With the holidays fast approaching and the economy continuing to get worse, police are reporting a 10 to 20 percent increase in shoplifting across the country. How should retailers deal with this increase?

As times get tougher more desperate people are shoplifting for the first time. Richard Johnson from Indiana got laid off and attempted to steal a bottle of sleep medication but was caught and is now awaiting trial for misdemeanor theft charges. Johnson had never been arrested or shoplifted before and his desperate economic situation would make many people see his prosecution over a $4.99 bottle of sleeping pills as a little harsh. But retailers are also facing hard economic times and they are becoming more vulnerable to shoplifting:

“More people are desperate economically, retailers are operating with leaner staffs and police forces are cutting back or being told to deprioritize shoplifting calls,” said Paul Jones, the vice president of asset protection for the Retail Industry Leaders Association.

The problem, he said, could be particularly acute this December, “the month of the year when shoplifting always goes way up.”

Two of the largest retail associations say that more than 80 percent of their members are reporting sharp increases in shoplifting, according to surveys conducted in the last two months.

Compounding the problem, stores are more reluctant to stop suspicious customers because they fear scaring away much-needed business. And retailers are increasingly trying to save money by hiring seasonal workers who, security experts say, are themselves more likely to commit fraud or theft and are less practiced at catching shoplifters than full-time employees are.

Anyone who has ever worked retail knows that a certain amount of shoplifting is almost expected, and when an understaffed store is faced with an overwhelming amount of holiday shoppers, shoplifting increases dramatically. However, will prosecuting the shoplifters help curb what looks like an unstoppable cycle of theft? Probably not, otherwise more retailers would prosecute misdemeanor shoplifters (many shoplifters go unreported to police).

So then, should misdemeanor shoplifters with desperate situations be let off the hook, so to speak? Or should we always report shoplifters no matter what?


As Economy Dips. Arrests In Shoplifting Soar [NYT]