Opinion | What We Lose to Shoplifting

Few shopping experiences are more intimate than a visit to the pharmacy. The contents of your basket may disclose waxy ears, hemorrhoids, insomnia, constipation, a messy rash or the compulsion to try all permutations of Reese’s product line. The pharmacy is a place where people like to slip in and out unnoticed, hoping the cashier doesn’t linger over each item at checkout.

But privacy is harder to preserve now that drugstores, to thwart shoplifters, increasingly lock their stock behind cabinet doors, with buttons to push in order to get an employee’s attention. A pimply boy has to hail an employee to free his benzoyl peroxide and a 14-year-old girl needs to be watched as she selects a tampon that suits her cycle. Even for adults, it’s hard not to be self-conscious about having a store employee trail you through the drugstore like a personal shopper as you ponder which dental floss to buy.

I thought about this sad atmosphere of surveillance during one of my recent visits to San Francisco, where the broader downtown retail environment has been left tattered by store closures. Walking from aisle to aisle pushing a series of buttons, I felt like an imposition on a pharmacy’s meager staff. After a string of these requests, I left before securing everything I’d planned to buy. The whole experience felt bad: I was sorry for the shopkeeper, sorry for the employees, sorry for being there, sorry for not buying enough. I made no impulse purchases.

There’s good reason for the added security. The material costs of shoplifting are considerable. In 2021, an estimated $94.5 billion nationwide was lost to shoplifting and other forms of “retail shrink” (which includes damaged or lost goods and employee theft). According to a survey conducted by the National Retail Federation in June, 53 percent of consumers believe that retail crimes such as shoplifting and looting have increased in their communities since the pandemic.

The social and economic causes of shoplifting have become a source of debate, as has the extent of the problem. There are complicated questions around criminal enforcement, policing and punishment.

But leaving those issues aside, there is also an undeniable quality-of-life impact from the real or perceived increase in shoplifting. It is felt by shoppers, store employees, security personnel, store owners and our communities — and in ways more serious than awkward encounters over tampon purchases.

The most obvious effect is a sense of increased danger. Stores simply feel less safe. For a variety of reasons, police now seem less inclined to arrest shoplifters. In Chicago, for example, overall arrests for reported thefts dropped from a rate of about 10 percent in 2019 to less than 4 percent in 2022, according to Wirepoints, a right-leaning watchdog group. Of the nearly 9,000 reported retail thefts in Chicago in 2022, only about 17 percent resulted in arrests, Wirepoints said. This apparent shift in policing priorities can put increased pressure on store security personnel and frontline workers to police their own stores, even when they are inadequately prepared to do so.

Most people who work in stores expect to fold shirts, restock shelves and handle customer requests — not to confront brazen and sometimes hostile shoplifters or organized theft rings. Working in an environment in which shoplifting is prevalent is stressful and can be traumatizing. Some workers are even punished for trying to help. In Rincon, Ga., a 68-year-old Lowe’s employee was fired this year after leaving the store to try to stop suspected shoplifters, one of whom punched her. She had worked for Lowe’s for 13 years, but her actions in pursuing the thieves who had left the store were apparently against policy. (She was subsequently rehired.)

The situation can also be demoralizing. “They’re there every day,” an anonymous Old Navy employee told a CBS News affiliate in the Bay Area, speaking of shoplifters in the store. “When I’m on the floor walking around I would say at least 12, 14 during the day.” In one two-day stretch, the employee said, the store was robbed 22 times.

In a recent study, a team of marketing professors looked at how service employees perceive “customer deviant behaviors,” which include minor infractions like incivility and aggression, as well as more serious offenses like shoplifting and fraudulent returns. The researchers found that shoplifting was “by far” the most prevalent and detrimental form of deviant behavior. According to the study, in the presence of a suspected thief the burden of policing often falls to frontline employees, who, depending on company policy, may be expected to guard the store, stand by passively or even assist the thieves as if they were paying customers. These behaviors leave employees feeling frustrated, angry, helpless, targeted, unmotivated and uncomfortable. Allowing shoplifting to continue unimpeded, the authors found, undermines the sense of pride they might otherwise find in their work and the workplace.

Policies that require employees to remain passive in the face of shoplifting can be frustrating. As one employee quoted in the study put it: “You want me to prevent loss, but at the end of the day, if I can’t physically stop someone that I know is stealing, essentially, I’m not loss prevention. I’m just, I’m here to just watch it.” Another employee said policies preventing action make shoplifting too easy: “It is not fair. They have restrained our powers. They have tied our hands. The criminals have all the rights, and we don’t.”

City officials are increasingly aware that shoplifting discourages workers and worsens labor conditions. In May, Mayor Eric Adams announced a program to fight retail theft in New York City, reports of which have increased by 77 percent in recent years, up 45 percent between 2021 and 2022 alone. Among the proposals is an “employee support program” meant to train retail workers in “de-escalation tactics, anti-theft tools and security best practices” to help ensure their own safety.

Shoplifting adds pressure to retailers still reeling from Covid-19 and the ongoing pressures of online alternatives. For small shopkeepers, bodegas and mom-and-pops, losses from theft can be devastating to the bottom line. Even large chains like Walmart, Whole Foods, REI and Walgreens have closed or are planning to close major retail locations in cities like Portland, Ore., and San Francisco. While multiple factors are behind the closures, shoplifting is frequently cited as one of them.

In May, Brian Cornell, the chief executive of Target, called theft “a worsening trend that emerged last year,” warning of a projected loss from retail theft of $500 million more than the previous year. “The problem affects all of us, limiting product availability, creating a less convenient shopping experience and putting our team and guests in harm’s way,” Cornell said. It can also lead to higher prices for everyone else.

The reason retailers traditionally invest in training store personnel is that they believe employees are critical to creating a positive shopping experience. A store that signals that it expects shoppers to steal the merchandise has the opposite effect.

“From the consumer’s perspective, the feeling that everyone is watching you, suspecting you of shoplifting, creates a negative atmosphere,” says Angela Y. Lee, a consumer psychologist and professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. Lee compares the feeling to the way in which many people have long felt racially profiled while shopping. “If you’re treated like a potential thief,” she says, “you’re going to have a bad experience, which will then make you less likely to shop there.”

Because retailers continue to struggle with underemployment and employee retention, stores are often more sparsely staffed than they once were, and all the more grim. On a recent shopping excursion in Manhattan, I saw something I’d never seen before: a handwritten sign in the window of a major clothing chain, apologizing for closing for an hour midday because of understaffing.

It’s hard not to notice a shift everywhere. Returning to New York City recently by train after an out-of-town trip, I emerged from Penn Station to pick up a few things in a nearby drugstore. When I walked in, the store was nearly empty, the shelves were mostly locked; no one responded when I pressed a button. It was a dispiriting welcome home and an unfortunate way to imagine first-time visitors encountering New York.

Store owners are not the only ones who bear the cost of retail theft. Shoplifting isn’t just their problem. We are all paying a price.

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Pamela Paul became an Opinion columnist for The Times in 2022. She was the editor of The New York Times Book Review for nine years and is the author of eight books, including “100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet.”

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