Retailers Are Blaming The Internet For A Retail Theft Surge That Might Not Be Happening; Media Is Helping Them Out

from the oh-look,-that-again dept

It’s becoming quite a theme: basically every industry is blaming the internet for anything wrong happening in their industry and the legacy media is more than willing to help out. The latest is the supposed “surge” in shoplifting and retail crime. You’ve probably seen the stories, and maybe the shaky video coverage of the big smash and grab runs at some big San Francisco stores. This is being leveraged by those retailers in a variety of ways, including in a push to roll back policing reforms, but also to attack the internet. We’ve talked about the problems of the INFORM Act, which is being pushed heavily by large retailers. If you read that letter (sent to Congressional leaders by a bunch of big retailers), it uses those stories of theft to say we need to pass new regulations about internet sales:

As millions of Americans have undoubtedly seen on the news in recent weeks and months, retail establishments of all kinds have seen a significant uptick in organized crime in communities across the nation. While we constantly invest in people, policies, and innovative technology to deter theft, criminals are capitalizing on the anonymity of the Internet and the failure of certain marketplaces to verify their sellers. This trend has made retail businesses a target for increasing theft, hurt legitimate businesses who are forced to compete against unscrupulous sellers, and has greatly increased consumer exposure to unsafe and dangerous counterfeit products.

Of course, if someone takes the time to actually dig into the statistics, it appears that the holiday shoplifting surge narrative mostly falls apart. Obviously, there has been some theft (and a few of those dramatic flash mob style smash and grab jobs), but the data suggests crime continues to mostly fall.

Recent news stories describe a shoplifting surge, but this narrative conflates an array of very different offenses into a single crime wave said to be cresting right now, all over the country, in a frenzy of naked avarice and shocking violence. Smash-and-grabs are awful, but they?re pretty rare (and already very much felonies). Nevertheless, a handful of viral videos and some troubling statistics from retailers and industry groups have set Americans on edge during the year?s most economically essential shopping season, wondering if the mall where they buy their Christmas presents might be next. The deeper you search for real, objective evidence of an accelerating retail crime wave, the more difficult it is to be sure that you know anything at all.

[….]

The first indicator that the theft-wave narrative may not hold water is that stories about it tend to garble terms and numbers. They pair broad statistics about the commonness of shoplifting or larceny of any kind with lurid descriptions of brazen armed robberies (which aren?t included in any shoplifting stats, because they are a different crime entirely) to illustrate a narrowly defined problem: organized retail crime. This is identified as repetitive, mostly nonconfrontational theft for profit, whose perpetrators strive to evade detection and keep each theft strategically below local dollar thresholds for felony larceny. Misdemeanors don?t attract law-enforcement attention, the theory goes, so criminals are able to strike again and again and flip their hauls to fences, who consolidate millions of dollars of stolen goods into inventory for online storefronts, where Amazon and Etsy and eBay shield them from detection and punishment.

And, indeed, the actual stats showed a decrease, and while they don’t cover recent months, the author notes, if there is an actual surge, it might be because of this stupid moral panic narrative that’s making the rounds making it sound like everyone is doing it:

So far, this dynamic holds true for much of the country, according to FBI statistics. In 2020, the most recent year for which data are available, reports of robbery and larceny fell off a cliff. If we see a big jump in the near future, especially in violent smash-and-grabs, it?s worth asking how much the recent media attention itself contributed to the spike. Research has shown that sensational news coverage can influence potential offenders to adopt highly publicized tactics in copycat crimes.

Of course, it’s convenient for retailers to play up these theft stories, because if it leads to laws getting passed that bog down internet retailers, why they just clear a path for these brick-and-mortar stores who haven’t adapted to the internet as well.

In fact, as that Atlantic piece by Amanda Mull notes, the National Retail Federation’s own survey numbers show that theft really isn’t that big of a deal:

Consider ?shrink.? That?s the term retailers use to describe inventory losses from any cause?shoplifting, sloppy checkout practices, shipping errors, warehouse mistakes, or simple misplacement?usually expressed as a percentage of total sales. It can be very difficult for stores to determine how any particular piece of inventory was lost, so they are forced to estimate how much different kinds of losses contribute to their bottom line. In both 2019 and 2020, annual surveys of NRF members pegged the industry?s average overall shrink rate at 1.6 percent?for every $100 in sales, an average of $1.60 in inventory was lost. The NRF?s estimate of how much organized retail crime contributes to shrink is $700,000 for every $1 billion in sales, or $0.07 for every $100. Even by the estimates of groups lobbying lawmakers and the public to take the problem seriously, these types of crimes account for a tiny proportion of overall losses, on average. Paperwork errors and self-checkout machines are both far graver threats to inventory management.

But, that’s not stopping the retailers from using the narrative that is happily being pushed by the legacy media (possibly inspiring more such theft), as an excuse to try to pass more laws to hinder the internet. Can’t let a good false narrative go to waste, I guess.

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Comments on “Retailers Are Blaming The Internet For A Retail Theft Surge That Might Not Be Happening; Media Is Helping Them Out”

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29 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Paperwork errors and self-checkout machines are both far graver threats to inventory management.

Self checkout machines as a threat to inventory management… How very interesting, then, that stores haven’t discontinued using them. Either they aren’t keeping good track of their increased losses through these, or they’ve factored the losses in and find that even with the losses, it is still cheaper than having the additional checker on staff.

Of course, the self checkout issue was mentioned by the Atlantic author, not the retail industry themselves, so there is that.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

they’ve factored the losses in and find that even with the losses, it is still cheaper than having the additional checker on staff.

The Wal-Mart near me apparently pays an employee to just stand near the staffed checkout lines and tell people that maybe it would be quicker to use the self-checkout. (This new large "supercenter" was built with only 4 staffed lines, and I’ve never seen more than 2 open.)

So, of course they save money. My not going there anymore also helps them reduce their staff expenses.

Anonymous Coward says:

Abolishing online anonymity won’t do a damn thing… unless robust identity is actually enacted. But it won’t, as that allows various flacks to keep doing their work, so these talking points just serve the purpose of "anonymity hurts the people" messaging.

Anonymity allows marginalised people to talk freely. Yes, there will be people who abuse that, but that’s already a factor of the named world.

And removing anonymity won’t prevent bad actors. Those people can still steal identities and masquerade under them, but those that need the anonymity can’t.

Anonymous Coward says:

In New York City it is real

Okay I don’t know about the rest of the country but it is real in New York City for sure. I have lived here all my life, I never actually saw people brazenly ripping off stores until last year.
I don’t blame them, I see these people they are on the fringes of society. Its not really like they have much of a choice, I see people steal high value items, but its mostly like food or liquor honestly.
The idea that the internet is influencing these people is ludicrous though.

Anonymous Coward says:

In New York City it is real

Okay I don’t know about the rest of the country but it is real in New York City for sure. I have lived here all my life, I never actually saw people brazenly ripping off stores until last year.
I don’t blame them, I see these people they are on the fringes of society. Its not really like they have much of a choice, I see people steal high value items, but its mostly like food or liquor honestly.
The idea that the internet is influencing these people is ludicrous though.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
sumgai (profile) says:

Re: In New York City it is real

AC, your observations about the influence of the internet are correct as far as they go, but there is one factor you didn’t mention, and it’s the driving force behind the retailers’ lament – prices.

The retailers don’t care if an online store is defrauded (unless it’s an arm of their own brand), but what they’re upset about is that anyone can see an item for less money at Amazon, eBay, etc. In turn, they can easily come to feel that the brick-and-mortar store is ripping them off. At that moment, they think "tit for tat", and the rest is a news story, with film at 11. And a contribution to the pile of statistics that are at the core of this thread.

I am compelled to remind everyone that there 3 kinds of falsehoods – lies, damned lies, and statistics. 😉

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: In New York City it is real

"I have lived here all my life, I never actually saw people brazenly ripping off stores until last year"

That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, though. Until this year I didn’t see someone actually die in front of me, but that didn’t mean people were immortal before I witnessed it.

"The idea that the internet is influencing these people is ludicrous though."

There is an argument that people have become more desperate in recent times and that’s led them to be more persuaded by online media that makes them think it’s easier to get away with such things. But, I think there’s way more evidence needed before we can even correlate such things, let alone come up with a causal link. The article seems to suggest that no such thing is happening anyway.

ECA (profile) says:

Isnt this

The idea that, at 1 time, agencies(newspapers and police and companies did this in the past) would hire a group to instigate something, so as the police could be called.
Have a Safe simple Union picket line, and SOME idiot would throw a brick at something and Run off. Then the police are called and Break it up by Breaking heads?
Then you can find Newspapers that print WRONG info, to get things to happen, when NOTHING HAPPENED. Or Racist cartoons and Claims that have no basis.

https://history.state.gov/milestones/1866-1898/yellow-journalism

cattress (profile) says:

Re: Isnt this

I suspect that police know more about some of the high profile smash and grabs, possibly even some involvement, than their investigations reveal. And I think it is for a similar purpose, to essentially generate demand for themselves, and reverse the paltry reforms and accountability measures. If people get hurt, have their business destroyed, face losing the few remaining employers in the area, they will want to pay lots for police, buy then anything they say they need, and will be so grateful that they will happily go back to turning a blind eye to brutality.
I mean, haven’t the feds arrested nearly 800 people for 1/6, and some how 80 or so flash mob of burglars hasn’t been caught? No record of their planning something, nothing leaked or released to the media?
Or maybe some of that was organized by the stores themselves, doubt they give a shit about knocking out a couple of lowly retail workers if they can stick it to online retailers.
It all looks pretty sus to me.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I suspect that police know more about some of the high profile smash and grabs, possibly even some involvement, than their investigations reveal. And I think it is for a similar purpose, to essentially generate demand for themselves, and reverse the paltry reforms and accountability measures. If people get hurt, have their business destroyed, face losing the few remaining employers in the area, they will want to pay lots for police, buy then anything they say they need, and will be so grateful that they will happily go back to turning a blind eye to brutality.

That sounds an awful lot like the cops are running a protection racket.

Anonymous Coward says:

Wasn’t a major criticism of online retail the idea that online retail can boast cheaper prices, thereby putting brick-and-mortar stores out of business? And now they’re claiming that suddenly online retail is now such a lucrative moneymaker that it’s facilitating a crime wave of shoplifting because people are leveraging the higher markup of online stores? Seriously? That’s an argument so bad I get the feeling John "Defame Lawyers with Section 230" Smith came up with it…

ECA (profile) says:

Re: Re:

best part.
Is online stores Should have more employees then the Local ones.
Its total shipping, Handling, and receiving.

Goto Amazon and look up Lava soap.
Amazon is fronting for allot of people. And Lava soap got hit hard, as Local stores Stopped selling it. Prices around $6 per bar is ridiculous. I even sent a note to Amazon about it. Best prices require you to buy 24/48 bars at $2 per bar.
I even sent a note to the maker of Lava soap about it and they say they have no control over retail prices. and they Link to tons of sites that Over price it. Wonder how much I would need to buy to get wholesale?

This comment has been deemed funny by the community.
That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

"because of this stupid moral panic narrative"

Before we let them try to tackle a new evil in the world, how about we make them fix a much longer running problem that is more dangerous?
Tampered Halloween Candy.
We do not have enough verification that some makers are not slipping oxys into some snacks with counterfeit labels!!
I mean I was checking my imaginary childs candy and found a fully loaded AR-15 hidden in a hersey’s bar!!!

Why focus on these retailers when they aren’t doing enough to protect our children!!!!!!!

Anonymous Coward says:

can someone explain to my poor, demented brain, how i am able to physically shoplift an item, any item, out of a store using my internet connection? i appreciate that i might be able to tell a company to reserve an item or even post an item to me but that involves, as far as i know, people and physical acts, like picking something off a shelf, for example. how can my internet connection reach into a store, go to a certain part of that store and literally pick an item off the shelf and put in my mailbox? i didn’t even realise that an internet connection had the means to hold something!

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Robbing peter to restock paul.

Bad people steal the merch & then sell it to a fence who then sells it to someone else who then opens an ebay account and boom 42 trillion dollars in lost profits.

Which is why we need all of these super tighter restrictions on online marketplaces so maybe we can make it harder for people to shop online and magically brick & mortar retail will be saved.

edinjapan (profile) says:

Heh heh heheh

Dear Mr. Brick n Mortar Storeowner,

Thank you for keeping me and my crew in business. Why just yesterday we hit your store and according to your police report did a million dollars worth of damage and stole 5 million dollars of merch. Wow! Exaggerate much? It makes my heart feel good seeing upright citizens such as yourself lying to the police just to make a quick buck.

Sure, I admit we busted your window, broke you alarm system, smashed door to your storage room and stole a one hundred percent mohair rug, a lizardskin Barcalounger with Magic Fingers, a Garard Turntable with a Pickering Cartridge, Bogen Amplifier, Jensen Speakers, Revox Tape Recorder and a Stromberg-Carlson AM FM Tuner, a mint leather-bound collection of every playboy magazine, featuring the entire Playboy Philosophy by Hugh M. Heffner, a copy of The Whole Earth Catalogue, a first edition copy of Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, The Trilogy of the Rings, all four volumes of the teachings of Don Juan and the fifth in manuscript, The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran…autographed, the entire collection of Spiderman and Fantastic Four comic books – featuring Dr. Doom, some Zap comic books with the pages stuck together, extra-wide cigarette papers featuring the visage of a former vice president of the United States, some very suspicious looking Baggies full of weed and a great big Olympic sized thermally heated el mondo grosso waterbed with satin sheets, pink pillowcases and a fox fur bed spread, terrorized your customers, caused a Karen to have a stroke and frightened a pregnant woman so badly she gave birth to quintuplets.

A guy has gotta put food on the table, ya know.

But, seriously I have to thank you. It’s really hard to rob an online store. Knocking over an operation like yours is a like a walk in the park.

Best regards from the Smash and Grab Crew

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