What a difference a couple of years makes. In 2020, as the pandemic shut down non-essential businesses and people quarantined, front-line employees in food stores, along with doctors and nurses, were revered by the country as heroes. Not so today. How quickly we’ve lost our shared sense of community. Listen to your natural colleagues as they describe retailing in 2023.
Southeast Retailer: “We are not overly suspicious, and don’t want people to feel we are following them around, targeting them. One woman felt an employee was following her around. She emailed me later to complain. I emailed her back, explaining that we are out in the aisles a lot, straightening shelves, and available for customers, and were not targeting her.
“With my camera system, we can capture video when we identify someone. One stole a bunch of kombuchas and drank them in the store. We posted her photo in back. I told staff to come see me if you see her. A year later she came back in. Employees alerted me, so when she was checking out, I approached her and said, ‘I’ve got something I need to talk to you about,’ explaining we had her on video. ‘You were shoplifting.’ She said, ‘Well, can I pay for it?’ I said, ‘No, you can’t.’ She didn’t live in town, and was embarrassed enough that she hasn’t come back in.
“There was one very well-heeled woman who shopped with us a lot. We found some lower-priced products in boxes that had contained higher-priced products. We checked the cameras for that part of the store, and discovered she was swapping the less expensive product out for the more expensive one. You want to be careful you are not falsely accusing, creating a kerfuffle that reflects poorly on the business. We instructed employees to keep an eye out for this woman. One front line employee I had thought would not be so good at dealing with these situations happened to be at the register when the woman approached, again with a lower-priced box. The employee simply opened the box, without making any accusation, and said, ‘Oh, did you want this, or the product that was originally in this box?’ Of course, the woman said she wanted the less expensive product since saying she wanted the more expensive product would incriminate her. So, there are ways to apprehend shoplifters discreetly. She never came back.”
Midwest Retailer 1: “We just had an incident 10 minutes ago. Our Hydro Flasks were too close to the door. A gentleman picked one up and left. Theft has always been somewhat of an issue, with a big pickup in the last six months. I have no idea why that is, except that people think they can get away with it. In [another state], police aren’t prosecuting. People hear that and think, ‘Well, what the heck?’ It seems that houseless and mentally ill people are a bigger problem than in the past.
“We are struggling to come up with a plan for our staff. Usually, the instruction is for employees to grab one of the managers. We upgraded our camera system during COVID and put in additional cameras. When there has been an incident, we do a quick review of the camera, but it is usually too late to interact with the suspect. But we do print off a picture and send it to every employee. They are instructed not to intervene themselves; to find a manager, which they can do easily. We have banned people that we have asked not to return to either location.
“If we see someone conceal something and leave, we will usually follow and ask them if they want to pay for it. Recently, someone put a large bottle of inositol in his pocket. He bought some other things. At the checkout counter, I asked him to take it out of his pocket and pay for it, and not come back. In another case, Cell Food, a plant oxygen supplement, was disappearing off our shelves. We lost 47 bottles in a year. When I called and told the company, they sent empty bottles for display.
“Another time, we were finding empty Brain Food bottles in our food section. I was finally able to see a gentleman emptying the pills into his cargo pants. I started chasing him, but he ran and got away. The sad thing is, he was someone with PTSD that we had been helping. We were quite connected to him, so it felt hurtful. Sadly, there seems to be a correlation between existing customers that we trust, or know by name, and those who are doing the stealing.
“There has been some group-stealing, with multiple people entering the store with that intention. We have had one person distracting employees with questions, or making a scene, while others in their group load up. When that happens, we have one employee stay with the person causing the scene while other employees fan out to cover the others. The number one stolen item in the store at one time was Boodey, bamboo underwear. In trying to figure it out, we found a camera blind-spot, with an empty Boodey box there.
“We are about to have a big sale. I’m looking to hire an off-duty police officer to be at the door. During our last sale, we had two girls walk in who we had never seen before. Both were very tall, six-foot-five or so, with too many clothes on for the weather. We reviewed the camera, and they had just picked up a bunch of stuff. Also, burkas are turning into the way people hide things. We’re seeing a lot of essential oils under the burka. We want to prosecute, but it’s easier to get the product back and ask them not to return. I don’t know how I would detain them anyway. Often, the employees intentionally talk to each other about our cameras when someone is behaving strangely in the store.”
Northeast Retailer 1: “I’m not really feeling a theft problem here in our first store, and I’m here six days a week, on the floor working the aisles. If people know you’re out there talking, they’ll be deterred. So, I think we’ve kept it at bay. I haven’t noticed organized crime. Our location is a bit out of the way in our shopping center, with the large conventional chain supermarket across the parking lot from us much more visible. Maybe it’s a convenience thing, where the criminal goes where it’s easiest. We’re out of sight, out of mind. Also, with a smaller footprint, our coverage on the floor is pretty good, and it’s pretty hard to hide anywhere and to steal.
“We keep empty boxes of expensive skin care items on the shelf. Some of the smaller stuff more recently seems to be a target. We’ve been finding an empty bottle of Rebel Protein Drink left on the shelf, or we’re finding more wrappers for energy bars. The two- to three-dollar stuff. I think people think to themselves, I bought some other stuff, but I ate this stuff while I was here. For a while, we were finding Farmless Harvest Coconut Water, an $11 bottle, empty in the trash can about eight feet from the cooler where it is stocked. Maybe somebody on their way to the gym pours it into their Hydro Flask, or maybe they drink it in-store. They seem to be justified in thinking, I’ll just guzzle this or eat real fast while I’m here, but I’m going to buy some ground beef. So it’s a hybrid, not just a criminal, but a shopper who feels entitled.
“Both stores have a significant issue with the homeless population. We are having to trespass or remove people napping at the dining table, or setting up camp in back of the store. There’s a lot more traffic of that population outside. They use our bathroom. So, there’s probably some connection to some theft issues, too. That’s more of a big issue. Having to call the police because someone is living in the back of our store, or hanging out in front, or even in the store. It’s more than just straight ahead shoplifting. Panhandlers are stopping traffic in front of the store, stopping everyone. Or now there’s a guy hassling people in the store, and we’re having to deal with that. That’s picked up the last couple of years.
“But the in-store theft is like it has always been. A lot of times a customer will say something like, ‘I set my comb down and somebody took it.’ We’ll review the cameras for them. It’s a bigger deal in the winter, with homeless camping out, using the bathrooms 15 times a day. We’re having to call the police more then.
“Our first store has an older customer base. I know sometimes that sweet old lady who has shopped with us for years is the one stealing stuff. Maybe the customer that buys a lot from us feels they deserve to take something. We are also seeing a sense of entitlement in the staff, with the thinking, You don’t pay me quite enough, so I’m going to take this home. We’ve also had an increase in mispicks from our main wholesalers; 10 boxes that were supposed to go to the supermarket across town. During the pandemic, our wholesaler wasn’t taking anything back, and sometimes doesn’t even now. So, it sits in our back room until we decide what we’re going to do. You come in the next day, and one of the cases has been opened, and some product is gone. I think employees got comfortable with thinking, Well, you didn’t pay for this, so it’s okay for me to take some. That thinking extends to, This is getting close to date, so I’m taking some. It is a creeping justification. And for safety reasons, because we tell the staff not to get involved in intercepting an active criminal, the criminal thinks, Well, no one’s going to come after me. The staff sees that and thinks, Where’s mine? It’s terrible, but understandable.”
New England Retailer: “Theft is complex. We are sympathetic to people who may be stealing for survival. At the same time, we are just one small business, dealing with the constraints of operating in this environment. We know many thieves steal not for economic reasons. There are some very wealthy individuals in our community that steal for other reasons. These are awkward conversations we’ve had, letting them know they are no longer welcome and ushering them out. We’ve engaged local authorities when necessary. The type of thieves that enter our business, we know it is not solely economic, but there can be sociological causes, so we do not make assumptions.
“Maybe some of the recent uptick is driven by general ills affecting people, like addiction. We’ve had some characters doing the stealing. For example, a teacher on ‘loving kindness’ issues turned out to be a chronic thief. We’ve had millionaires stealing from us. We’ve had some tough conversations with customers who we know to be thieves, who’ve been caught on camera multiple times, who’ve put their shopping into their bag and walked out the door. In those cases we’ve made it known they are not welcome. We don’t get into the why of their issue.
“For our overall theft policy, employee safety is first and foremost. It has always been an issue I’ve been hyperconscious of. I think staff is not more fearful because they know we are sensitive to their safety. There are incidents from time to time that throw people off, but overall employees feel safe and protected.
“Since I’ve been managing the business, we have shifted more heavily to employee safety rather than catching thieves. It’s been an evolution for me since taking over. At first, I was shocked and appalled by theft, and personally took it upon myself to approach and engage the suspect, with theft in progress, in some unsafe situations. I’m a bit more cautious now. As society has continued to face increasing challenges, it is too important that our staff stay safe, and that they not engage.
“It is a very fine line when to engage police, realizing that someone may be struggling with mental health and calling the police would put them at risk. So we make sure we identify those who shouldn’t be coming into our store.
“We don’t assume why someone is stealing, including customers. We have some customers who insist on putting shopping into their bag, rather than using a basket, whether we like it or not. We can’t guarantee they are stealing unless they leave the store. We have a no-shopping-into-your-bag policy, and when we see a shopper doing that, we approach and say, ‘Would you like a basket?’ If a customer behaves suspiciously, like skulking into corners, and avoiding contact with employees, we will observe their bag or coat. In that case, the employee is instructed to engage a manager. We will say, ‘We’ve asked you to shop into a basket, and you continue to shop into your personal belongings.’ Then we ask them to leave. If they have left the store with merchandise, we take a video screenshot of their face and post it to our staff. We keep an eye on them and issue a no-trespass warrant.
“There are certain product targets like body care and certain supplements that are stolen and resold. For the wealthy, or those who are comfortable stealing, it is a wide range of products. We don’t ask why or try to determine if they have a compulsion to steal. We do lock up the items that are likely to be stolen. We don’t leave empty boxes or bottles of high-theft items on the shelf because people making a legitimate purchase have inadvertently left with an empty product package after paying for it.
“There is more activity today from the homeless, and mentally ill. Our shopping center is home to a lot of hangouts, unhoused people, and a lot of opioids and related drug activity. Only when an incident has occurred, or is about to, do we engage police. Once, we had to fire a customer. There were a whole host of issues with her. She regularly abused our returns policy, would yell at our staff, would repeatedly call in and order products, then cancel. Generally messing us around and being extremely rude and antagonistic. After several years, we decided, ‘We’re done.’ We sent her a letter telling her we were issuing a no-trespass order and made it explicit. She was most likely not a thief, though was highly manipulative, often lying about things like claiming to be best friends with the owners in order to get special treatment for things not in our policies. She would often create a ruckus, which is a tactic thieves use so people avoid them. Turns out she had done the exact same behavior at another local natural foods store.”
West Coast Retailer: “You never know if what you’re seeing is organized crime. It is targeted. People come in with their bag, make a beeline to the Hydro Flask set, and immediately walk out. Presumably, they can sell it immediately on the street. In our wellness department, the typical situation is someone will arm-swipe and clear a whole shelf in key areas with in-demand supplements. So we are installing Plexiglas doors with padlocks. But when we do that, we’re putting an obstacle in the way of our customers as well. And you have to have someone standing there to open the doors, which adds costs.
“We’ve given the instruction to ask, ‘Can I help you with those products you just put in your purse?’ Employees have walkies, so they can call a manager. In our urban stores we have security, who sometimes work in pairs. The typical scenario is one thief will distract them while their accomplice grabs products and walks out.
“We have more data than we’ve ever had. We can track what is missing from our inventory. We also have cameras, with more people looking at them. But the question is, how many resources do you put into documenting theft? Spending hours reviewing camera footage to find someone stealing from the hot food bar? The cost of the time it takes is more than the cost of the lost product. You just have to let some of this go.
“It’s also harder to manage profit margins in key categories. When margins fall below our guidelines, the buyer will say, ‘That’s because people are stealing from my department.’ It creates an opportunity every time there’s ambiguity.
“Of course, your team has always been your number one source of theft. It’s always from inside the house. Unfortunately, there are more signs of that today, with people taking liberties with inventory. For example, employees can adjust expired product out of inventory. But that can bleed over to adjusting product out even if it’s not expired.
“When we get multiple cases of mispicks intended for stores on our wholesale delivery route, like for the nearby Sprouts, if the distributor says they are not going to pick the product up, and if we are not going to donate it to a food charity, our team is allowed to take those items home. We go back and forth about whether we should stop doing this because of the distorted signal it sends about being okay to take product for free. But we worry about penalizing the many for the few that abuse the privilege.
“Recently, I saw our security team asking a woman to leave the store. At the time, she seemed rational. Turns out, it was her sixth time reentering the store that day, after having smashed the security guard, yelling profanities, spitting on our team, and making racist comments. Shortly after, eight police arrived with rifles drawn—bean-bag shooters with rubber bullets. It was highly unusual that the police had come. One of the security guards had reported the woman had a weapon on premises. I don’t mean to make it sound like constant chaos though, because overall most of our interactions with customers are great.”
Northeast Retailer 2: “A lot of the uptick is ‘justified’ theft. What I mean is, it’s our customers who are justifying stealing. ‘I’ll grab a handful of nuts from the bulk bins on my way to the salad bar for lunch.’ Or they’ll take a taste of the soup on the hot bar, and it ends up being a whole cup. People almost don’t even realize that it’s stealing anymore. They look at our products and think, That’s not yours. I’m going to eat this apple while I shop.
“Supplements are not the biggest issue. It’s pretty specific to bulk foods, prepared foods. They’ll take a muffin or pour a juice. They’ll put soup in a coffee cup, then top it off with coffee, and pay for coffee at the register. Are you kidding me?
“We do speak to customers when we see them stealing. We try not to get staff to engage, but tell them to get a supervisor, to keep it safe, to make sure the language will stay in bounds, and to decide when it’s necessary to call the police. The last year or two, the homeless population has gotten a little out of control. They’ll use the bathroom, use the telephone, use whatever services you have. They think, I’ll get my soup, my muffin.
“For the first time, with the homeless population increase, we’ve had to trespass people, which is something we never had to do two or three years ago. The police issue a yellow trespass strip. People are also soliciting outside the store. That is crafty too. They now accept Venmo. So, they’ll steal a Hydro Flask, take it outside to sell it, and collect payment on Venmo.
“One guy always takes a scoop of trail mix from the bulk bin on the way to get his lunch. I approached him and said, ‘You realize I have to pay for that.’ He responded, ‘How dare you? I’m one of your good customers!’ Just think about the other end of that, we have to pay for that. We are a very entitled community here. It’s not who you would think is doing the stealing. A lot of them are our regular customers. People who are in here all the time, in here for lunch. I do not think it is even computing that this is not acceptable behavior.
“The ages are all over the place, anywhere from young, but also 40 to 60 years old. And not people without money. Some definitely have a lot of money. I don’t know how to reconcile that in my head. It is bad right now. Maybe it’s happening all over the store, but I don’t think so. It is grab and go, lunch food; a huge issue.
“It feels like we are deteriorating as a society and it’s a constant challenge on the floor. It’s sad. Because of the lack of enforcement of petty crime all around the country, people’s attitude seems to be, ‘What are you going to do about it? What are you going to say about it?’ It feels harder these days. We’re just trying to give you a nice place to shop.”
Midwest Retailer 2: “I do believe the majority of the public is honest. So it’s a minority of people doing the stealing. I have yet to have someone I caught stealing become violent. Our instruction to staff is not to engage. They are not being paid to be hurt. They should call the police when they see it. If they think the video is not going to cover it, keep track of the time and description of the crime. There’s not enough penalty for stealing in our area. Police will ticket, issue a citation on the scene, and let them go. The fine is $250, but that doesn’t come back to the store, it’s part of the government.
“We also want to be careful not to assume, or to surveil, to avoid a racial confrontation. An employee wasn’t sure if a customer had stolen something, so didn’t act or call the police. The next day, they checked the video and sure enough, they were stealing. We were able to get the license plate number, and the police issued a citation. We always show up at the hearing, which is not in front of a judge. It is just a community council member. They ask, ‘Are you guilty? And because we are there, they admit guilt and have to pay the fine. They are also no longer allowed to enter any one of our locations. If so, they are trespassed on that second occurrence, fined, and arrested. I believe people are generally good people. Are you hungry? Just ask me next time. Don’t steal from me. I might be willing to help you.
“I have had employees stealing. There’s a lack of understanding that a taste of soup, an ounce of a drink adds up. Instead, they should make and pay for a drink themselves a couple of times a day. I don’t look at my store cameras at home. I don’t want to focus on, Is someone stealing from me today? The answer is, yes. Someone’s trying, thinking about it. It’s not up to me.
“We try to engage each customer, say hello, ask to help, and continue to walk the aisles when they are in the store. We have staff in each department, and their job is to move. Not to surveil, but to deter crime. During George Floyd, it was really negative in our area and unsafe for the staff. I saw people with guns, broken windshields of cars driving by, and mob action. I shut down all our stores. I couldn’t take for granted it wouldn’t spread. I will not hesitate to close the stores if I feel it is unsafe. I think we are beginning to be recognized for that from our employees.
“This is a great country, and I have not lost faith in it. My father was an immigrant with less than $30 in his pocket when he got here. He fled repression, and knew what torture was. I don’t think I would appreciate it if I were not from an immigrant family. This loss of faith is happening in our stores and communities. The only way to stop it is to stop being part of all this negativity. Stop paying attention to social media. People aren’t mindful of the positive things. I saw an employee with a scowl on her face. I said, ‘I haven’t seen you smile in several days. What’s going right in your life?’ She hesitated. Everything they have filled their life with on their phone is negative. I said, ‘Do you want to share?’ She said no. I said, ‘Put your phone away for a week. If you need some support, I’m your guy.’”
Northeast Retailer 3: “Theft is a complete nightmare. We have unfettered crime and theft going on in all our stores. We’ve hired private security, our security costs are exploding, and the police won’t do anything. Our state attorneys are into social justice. I don’t know what the solutions are. People with political power don’t have the political will. No politician wants to be brave and stick their neck out. It’s confusing for us. Social values and political beliefs intersect with these crime issues. You can believe that people that are drug addicts and are victims and need help and support. But should they be able to steal at will? We have no bail laws. State attorneys are on a crusade to get elected to higher office and don’t give a s__t.
“All our stores have cameras, which were the number one crime deterrent up until a year ago. We’ve done extensive work with loss-prevention services and understand the two types of crime: crimes of opportunity, and organized crime. Opportunity crimes make up 80%. High school girls stealing makeup, a kid putting a steak in his pocket, or stealing beer. Cameras deter that crime. Organized crime is by sophisticated criminals, who can get around cameras.
“But with the proliferation of the homeless, and the current bail laws, even opportunity crimes have gone up because everyone knows there’s no repercussions. That shopping cart full of products that’s just walking out, we let it walk out. That’s why we’ve hired private security. The cops won’t come. They won’t say, ‘We’ll be on our way.’ Or they say they are understaffed. The state attorney won’t prosecute theft under $1,000.
“Our staff is definitely more nervous. Criminals have needles and weapons on them. These are definitely new retail frontiers. For front-line employees, these are things you didn’t expect when you signed up to make $16 per hour. With theft-in-progress we observe, we don’t confront. We get security, or call the police, or let them do their thing. It’s just too dangerous. And it’s trending in the wrong direction. But, so far, it has not impacted new applications for work or our ability to retain employees.”
Southern Retailer: “We try to keep our inventory up to date. I’m sure people have stolen from us over the years, but it is not a very big problem for us. We have a very small square footage sales floor and sell mostly supplements. Maybe we’re naïve and trusting a bit too much, and maybe we’ve been taken advantage of. The one situation we really try to catch is people trying to return stuff without a receipt. Sometimes people are stressed out and make an honest mistake. Sometimes the sticker is from another store.
“We have the point-of-sale system in place now and we will look you up, to see if you bought it within the time frame for returning things. When it is outside those parameters, we’ll go ahead and do it, but with a stern warning. If they return a lot or aren’t a regular customer, we’ll put a note in their file for the next time. We’ve never taken it so far as to have called the police. We may let that bottle walk out. Lots of times, people doing the stealing buy something with it anyway.
“But we have another problem: the people that take the most, ‘Did I forget to take it out of inventory when I took it for myself?’ Or did our owner give a product away to a customer without recording it?” WF
"Theft is complex. We are sympathetic to people who may be stealing for survival...The type of thieves that enter our business, we know it is not solely economic, but there can be sociological causes, so we do not make assumptions."
-–New England Retailer
"It’s not who you would think is doing the stealing. A lot of them are regular customers. I do not think it is even computing that this is not acceptable behavior."
—Northwest Retailer 2