CHARLOTTE, N.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) — Are the days of picking an item off the shelf and taking it to the cash register over?
Legitimate shoppers are under more surveillance than ever before as stores and law enforcement desperately try to reign in the growing business of retail theft.
A crime that was once considered invisible is not happening in plain sight.
“We see it from small mom and pops to the large chains across the board,” NC Retail Merchants Association Senior Director of Government Relations Elizabeth Robinson said.
Big box stores like Walmart, Target, Dollar General, Walgreens, and Home Depot have been sounding the alarm on the impact of organized retail crime.
“Theft and organized retail crime are urgent issues that are increasingly impacting the team and guests at Target and other retailers. The problem affects all of us, limiting product availability, creating a less convenient shopping experience and putting our team and guests in harm’s way. We are working with legislators, law enforcement and retail industry partners to advocate for public policy solutions to combat theft and organized retail crime.”
Some retailers are abandoning theft hot spots in San Fransisco and New York City.
This week, more than 200 businesses in Oakland went on strike over the rise in violent crime in the city. Owners say they are worried about their customers being robbed on the sidewalk.
In North Carolina, retailers are also seeing an increase in crime. The North Carolina Merchants Association says the state loses an estimated $3 billion in lost revenue a year due to theft.
“Is there a concern that we will lose some retailers because of this?” Queen City News asked Robinson.
“It is a concern based on what we see in other areas, but I think thankfully, we have created an environment in North Carolina where we do have very strong laws on the books and really great partnerships in place to combat this when we see this type of activity,” she said.
While shoplifting has always been a part of doing business, the Federal Government says what’s happening at stores across the country is more than a crime of opportunity.
“When you see these rings that are going into a Home Depot, a Walgreens, that is part of a much larger organization and we have seen it here in the Carolinas where you might have a crew start in Charlotte at noon and then end up in Atlanta by the end of the day just hitting all of the retail establishments down the east coast,” Deputy Special Agent in Charge Kyle Burns said.
With a task force dedicated to the Carolina, Burns said what’s stolen locally likely ends up at flea markets or is sold online through Facebook and auction sites.
“The proceeds that are generated from this are then used to buy narcotics and drugs, so it is kind of this whole cycle. If you look at it as a victimless crime, well it is not,” Burns said.
As stores grapple with the loss of inventory, more are leaning on customers to make up the difference in lost revenue.
Burns says on average, consumers pay an extra $500 a year in increased prices due to theft.
But the cash register is not the only place customers are being impacted – it’s also impacting their shopping experience.
“I am like, ‘Okay, this is what I need,’ and I am like, ‘Wait, it’s behind glass.’ I thought I could just slide it over and I was like, ‘No,’” Charlotte shopper Sanna Febin said.
In stores across the Queen City, aisles are covered by glass, merchandise is behind lock and key, and cameras cover every angle of stores.
“The goal here is to kind of get inside the head of the offender and get them to abandon this act of theft,” CEO of Indyme Solutions Jo Budano said.
Indyme Solutions provides anti-theft protection for retailers across the country including CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, and Lowe’s.
Since the pandemic, Budano says his business has increased by 30 percent.
“It is the solution of last resort for retailers but given the amount of merchandise that has now gotten locked up, you can see that is a direct reflection of the magnitude of the problem,” Budano said.
While his products have been proven to be successful at preventing theft, they also come at a cost to retailers. Budano says locked cases lose between 15 percent and 20 percent in sales, meaning customers tend to avoid the inconvenience.
“Sometimes if people are busy in the store, it will take twice as long just to wait for it and so if I don’t have the brand loyalty, I will just buy something else,” Charlotte shopper Kilian Quinn said.
Indyme Solutions has found that 2 percent of the shoppers in a store at any given time are offenders, while 98 percent are legitimate shoppers.
“As an offender, the last thing you want to give up is your anonymity so we said,’ Tell us a little bit about who you are, and we will let you into this case without supervision.”
The company recently launched ‘freedom cases’ where shoppers can enter personal information like a cell phone number to access merchandise.
But even then, you are still going to be watched. Emerging AI technology is able to analyze your behavior and alert a store associate if it is in any way suspicious.
“When you get TSA pre-check, you are authorizing the government to do a massive background check on you and your entire life, where you worked, and what you’ve done and as a result, you don’t take your shoes off you don’t have to go through the serious shakedown at TSA. It is very similar in a store environment. I think that is a perfect example of where that is heading,” Budano said.
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