The crime typically involves groups of people targeting stores that carry higher-value items like electronics, designer handbags and designer clothing, who resell the merchandise in secondary marketplaces, such as eBay, OfferUp and Facebook Marketplace or even back into the legitimate supply chain.
“These are people who make a living stealing and reselling. This is not a one-time opportunistic or need-based robbery,” said Cory Lowe, an expert on retail crime and research scientist at the Loss Prevention Research Council, an industry coalition that researches retail crime, its impact and solutions to address it.
“The anatomy of these attacks show they are more aggressive, dangerous and happening more frequently,” said Lowe. “When I talk to retail loss prevention veterans, the best comparison they come up with is what crime was like in New York in the 1970s. But even then, it was more street robberies and not like retail theft as brazen as this.”
“For every $330 worth of products stolen, a retailer has to sell an incremental $300,000 worth of goods to break even,” said Burt Flickinger, managing director of retail consultancy Strategic Resource Group. “We’ve talked to retailers across America who say shoplifting is now 2% to 3% of their total sales. That’s up from 0.7 to 1% pre-pandemic.”
Home Depot said the added security measure is meant to deter the illegal resale of the power tools.
Some of most popular items targeted by professional gangs of shoplifters are designer clothing, laundry detergent, designer handbags, allergy medicine, razors, high-end liquor, pain relievers, baby formula, laptops, deodorant and high-end appliances, according to the National Retail Federation.
These are products that professional thieves can resell a lot of at one time and make a lot of money, said Lowe.
The surge in store-related theft is costly in other ways, too. Employee retention takes a hit when retail crimes spike.
“Think about retailers that are staffed predominantly by women, like cosmetics stores and high-end fashion,” said Lowe. “Criminals target these stores because these are high-dollar items and they anticipate little pushback from the staff. But the fear makes it difficult to keep employees.”
“This is traumatizing for our associates and is unacceptable,” Barry said during a call with analysts in November. “We are doing everything we can to try to create [an] as safe as possible environment.”
She said Best Buy was implementing a number of tactics to minimize theft and protect staff and customers. These include locking up more products and hiring security when appropriate.
Then there’s the broader community impact. Shopping in stores generates sales tax, which in turn provides funding for essential public services such as public schools budgets, medical facilities and local police and fire departments.
“Recurring store thefts spread fear. They scare away shoppers who normally would spend time browsing in stores and maybe make a few purchases,” said Flickinger.
Although organized shoplifting sprees were on the rise even before the pandemic, Lowe said that post-Covid lifestyle adjustments have made it easier for offenders to get away with the crime.
“Think about mask wearing. Pre-pandemic, would we have ever thought about everyone in a liquor store wearing a mask covering half of their face and allowing them to remain anonymous?” said Lowe.
A confluence of other factors also have contributed to the spike in dangerous retail robberies in the last two years. These include reduced in-store staffing that leads to less surveillance and the ease with which thieves benefit from a lack of regulation on reselling stolen items online, said Lowe.
Some 50% of retailers surveyed reported an average dollar value loss of merchandise of at least $1,000 in 2020 compared to 29% in 2019. Overall, organized retail crime costs retailers an average of $700,000 per $1 billion in sales, according to the NRF.