Shoplifting a crime in which everyone (else) pays

February 24, 2019

By Norman Miller | The MetroWest Daily News

They walked into a store at the Natick Mall with a purpose – and large bolt cutters they never even bothered to hide.

Three still-unidentified women went into that store on Jan. 8, and using the bolt cutters, left seconds later with 10 stolen Louis Vuitton bags worth nearly $10,000. Police have not been able to make an arrest.

The incident, caught on security video then shared on social media, might be on the more brazen end of many shoplifting cases in MetroWest. But it’s not unique. With the number of large shopping centers in the area, including the Natick Mall and the Solomon Pond Mall in Marlborough, and many large department stores like Walmart, shoplifting is a common occurrence.

Although many people view shoplifting cases as minor, they consume a lot of manpower and time for store employees and police officers, and the crimes can affect consumers by leading to price increases. And on occasion, they have contributed to business closures.

“We’re talking about, nationwide, a $45 billion problem,” said Ryan Kearney, general counsel for the Retailers Association of Massachusetts. “Anytime shoplifters, or employees, steal something, it hurts the honest consumer. It’s not only the cost of the products, but it’s the loss of the profit margins that are passed on to the consumers. It’s spread out on all of the products that consumers are buying.”

The average shoplifting incident results in $798 worth of stolen goods, Kearney said, adding that is double the amount from just three years ago.

The Natick Mall is the largest mall in the state. Add in other prominent shopping areas such as the Sherwood Plaza, and shoplifting consumes a lot of time for Natick police, spokeswoman Lt. Cara Rossi said.

She said shoplifting and other related charges, including larceny of property worth more or less than $1,200, are the number one crimes leading to arrests in the town.

“It takes up a significant amount of our patrol time, as well as investigation time,” said Rossi. “It’s department-wide. Everyone is affected.”

Rossi said there’s always an officer assigned to patrol retail areas, and the officer often walks through the mall as part of the patrol. During weekends, the mall hires detail officers.

In Marlborough, officers spend a lot of time at the Solomon Pond Mall, as well as the new Apex Center and other retail businesses along Rte. 20, police spokesman Sgt. Dan Campbell said.

“It’s really something we have to target,” he said. “It’s something that is always on our radar. Officers will have to get out and walk around the mall sometimes. It can get bad out there.”

Although some shoplifters get away, when police do press charges, that often means an officer will have to spend portions of several different days in court for hearings – or even trials, if cases make it that far.

Rossi said catching shoplifters is sometimes difficult due to the stores. While some have “robust and very professional security,” others do not want police involved.

“A lot of them have no arrest policies,” said Rossi. “They’ll call us at the end of the month and we’ll come in and they’ll say, ’This is how much inventory we had stolen this month,” I believe so they can claim it for insurance purposes. I’m sure the cost is being passed on to consumers.”

Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of Strategic Research Group, a New York-based retail and consumer consulting group, agreed.

“Shoplifting typically raises the price points to shoppers between 3 and 5 percent,” he said.

It’s not just the cost of the stolen items that contribute to rising prices, he said. Many stores invest in more loss-prevention officers, or more expensive cameras and other security systems.

Stores that are often targeted by shoplifters also sometimes see a loss of paying customers, and often have trouble finding employees.

“It discourages the people who are paying, because people who are paying feel uncomfortable because they see others shoplifting,” said Flickinger. “It also raises the cost of labor. People are uncomfortable working in a store, when there are frequent shoplifting incidents.”

It’s no secret that brick-and-mortar retail stores, particularly larger stores, are having trouble staying afloat in today’s economy, and constant shoplifting can help lead to businesses closing, Flickinger said.

Many retail stores, he said, make approximately a penny for every dollar of merchandise sold. If those margins sink further, businesses can’t afford rent and local, state and federal taxes. That, he said, will affect local communities that rely on commercial tax revenue to help fund their local governments.

“The consequences are far-reaching,” Flickinger said. “Shoplifting is literally putting otherwise viable businesses out of business.”

The Walmart on Rte. 9 in Framingham has a sign asking consumers not to shoplift because it can raise the price of the merchandise. The company has made a big investment nationwide to help cut down on shoplifting, Walmart spokesman Casey Staheli said.

The retailer has hired thousands of what it calls “customer hosts” – the greeters often seen at the entrances and exits at Walmart stores. They undergo training to learn to identify shoplifters. And they can check receipts of those leaving the store if they feel the need, Staheli said.

Walmart has also hired more asset protection officers – store security – who attend training academies to increase their skill in preventing shoplifting. Store offices have been moved from the rear near the exits to help prevent those leaving with stolen goods.

“We want to make sure our customers have a good experience,” said Staheli. “If customers come in and things they want are not available, they may not come back. Theft is not good for any business. No retailer wants it. Our goal is to go from detecting crime to deterring it.”