorted to deploying coiled wire and other protective measures to deter would-be criminals.
At The Grove shopping center in Los Angeles — whose Nordstrom store was targeted around Thanksgiving — yellow, coiled wire akin to something you would see guarding a prison has been erected outside, according to Newsnation Now.
“If somebody’s running, trying to get through something quickly, they are going to have to navigate it and get tangled up,” Josh Nielsen, the vice president of Adamson Police Products, told the media outlet this week.
In mid-November, the National Retail Foundation industry group said “organized retail crime now costs retailers an average of $700,000 per $1 billion in sales, and three-fourths of retailers saw an increase in ORC in 2020, according to NRF’s 2020 Organized Retail Crime Survey.”
The report listed the top 10 cities most affected by organized retail crime as Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, New York, San Francisco, Baltimore, Atlanta, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and Sacramento, in that order.
“The NRF report found that half of retailers are allocating additional technology resources,” to deter theft, the group added, “while another 50 percent are allocating capital to specific loss prevention equipment.”
Elsewhere in California, in San Francisco, officials announced new traffic patterns near high-end retailers in a bid to make it harder for thieves to park, commit crimes and race away, NBC News reports.
“We will do what we need to do to put an end to this madness,” San Francisco Police Chief William Scott was quoted as telling the media.
After a Nordstrom store was looted outside of San Francisco in Walnut Creek on Nov. 20, officials there reportedly closed a street.
“If it means that we are going to detour roads, if it means we’re going to have more police on the street and more security around, whatever it is, every option is on the table,” Walnut Creek Mayor Kevin Wilk told NBC Bay Area.
The San Francisco Police Department also announced in early December that “newly implemented crime-prevention strategies and beefed-up deployments of police resources in the wake of organized gang robberies in and around Union Square on Nov. 19 have resulted in significant reductions in retail- and holiday-related crime.”
The police tactics being used in the shopping area, which the Department says includes officer deployments that will run “24/7 until further notice” and “partial or full street closures, if needed,” has resulted in only 12 theft incidents between Nov. 20 to Dec. 6, compared to 67 in the preceding 16-day period, data shows.
At a Safeway supermarket in San Francisco, automatic gates reportedly have been installed to block potential thieves from quickly fleeing the store with shopping carts of goods.
The same store also added barriers around its self-checkout area – creating only one exit — blocked off empty checkout aisles and placed a large display of water bottles in front of its entire side entrance, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
“Like other local businesses, we are working on ways to curtail escalating theft to ensure the wellbeing of our employees and to foster a welcoming environment for our customers. Their safety remains our top priority,” Wendy Gutshall, director of public and government affairs for Safeway’s Northern California Division, said in a statement to the newspaper. “These long-planned security improvements were implemented with those goals in mind.”
Macy’s Aims RFID At Organized Retail Theft
Radio-frequency identification chips provide insights into where, when and what items are being stolen, says Macy’s vice president of asset protection.
Amid a recent spate of high-profile thefts targeting retailers nationwide, Macy’s Inc. said it is leaning on radio-frequency identification technology for asset protection.
RFID chips tagged to merchandise provide the retailer real-time information on where and when certain products are being stolen, said Joe Coll, vice president of asset protection, operations and strategy at Macy’s. RFID data can also inform the chain on where best to focus security in stores, he said.
“RFID plays a huge part for us from an investigative standpoint,” Mr. Coll said on Tuesday at a webinar hosted by trade publication RFID Journal.
Strategies combating retail theft have become especially important during a surge in organized retail crime—incidents where items are stolen in order to be resold.
According to a survey last year by the National Retail Federation, some 64% of loss-prevention professionals said organized retail crime has become more of a priority for their companies over the past five years.
Recent high-profile “flash mob” thefts at stores like Nordstrom Inc., Best Buy Co. Inc. and Louis Vuitton have brought national attention to the issue.
“Those are your major hitters. They’re taking large quantities of product out of your building,” Mr. Coll said.
While RFID might not have prevented those heists, it does give retailers detailed information on the stock-keeping unit, size and color of stolen items that they can then pass along to law enforcement, he said.
In retail scenarios, RFID can take the form of stickers with a metallic overlay attached to an item’s tags, said Sandeep Unni, a senior director analyst in Gartner’s retail industry research practice.
The technology isn’t new, and retailers have been experimenting with it since the early 2000s with varying degrees of success, he said, adding that its most common use is for inventory tracking and management.
Macy’s, which began using RFID in 2013, stands out not only as an early adopter, but one that has expanded the technology’s uses, including to fighting organized crime, he said.
At Macy’s, data is collected when the identification chip passes through “smart exits” equipped with sensors, according to Mr. Coll. Macy’s can then access the relevant video footage and determine which criminals took which merchandise, he added.
The technology also gives Macy’s the ability to understand what types of items were more likely to be stolen at what times of year, Mr. Coll said. Winter coats, for instance, were a huge target for thieves in the late summer and early fall, he said.
After Macy’s introduced the technology to the asset-protection side of the business in 2016, sensors were placed at both customer and employee exits, Mr. Coll said. The store was immediately able to identify employees—some of whom had worked at the company for over 20 years and never been under investigation—stealing merchandise, he said.