People have been stealing from retailers for as long as there have been retailers, but the pandemic, along with a shift in organized theft, intensified things.
Incidents of organized retail crime have increased across the country, according to the National Retail Federation, with retailers struggling to stop stolen goods from being sold online. Amid the pandemic, high inflation, staffing shortages and more, organized retail crime is costing businesses more than $700,000 for every $1 billion in sales, according to the organization.
“Yes, some Delaware retailers report a rise in theft, but not all,” said Michael J. Quaranta, Delaware State Chamber of Commerce president. “Theft is a long-standing concern in retail and impacts some more than others. Some stores report greater than average theft over the past couple of years, while others see little change.”
Over the past few years, the number of organized retail crime incidents investigated by Delaware State Police were at their highest in 2016 and 2017, according to data provided by Cpl. Leonard DeMalto. Those numbers include only investigations within state police jurisdiction, and not within cities such as Dover or Wilmington.
The Delaware Code defines organized crime as theft “in quantities that would not normally be purchased for personal use or consumption,” with the intent to resell. It has the effect of hurting innocent consumers when retailers are forced to raise prices to make up for the losses.
It’s not something most retailers are open to chatting about. About a dozen Delaware retail stores declined to comment on the matter when contacted by Delaware Online, though several confirmed they are seeing an increase in organized retail crime. The incidents are often only known to the public if police call attention to them.
|Organized Retail Thefts in DelawareYear||Incidents|
|2022 (as of July 18)||41|
Earlier this year, state police conducted proactive patrols at Tanger Outlets in Rehoboth Beach because “numerous outlet stores have experienced shopliftings where three or four female suspects have stolen thousands of dollars worth of merchandise,” the agency said in March.
Those patrols resulted in four Baltimore-area women being charged with organized retail crime in which more than $1,500 worth of merchandise was stolen, among other offenses. One of them was linked to robberies at three other Tanger stores (the Gap, Victoria’s Secret and Under Armour) in which more than $11,000 in merchandise was stolen, according to police
Also at Tanger, this month a yet-to-be-identified person entered the Fragrance Hut and “gathered numerous bottles of cologne” of an unknown value, police said. When confronted by an employee, they displayed a can of pepper spray and left with the stolen items. No arrests have been made.
It’s not just the outlets suffering from organized retail crime, though. DeMalto said most of the incidents state police deal with occur in New Castle County.
Between November 2020 and January 2021, a Newark man stole cigarettes from numerous businesses, with police ultimately tying him to 22 incidents. He was charged with five counts of organized retail crime in which over $1,500 worth of merchandise was stolen, among other offenses.
In 2019, state police investigated a nine-state theft ring that targeted Nordstrom stores, including an incident in Christiana in which over $4,000 in merchandise was stolen.
In Kent County, the Dover Police Department investigated an incident in which five men stole $12,000 worth of Apple display products from Best Buy in December 2020. In November 2019, three Brooklyn men were charged with organized retail crime after police said they stole nearly $74,000 in Apple products from Target in Dover, then attempted to do the same at Target in Christiana.
And earlier this month, just south of the state line in West Ocean City, two women spent 10 minutes in an Ulta Beauty filling bags with more than $6,000 worth of products before leaving the store, according to the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office. There have been no arrests.
The state Chamber of Commerce’s Quaranta pointed to staffing challenges as a cause for the rise in thefts.
“With fewer ‘eyes’ on would-be thieves, that’s only served to embolden those intent on shoplifting. Unfortunately, honest customers cover the losses incurred in the form of higher prices,” he said.
Staffing challenges are affecting all industries, including police, according to Quaranta.
“Our nation is experiencing a very predictable rate of retirements. About 10,000 people a day become retirement eligible in the United States. This is a trend that will not level off until 2029. Demographers predicted this decades ago as the baby boom generation began getting closer retirement,” he said. “Therefore, when crimes are committed and we have fewer law enforcement officers, that leads to prioritization, with more serious crimes, logically, getting the limited resources and attention.”
Those challenges, alongside economic strife and the pandemic, have made the loss prevention field “more complex and more costly than ever,” the National Retail Federation’s 2021 Retail Security Survey found.
Walgreens has 26 stores in Delaware. The company is “taking a multifaceted approach to theft and organized retail crime,” according to spokesperson Kris Lathan. That includes creating a major crime unit “comprised of team members with strong acumen in law enforcement” to provide intelligence and assistance to police when crime occurs.
Walmart, with more than 5,000 stores and clubs nationwide and at least 10 in Delaware, also “works closely” with law enforcement, according to spokesman Charles Crowson.
“We take the protection of our assets seriously,” Crowson said. “For obvious security reasons, we cannot discuss the specifics of store security policies. However, we have numerous programs in place to address shoplifting, including improved technology and associates in place to reduce crime in our stores.”
Technology and “secured product displays” are things more Delaware retailers are considering, according to Quaranta.
“No retailer is immune from theft,” he said. “Some, however, are better suited to mitigate losses from theft because of higher levels of staffing, store layout, products behind locked displays, security systems and more.”
Threats to employees, consumers
When asked what loss prevention-related areas have increased in priority over the last five years, the top answer participating retailers gave was mall and store-related violence, followed by cyber-related incidents and organized retail crime.
As the Fragrance Hut suspect did, organized retail crime perpetrators “have been reported to use Mace chemical spray and Taser stun guns,” the federation said.
A Dover Macy’s employee was sprayed with pepper spray in 2019 while attempting to stop a theft by four females placing items into bags.
“Cyber-related incidents,” which go hand-in-hand with organized retail crime, refer mainly to stolen items being sold online on platforms such as Amazon and eBay. Retail groups are advocating for federal laws to address these issues.
“No federal law prevents this type of activity. That leaves prosecutions — if they do occur — in a patchwork of local jurisdictions, even though the crimes are typically multi-jurisdictional and multi-state,” the federation’s 2021 Retail Security Survey found.
Designer clothes are the most-stolen items in organized retail crime, according to the federation. But other targeted items, such as baby formula and medication, come with real dangers to the consumer. Stolen items have no guarantee when it comes to contamination.
Stolen items often come with one or more red flag. Here are a few things to look out for when shopping online:
- Super-low prices. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
- Questionable payment methods. Never pay for an item with an untraceable method such as a wire transfer.
- Lack of details. Verified sellers will include detailed descriptions of their products.
- Anonymous sellers or sellers without contact information.
- Bad ratings and reviews or a lack of ratings and reviews.