Retailers say shoplifting is a $100B problem. Not everyone is convinced.

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

Photo illustration: Ricardo Tomás for Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (2)
Photo illustration: Ricardo Tomás for Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (2)

What’s happening

Earlier this week, athletic supply store Dick’s Sporting Goods became the latest retail giant to say that a spike in shoplifting had seriously hurt its bottom line. The company saw its stock price tumble on Tuesday after reporting smaller-than-expected profits, which executives blamed on a surge of retail theft in its stores across the country.

Over the past year, many of the biggest brick-and-mortar retailers in the U.S. — including Walmart, Home Depot, Dollar Tree and Rite Aid — have said that shoplifting has put a major dent in their earnings. In May, Target said it expects to lose as much as $500 million in profit from lost inventory, driven mostly by an uptick in retail crime.

Retail stores have always had to account for “shrink,” an industry term that describes the combined lost income from merchandise that is damaged, lost, stolen or never sold for some other reason. But according to the National Retail Federation, shrink costs have skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic, totaling almost $100 billion in losses across the industry in 2021 alone. The main cause of the increase, the federation says, is the growth of organized retail crime — theft carried out by coordinated groups rather than individuals.

In response, many companies have spent more on security and placed frequently stolen items behind plastic barriers. Some retailers have also closed locations that have been especially burdened by shoplifting.

Why there’s debate

As with any issue involving crime, there are strong partisan divisions over how to curb the retail theft surge.

Conservatives generally argue that cities need to empower law enforcement to take a stronger stand against shoplifting, both by increasing the resources available to police and by imposing harsh new penalties on serial shoplifters. Many also call for Democrat-run urban areas to roll back “soft on crime” policies like bail reform, which they say allows repeat offenders to stay on the streets.

Many liberals, on the other hand, say cracking down on individual thieves does nothing to fix the underlying reasons for why retail crime is up. They argue that the real solution is to target the online shops that have allowed the market for stolen goods to become so large and profitable, while also addressing societal factors like poverty and addiction that cause people to turn to crime.

Skeptics say there’s strong reason to doubt that the supposed shoplifting surge is even real. They point out that the only data to support the idea comes from retailers themselves, who have a strong financial incentive to blame underperformance on theft rather than mismanagement or poor business strategy.

What’s next

A new nationwide law aimed at cracking down on online sales of stolen goods went into effect in June, and more legislation may be on the way. A bill that would allow the Department of Homeland Security to establish an investigative division solely dedicated to combating organized retail crime was introduced in both houses of Congress earlier this year.


Tougher penalties are needed to keep the worst offenders off the streets

“While there’s nothing wrong with trying to address root causes to stop people from becoming shoplifters in the first place, in the here and now, there must be swift, sure consequences for chronic law-breakers, whether they’re individuals or functionaries of organized crime syndicates. Get them out of circulation so they can stop victimizing others.” — Editorial, Daily News

There’s really no way to know for sure whether retail theft has actually gotten worse

“Whether the crisis is real or the continuation of a long-standing trend remains up for debate. Every generation goes through a shoplifting panic, and comprehensive data on this frequently unreported crime is nearly impossible to come by.” — James D. Walsh, Curbed

Overreacting to retail theft means more vulnerable people will be chewed up by the criminal justice system

“The panic over retail theft offers a real-time look at the making of American crime policy. In the absence of reliable data, and in response to perceptions of lawlessness, legislators have doubled down on punitive policies.” — Nicole Lewis, Marshall Project

Big businesses, not individuals, are causing the shoplifting surge

“Companies like Amazon … make billions of dollars each year from the sale of illicit goods on their platforms. If lawmakers dared to stand up to online retailers, they could go after the real kingpins — not the people stealing deodorant just to get by.” — Ethan Corey, Appeal

Voters must stop trusting weak Democrats to run America’s cities

“The costs of this runaway theft include higher prices for consumers. But worse is a widening culture of disorder and disdain for the law and the rules of a civilized society. All of this will get worse until voters stop tolerating the politicians who indulge criminals.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal

Shoplifting is a symptom of much more challenging problems

“It’s unclear if beefed-up security measures are actually helping to solve these problems. And without addressing socioeconomic conditions such as inflation, poverty and opportunity deficits, the help they do provide serves merely as a Band-Aid.” — Stacy Torres, Los Angeles Times

Blaming theft is a convenient way to cover up for poor management

“It is a problem, we know that, it does take money off margins, we know that, but there’s too much opacity in the way in which it’s reported and it is being partly used as an excuse for generally bad performance.” — Neil Saunders, retail data analyst, to CNBC

Photo illustration: Ricardo Tomás for Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (2)