New York (CNN) — There’s been much handwringing over the scourge of shoplifting in America since 2020. To hear some retailers and politicians tell it, retail crime is out of control across the country.
The trouble with that story is, it’s not accurate.
To be clear, theft is happening, as it always has, in stores and on the streets. But the narrative that shoplifting has exploded since the start of the pandemic is unfounded.
In reality, retail crime has not meaningfully gone up nationwide in the past few years, and it has even gone down in many places.
A study released last month, drawing on police data, found that shoplifting reports were 16 percent higher in the first half of 2023 compared with 2019. But, critically, if you exclude New York City’s stats, the number of shoplifting incidents fell 7 percent, or about 2,550 fewer than in 2019, according to the Council on Criminal Justice, which conducted the study.
Overall, the study found, shoplifting generally followed the same patterns as other theft, excluding car theft, over the past five years. Shoplifting remained below pre-pandemic levels through 2022.
Even the National Retail Federation, the primary lobbying group for the retail industry, is acknowledging past reports have been inflated and retracting a key point in one of its widely cited reports about retail crime. (These industry reports are frequently cited by lawmakers, journalists and others about retail crime.)
The report initially blamed organized retail crime for “nearly half” of all inventory losses in 2021. But the text has now been updated to remove that “nearly half” claim, because it turns out it wasn’t based on any data or research.
The inaccurate claim was “an inference” made by an analyst linking results of an NRF survey from 2021 with testimony from a retail security expert, an NRF spokesperson said in a statement.
The spokesperson added that the NRF stands behind the “widely understood fact that organized retail crime is a serious problem. … At the same time, we recognize the challenges the retail industry and law enforcement have with gathering and analyzing an accurate and agreed-upon set of data.”
Major retailers like Target, Dick’s and Walgreens have cited rising theft as a drag on their bottom lines in recent earnings calls. (Walgreens, for its part, later walked the complaint back, with its finance chief telling investors in January that “maybe we cried too much” about shoplifting.)
The loss of inventory, known as “shrink,” is certainly a drag on profitability. But external theft, according to the NRF’s latest survey of retailers, accounts for about 36 percent of overall shrink — about the same as the years leading up to the pandemic. That was only slightly higher than the shrink attributed to employee theft (29 percent) and good old fashioned losses due to mishandling or loss of goods (27 percent).
Retail theft, which includes but isn’t limited to shoplifting, is notoriously difficult to measure. That’s the stats aren’t tracked at the federal level, said Alex Piquero, a professor of criminology and sociology at the University of Miami.
“There’s shoplifting. And then there’s larceny. And then there’s vandalism. But there’s nothing that says, retail theft is X amount in terms of how many there are around the United States,” Piquero said. “It’s unsatisfying that we don’t know the answer.”
However, if you look only at shoplifting data, which is tracked by the FBI, he said, the number of incidents is much lower now than it was five to 10 years ago.
In aggregate, “the United States’ shoplifting hasn’t changed too much,” Piquero says. “There are pockets are of real increases in certain cities, but the national trend is pretty flat.”
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Video Source: Advocate Channel