As millions of people head out to buy Christmas gifts,a small population lurks within their numbers. They are the bane of retail,the sworn enemies of store security and the reason salespeople hover annoyingly: shoplifters.
From department stores to toy stores,increased customer traffic means more shoplifters. And stores know it.
“With added traffic comes heightened awareness and increased security,” said Sarah Weber,a Wal-Mart spokeswoman. “It's a game we don't like to play,and we really don't like to lose.”
Overall,shoplifting costs the retail industry $10.5 billion a year,according to the 2004 Retail Security Survey by the University of Florida,and experts predict the number will continue to inch up. The 2004 Uniform Crime Report,compiled by the FBI from statistics reported by law enforcement offices,showed the shoplifting rate steadily increasing since 2000.
November,December and January have the highest number of shoplifting arrests,said Read Hayes,a security expert with the Loss Prevention Research Counsel in Winter Park,Fla. That's in part because of increased awareness and security,Hayes said,and it's a statistic that hasn't changed.
A review of police reports in the Nexis newspaper archive from Nov. 20 to Friday found more than 100 shoplifting cases,including an incident Thursday in Fairfax County,Va. Four shoplifting suspects were followed out of a mall by police and pursued in a car chase. Police shot and wounded one suspect,who is hospitalized,and charged two women with grand larceny. A fourth suspect got away.
Ranking high on this year's wish lists for both adults and children are iPods,MP3 players and video games,items that fit in a relatively small group that comprise the majority of thefts,a category Hayes calls CRAVED – concealable,removable,available,valuable,enjoyable and disposable.
“I know what is going to be a hot seller,” said Tina Sellers,vice-president of loss prevention at video game retailer Gamestop and 16-year loss prevention professional. “I can see it disappear before it hits the top-selling list.”
Video games are not the only items Sellers worries about,however. Gamestop's 3,590 domestic stores and similar chains often have many other highly desirable items,including name-brand headphones,iPod cases and other accessories.
“When it's hotter in sales,it's hotter in theft,” Sellers said.
While there are always opportunistic thieves who might steal only once because no one is looking,loss prevention experts are more concerned about organized shoplifting rings.
Organized thieving was responsible for an estimated 30 percent of retail shoplifting in 2003,according to the 2004 Retail Security Survey,and project director Richard C. Hollinger said the numbers are on the rise.
In organized theft rings,a small number of shoplifters steal large amounts of merchandise and resell the goods at flea markets,overseas and on the Internet.
During last year's holiday season,a group of four shoplifters hit stores in 19 states,including Wal-Mart and two other chains,stealing $1.5 million of goods. Stores have even caught shoplifters with lists in their pockets of what they have been sent to steal.
Unusual this year is that manufacturers did not anticipate what would be the most popular gift items,meaning quantities are limited. That changes the shoplifting picture,Hollinger said.
“Really professional criminals will steal items in shipment,” he said. “Just look at EBay. You can find plenty of hot-ticket items,but they are asking two,three or four times the price.”
“No one understands this problem,” Hollinger said. “It's bigger than bank robberies,and we all pay for it.”
Another retail loss survey,conducted annually by Jack L. Hayes International,estimates that $10 billion to $13 billion is lost annually to shoplifters,which the company says translates to $36 million a day,$1.5 million an hour and $25,300 a minute.
“As an industry,people don't understand the number of dollars stolen every day,” said Mark Doyle,company president. “We're talking millions and millions of dollars.”
The 27 participating retail chains had 689,340 shoplifting arrests in 2004 and recovered more than $70 million.
“I doubt we catch one in two,” Doyle said. “Or even one in three.”
Who's shoplifting? Everyone,Doyle said,and other experts agreed. From moneyed actress Winona Ryder to peer-pressured teenagers to parents worried about Christmas,the stereotypical shoplifter can't,well,be stereotyped.
“The worst thing we can do is profile because you catch Grandma stealing,” Doyle said. “Who would have thought.”
Instead,store personnel look for behaviors,he said. Shoplifters typically look around frequently,take things without looking at sizes or prices or wear season-inappropriate clothing,such as a bulky coat in the middle of summer.