Shoplifting Is on the Rise: Here Are Causes & Solutions

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Why is shoplifting on the rise? Why are professional shoplifters unafraid of the consequences? IS the shoplifting narrative exaggerated?

US shoplifting losses reached $100 billion in 2021, marking a significant increase from pre-pandemic levels. Experts are divided on the causes of the shoplifting surge and disagree on whether shoplifting is an unprecedented crisis or an exaggerated narrative pushed by retailers.

Keep reading to learn more about the rise in retail theft.

Has Shoplifting Become a Crisis?

In 2021, US retailers incurred nearly $95 billion in “shrink” losses—inventory shrinkage caused by shoplifting, employee theft, or inventory damage and misplacement. A growing number of companies, including Walmart, Target, Nordstrom, and Home Depot say that shoplifting is on the rise and is negatively impacting their sales

Retail theft has cascading negative effects, including that it: 

Retailers have responded to the shoplifting spike by hiring more security guards, locking up commonly stolen products, reducing store hours, and closing stores. 

View 1: Criminals and Lax Laws Spur Shoplifting

Some experts attribute the spike in shoplifting to the rise of organized retail crime (ORC) groups who steal items in bulk for resale online. They argue that ORC, combined with increased online shopping, creates a cycle that incentivizes more theft:

  • ORC groups steal goods in bulk and sell them online at deep discounts.
  • Customers continue buying cheaper products online instead of shopping at stores where prices are higher due to shortages from theft.
  • With more customers online, ORC groups are encouraged to steal more goods to sell.

These experts argue that professional shoplifters are unafraid of consequences for their actions due to:

  • Perceived lax enforcement policies in states and cities that have reduced penalties for retail crime.
  • Other government policies like bail law changes that some argue have enabled thieves to re-offend.
  • Drug addiction habits, which lead some individuals to shoplift. 

View 2: The Shoplifting Narrative Is Exaggerated

Other experts contend that while retail theft is a real issue, the narrative around its severity and causes is more nuanced than typically portrayed. They argue that:

  1. Shoplifting often stems from underlying social and economic issues.
  2. The media and retail lobbyists tend to sensationalize shoplifting incidents.

These experts contend that claims of an unprecedented organized retail theft wave are somewhat exaggerated. While the total value of stolen goods is rising, this appears to be tied to an increase in overall retail sales—from $6 trillion in 2019 to $8 trillion in 2022.

In essence, the total dollar value of stolen goods is increasing because stores are selling more products—not because the rate of theft is skyrocketing.

Looking Ahead

Experts are divided on how to address the rise in shoplifting. Some argue for stricter laws and enforcement. Others favor situational prevention strategies—implementing security measures and changing store layouts, for example—rather than traditional punitive measures like increased jail time.

However, some contend these arguments distract from another economic problem: Wage theft costs workers over $50 billion a year. While major corporations express concerns about being victimized by retail theft, some also steal by under-compensating workers and classifying employees as contractors to evade overtime payment obligations.

Shoplifting Is on the Rise: Here Are Causes & Solutions

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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