Shoplifting, defined as “theft by someone other than an employee,” fell 2% last year compared to 2019, but jumped 22% from 2022 to 2023, according to an updated crime report from the Council on Criminal Justice released Thursday.
Most incidents involved one or two shoplifters, rather than the two or more that the National Retail Federation defines as organized retail crime, per CCJ’s research.
There were more assaults in stores in the first half of 2023 compared to the same period in 2019, and shoplifting incidents involving an assault amounted to about 1% of that.
Unsurprisingly, shoplifting plummeted amid the lockdowns and social distancing protocols of the height of the pandemic. As customers have returned to stores, however, so have thieves.
In 2019, the annual number of reported shoplifting incidents was 237.8 per 100,000 residents, in the 25 cities analyzed in the report. In 2020 that dropped to 183.4 and the next year it was 170.1. But as store traffic picked up, reports of shoplifting followed, with 190.4 incidents per 100,000 in 2022 and 232.8 last year.
Along with prices during a period of inflation, the median value of stolen goods increased from 2019 to 2021, per the report.
“The rise in shoplifting and robberies, offenses committed to acquire money or property, could reflect a return to normal living conditions and daily routines, which increased the opportunities to commit certain types of offenses,” report authors Ernesto Lopez and Bobby Boxerman wrote.
Retail’s two major industry groups, the NRF and Retail Industry Leaders Association, have focused on organized retail crime as a major threat to stores and their customers. But the topic has been rife with confusion, with various terms and numbers used inaccurately. The NRF last year retracted a major claim regarding the financial impact of organized retail crime, and RILA hasn’t updated information it collected in 2019.
Crime data has been notoriously difficult to gather and evaluate, and the CCJ authors themselves offered several caveats. The 38 cities they looked at in order to assess the prevalence of 12 types of criminal activity “are not necessarily representative of all cities in the United States,” for example. The data on shoplifting came from 25 cities.
Plus, the researchers said they obtained the crime data from online portals of police departments, and warned that the classifications of offenses vary somewhat across the cities, and that not all cities report data for each crime.
“Because these data rely on incidents reported to police, and because reporting practices vary across the retail industry, they almost certainly undercount total shoplifting by significant quantities,” they said.
Still, while footage of groups of thieves ransacking stores has become emblematic of the issue, its alarming nature may not reflect the extent of the problem.
“A CCJ analysis found that the median value of stolen goods increased from 2019 to 2021 and that the overwhelming majority of reported shoplifting incidents involved one or two people, rather than the large groups seen in viral videos of ‘smash-and-grab’ incidents,” according to Thursday’s report.
This is unsurprising, and consistent with other types of crime, Lopez said by email. However, reports of shoplifting increasingly leave out how many people were involved, he also said.
“It is harder to count the number of people involved if the group is larger,” he said. “Nevertheless, we do not have data to measure what share of missing data could be a result of large groups, but we leave that open as a possibility.”