Major retailers slammed by increasingly violent shoplifters

Shoplifters are dogging a slew of major retailers this holiday season — and they’re becoming increasingly organized and violent.

As big chains including Best Buy, Nordstrom and Kroger grapple with bare shelves, staffing shortages and inflation, they say rampant theft has become a major problem that is not only hurting their bottom line but also terrifying their employees.

Last week, a Nordstrom store in Walnut Creek, Calif. was besieged by dozens of thieves wearing ski masks and carrying crowbars and guns, according to reports. They made off with as much as $200,000 in merchandise. Three employees were injured from pepper spray and assaults, the police said in a statement.

“We are seeing more and more, particularly organized retail crime,” Best Buy Chief Executive Corie Barry said on a call with analysts on Tuesday. “You can see that pressure in our financials. And more importantly, frankly, you can see that pressure with our associates. It’s traumatizing.”  

Organized crime costs retailers $700,000 for every $1 billion in sales, according to a National Retail Federation survey late last year, which also found that 65 percent of retailers said gangs of thieves are showing “greater levels of violence and aggression than they have before,” according to the survey.

A Best Buy with boarded up windows
Best Buy said that like many retailers, rampant shoplifting has hurt its bottom line.
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Only 29 percent of retailers reported an average dollar value loss of $1,000 in 2019, but that number rose to 50 percent in 2020, according to the survey. Among the most common items stolen are designer clothing, laundry detergent, designer handbags, allergy medicine, razors, high-end liquor and pain relievers. 

In last week’s Nordstrom heist in San Francisco, the police arrested two suspects from the melee, one of which had a firearm. “The remaining suspects in this criminal mob fled from the area in cars at high speed,” the police said in a statement.

Some experts blame a 2014 law in San Francisco, which lessened the penalty for shoplifting to a misdemeanor if the theft is less than $950. On Wednesday, nine suspected shoplifters were nabbed in San Francisco for looting a Louis Vuitton store, a cannabis dispensary and a Walgreens store, lifting $1 million worth of goods, according to law enforcement.

A security guard stands outside a Nordstrom store
Retailers say shoplifters have become increasingly violent. San Francisco police arrested two suspects in a heist of a Nordstrom and said one suspect was armed with a gun.

In October, Walgreens said it was closing five drugstores in San Francisco that had experienced high rates of shoplifting, attributing the rash of theft to “organized crime.”

“Organized retail crime continues to be a challenge facing retailers across San Francisco, and we are not immune to that,” Walgreens spokesperson Phil Caruso said at the time. “Retail theft across our San Francisco stores has continued to increase in the past few months to five times our chain average.”

In September, Kroger chief executive Rodney McMullen also called out “organized crime” as contributing to a financial hit to the largest supermarket chain.

A pedestrian walks past a vacant storefront
Some experts blame the increase in shoplifting on changes in laws in some areas that have made shoplifting a misdemeanor if stolen goods are worth less than $1,000.
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“I know Congress and other groups are starting to spend more time on understanding what’s driving [the theft],” McMullen said on a call with analysts. The government is also investigating “the distribution channels for the stolen products,” McMullen said.