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Myth vs. Reality: Trends in Retail Theft

Despite spikes in some cities, crime data doesn’t show a nationwide increase in shoplifting and other forms of retail theft.

Published: March 7, 2024
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Violent crime has declined nationally since jumping in 2020, but trends in retail theft are more difficult to assess, in part because of varying data collection and theft reporting methods. That said, the available crime data and industry figures cut against claims of a national increase in retail theft, despite notable spikes in some cities.

Regardless, policymakers must take concerns about retail theft seriously. Disturbing stories about empty shelves and smash-and-grab burglaries dominate the headlines. The effects of retail theft are also highly visible, impacting people’s perceptions of safety. In some places, customers in grocery stores and pharmacies must navigate a proliferation of anti-theft measures, with basic items such as toothpaste and shampoo held under lock and key. But responding requires a better understanding of the data — and the careful separation of myth from reality. Here is what we know about recent trends in retail theft.  

Definitions matter.

Policymakers and business leaders use a variety of terms when talking about retail theft. The first and most common is shoplifting, which generally refers to an individual instance of small-scale theft for personal gain. Another more recent concern is organized retail theft. The National Retail Federation defines organized retail crime as coordinated, “professional” theft of merchandise, usually involving more than one person, for the purpose of reselling items on the black market for financial gain. While at least 30 states have specific statutes targeting organized retail crime, the definitions vary widely.

Legally, both of these offenses fall under the definition of larceny. Crimes of this type are typically graded by severity, with petit larceny often encompassing small-dollar theft that would be prosecuted as a misdemeanor, and grand larceny entailing a larger dollar value and felony prosecution. In this piece, we use retail theft as a catchall that encompasses both types of crime.

Last, the retail industry uses the term shrink to describe the value of merchandise that disappears from stores for any reason, including employee and external theft, damage, and inventory tracking mistakes. Importantly, shrink and retail theft are not interchangeable terms — even though retailers, policymakers, and law enforcement agencies increasingly use shrink as a stand-in term for retail theft. 

The data does not show a national increase in larceny, including shoplifting.  

The most complete data set on national crime trends published by the FBI does not currently distinguish between shoplifting, retail theft, and other types of theft. That is slowly changing as the bureau transitions to a new, more detailed system for tracking crime. For now, FBI estimates of the occurrence of larceny, which the agency defines to include all theft offenses, may offer some insights.

Larceny has been declining nationally since 1990, with an especially steep decline in 2020 and 2021, followed by a rebound in 2022. Focusing on recent years, the larceny rate fell from roughly 1,573 offenses per 100,000 people in 2019 to just over 1,300 in 2021, before rebounding to around 1,400 in 2022. Taken together, that is a decline of around 10 percent since 2019.

City-level data collected by the Council on Criminal Justice also undercuts the idea of a national surge in the specific crime of shoplifting. In a November 2023 report, the council found that the average shoplifting rate across a group of 24 cities had declined over the past few years, dropping from around 45 to 40 offenses per 100,000 people in the period between January 2019 and June 2023. At the same time, the council’s data showed significant spikes in some cities.

Shoplifting has surged in some places.

According to the council’s report, shoplifting incidents reported to the police rose dramatically in New York (up 64 percent) and Los Angeles (up 61 percent) between January 2019 and June 2023. Contrary to media accounts, reported incidents declined over the same period in San Francisco (down 5 percent), even accounting for a large spike in 2021. Similarly, police data shows that theft offenses in Washington, DC, including thefts from cars, fell from more than 25,000 in 2019 to roughly 21,000 in 2023. (DC data does not distinguish between shoplifting and other types of theft.)

It is not immediately clear what could be driving these discrepancies. In the case of New York, it is notable that shoplifting appears to have risen steadily since 2006, with an especially large spike in 2022. That suggests that, in many places, national trends in retail theft may be outweighed by local factors, some of them long running.

In these hard-hit localities, there may be signs of progress. According to more recent data, through the end of 2023, the increase in shoplifting offenses appears to be slowing in Los Angeles and potentially even reaching a plateau. In New York, the number of offenses may be declining, however slowly.

Police and industry data on retail theft are difficult to interpret. 

While police crime data represents our best guide to understanding trends in retail theft, it comes with caveats. Most shoplifting incidents — such as a person stealing laundry detergent from a convenience store — fall under the definition of larceny. But police may classify more serious cases under other categories of criminal offenses.

If the perpetrator threatens or uses violence during the offense — a risk that the data from the Council on Criminal Justice indicates may be growing — the crime may be documented as a robbery. Similarly, “smash-and-grab” thefts may qualify as burglaries or robberies depending on the facts and local law. Burglary involves entering a building illegally with intent to commit a crime, while robbery involves taking property from a person through force or intimidation.

This dynamic makes it difficult to precisely estimate the volume of crimes against retail businesses. Additionally, police crime data reflects only those offenses reported to or observed by law enforcement. Roughly three-quarters of all thefts go undocumented.

Changes in how theft is reported may also influence crime counts and, by extension, perceptions of trends in retail theft. In one particularly dramatic case, a Target store in San Francisco reported 154 shoplifting incidents in September 2021 —10 times more than the preceding month — due to a “new reporting system” that made it easier for the store to document incidents with the police. The increase was so large that it skewed citywide data, making it look as if monthly shoplifting counts had doubled across San Francisco. Reporting discrepancies this sensational are likely rare. But smaller swings in the data may be more common.

Industry figures could theoretically offer a complementary understanding of trends in retail theft. Unfortunately, this data is frequently mischaracterized or fails to withstand scrutiny. Commentators occasionally discuss retail theft in the context of shrink, but these are very different concepts. Shrink includes losses due to retail theft and, for example, supply chain mismanagement. Thus, while industry estimates put the value of shrink at around $100 billion annually, respondents to a frequently cited industry survey reported on average that just 36 percent of the loss stemmed from theft by customers. There are, however, problems with these surveys, including low sample size.

Broader claims about trends in retail theft have not panned out. Walgreens, for example, cited spikes in shoplifting as an explanation for falling profits and store closures. The claim has since been retracted. Target blamed theft for a rash of store closures. But an analysis by researcher Jeff Asher showed that, according to the limited data available, the stores Target closed in Portland and Seattle had less crime than stores that were not closing. Reporting by CNBC in September 2023 also cast doubt on retailer claims about the impact of theft, noting that “certain retailers” have “pulled back” from blaming organized theft as “a primary cause of losses.” In fact, to the extent it can be relied upon, industry data cuts against the idea of a recent national spike in retail theft. Retail shrink, for example, has held steady between 1.3 and 1.6 percent of total sales since roughly 2015. Post-pandemic declines in foot traffic in downtowns could also explain some store closures and losses that have been attributed to theft.

Evidence for a surge in organized retail theft is weak. 

Data on organized retail theft is scarce. Most statistics that are in circulation come not from law enforcement but from industry groups: the National Retail Federation (NRF), a trade association of more than 16,000 retailers, and the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), representing more than 200 of the country’s leading retailers including CVS, Walgreens, Target, and Costco.

However, many of the figures offered by these organizations are imprecise. In April 2023, for example, the NRF claimed that organized retail theft was responsible for nearly half the $94.5 billion in store merchandise that disappeared in 2021. The claim was widely repeated and offered as hard evidence of a nationwide wave in retail theft justifying new laws and increased criminal penalties.

The claim has since been retracted following an investigation by the trade publication Retail Dive. The NRF had based its estimate on a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing from 2021, where an industry spokesperson testified that organized retail theft totaled $45 billion annually. That figure, which was also repeated extensively in mainstream publications, was in fact an earlier NRF estimate of total retail shrink in 2015 and had nothing to do with organized retail theft. Mistakenly or otherwise, the NRF had essentially repackaged its own data.

According to one review of NRF data, the impact of organized retail crime “is probably closer to” 5 percent of total shrink. In any event, the NRF “no longer releases financial costs specific” to organized retail theft, a spokesperson told Retail Dive, because reported losses are “lower than what the NRF expects them to be.”

Other industry data is simply not comprehensive enough to support the broad conclusions being drawn from it by leaders in the media, government, and business. Some have pointed to $69 billion as the annual value of organized retail theft, citing a recent report by the RILA. But that report estimated the value of all retail theft at $69 billion, not the subset of organized theft — a distinction the RILA’s own website obscures. The study was also based on data from just five Fortune 500 companies, a small and likely unrepresentative sample, leading even the NRF to question its methodology.

Still others point to surveys conducted by the NRF, which report member experiences with security and organized retail theft. These surveys combine reports of member perceptions with voluntarily reported data, so they may not be representative. In 2023, for example, just 117 retailers responded to the survey. The most commonly quoted surveys are from 2021 and 2022 when the surveys had just 41 and 63 respondents respectively. These are extremely small sample sizes relative to the tens of thousands of retailers in the United States, and statistics generated from it may have more to do with who chose to respond to the survey than with overall sector trends.

• • •

Retail theft — and specifically shoplifting — does not appear to be rising nationally, though certain cities, including New York, are indeed facing historically elevated levels of theft. Unfortunately, data on “organized” retail theft is unreliable, obscuring our understanding of the problem. Those concerned about the impacts of organized theft should focus on developing clearer data to help inform policymakers and law enforcement as they search for solutions.

Until that clarity materializes, it would be a mistake to jump to sweeping responses such as lowering felony theft thresholds or instituting new penalties, especially given the mixed and nuanced evidence on the effects of the former.

With thanks to Jinmook Kang for his research and editing support.