The death of traditional brick-and-mortar stores has been prematurely announced for decades. Despite the convenience of online shopping, the tactile experience of in-person shopping remains popular.

And that might continue indefinitely, unless the experience becomes too dangerous.

The National Retail Foundation recently released an estimate that stores lost about $94.5 billion in revenue in 2021 through shoplifting, much of which was organized and tied to larger criminal enterprises, including human trafficking. That represents 1.3% of retail revenue.

The foundation said the 2019 pre-Covid loss was $61.7 billion, and the 2018 figure was $50.6 billion.

Some of today’s shoplifting takes place as smash and grab operations that involve several people attacking a store quickly in broad daylight.

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Utah experienced a shocking example of this in November as four people entered an Apple Station Park in Farmington a little after 10 a.m. and, in about 38 seconds, escaped with large quantities of smartphones, tablets and laptops, while customers watched in disbelief. They escaped in a car police said had stolen license plates. 

These thefts are dangerous to store workers and the public. The New York Post reported that an 83-year-old man died in a North Carolina Home Depot when he confronted a shoplifter, who pushed him to the ground. The man was an employee of the store. The Post also reported that a Rite Aid employee died in 2021 while trying to stop a shoplifter at a store in Los Angeles. 

The West Virginia Metro News reported that, a few years ago, a woman suffered injuries when a fleeing shoplifter knocked her and her shopping cart over.

Business Insider reports that some stores are putting more products behind locked showcases. Others, such as Home Depot, sell power tools that won’t work unless activated by store employees at checkout. 

The trouble is, many shoppers don’t like these inconveniences, and that may drive them to online shopping, instead.

But experts say the items stolen in these large-scale shoplifting incidents tend to end up for sale online. And, eventually, the thefts will lead to greater inflation, as stores raise prices to cover their losses. The Wall Street Journal editorial board recently referred to this as the shoplifting tax, noting it “is rooted in a lack of enforcement.” In many communities, police view these crimes as low priorities, and stores have difficulty monitoring customers because the current labor shortage has left them shorthanded. 

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President Biden just signed into law the INFORM Consumers Act, as part of the giant omnibus spending bill. This law, supported by a wide range of retailers, requires online marketplaces to verify third-party sellers who trade in a high volume of products, and to disclose basic information on these sellers to shoppers and law enforcement. 

Ben Dugan, president of the Coalition of Law Enforcement and Retail, told that the industry is committed to the safety of workers and shoppers. “But criminals’ ability to sell merchandise by way of e-commerce sites has made this increasingly difficult,” he said. “The INFORM Consumers Act will establish robust consumer safeguards and equip law enforcement with the tools they need to crack down on illicit activity.”

Whether that really happens remains to be seen. 

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Tough economic times generally lead to an uptick in crimes, such as shoplifting, but that doesn’t necessarily fit today’s economy. The nation is not in recession. Jobs remain plentiful, and while inflation is persistent, consumer spending remained high through the end of 2022. This may change in 2023, but it doesn’t explain the current trend. 

The Wall Street Journal may be right when it argues that law enforcement, whether through police departments or store security, is to blame. Certainly, many criminals and criminal gangs feel a freedom to act with impunity without fear of getting caught and punished. 

But the problem is bigger than just shoplifting. If larger, heinous organized crime efforts are the real aim, that will take a larger, more concerted effort by law enforcement, perhaps on the federal level.

One thing is certain, the amount of money being stolen, and the danger to consumers, cannot continue to grow at its current pace. It would mean the real end to in-person shopping and a serious blow to consumer confidence at a time when the economy might need the opposite more than ever.

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