“I did everything I can to protect my store and it still got robbed,” Mizzo Boutique owner Mohamad Fritis told local Philadelphia news affiliate WPVI Thursday after three break-ins and two additional attempts robbed his business of up to $90,000 in merchandise.
Fritis said he previously installed security cameras in the store and added security gates to block his window, recently fitting his business with new locks after the thieves had managed to drill their way inside.
Meanwhile, police in Connecticut’s Fairfield County are searching for two suspects in connection with the theft of a $900 pair of sneakers from Stamford’s Plug Sneaker store last week. On the West Coast, Spokane County Sheriff’s Office arrested Jacob Lockard for allegedly stealing shoes from a Walmart store on Aug. 8. Lockard, who is now banned from the mass merchant’s Spokane Valley outlet, allegedly fled from police when he tried to return the stolen shoes to the store. He faces charges including third-degree theft and resisting arrest.
Despite a never-ending battle with shoplifters, retailers continue to face shrink problems even inside their own ranks, with a Walmart employee in Evansville, Ind. arrested for allegedly stealing as much as $225,000 in cash from the retail giant. According to a report from local news affiliate 14 News, the investigation started in May when officials say Walmart Asset Protection came to the Evansville Police Department to report the theft.
Walmart and the Evansville Police Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Walmart officials provided video evidence of Moredock taking $46,000 to her car. She denied the allegations, saying that part of her job was to take money to and from the self-checkout registers, instead blaming the losses on a software glitch. While Moredock denied the theft took place, she admitted to violating Walmart’s cash control policy, 14 News reported.
With the rise in shoplifting and organized retail crime grabbing national attention, law enforcement faces a growing problem as criminals target both retail giants and small businesses alike.
Better store design, visibility could mitigate theft concerns, panel says
At a panel Thursday at Manhattan’s Fordham University School of Law, experts from retail, the business sector and the legal community discussed what they’re doing to address retail crime, particularly in New York City.
Brick-and-mortar store design remains a pivotal component of the fight to dissuade would-be thieves. High-end retailers like Saks Off 5th often keep high-value items away from the main floor, and far from stairwells so the products are out of sight of potential criminals, according to Christopher Hornig, vice president and assistant general counsel at Saks Off 5th.
He warned, however, that luxury retailers might not be looking to downgrade their customer experience by shifting expensive items behind locked doors or in the stock room.
“Those kinds of things, maybe at certain high ends of the market are already an element of the thinking,” Hornig said. “I don’t know if you want that in every jewelry boutique, to feel like you’re walking into a bank or a CVS. But yeah, I think that is something that is considered.”
Increasing visibility across the store for employees, consumers and law enforcement alike should be the No. 1 loss prevention priority, according to Matthew Bauer, president of the Madison Avenue Business Improvement District (BID). The BID is a coalition of property owners, merchants, residents and elected officials that provide supplemental safety, marketing and sanitation services for the businesses operating in the Manhattan shopping destination.
“You’ll see a lot of stores blocking their windows with signage, but it’s really important that you can actually see in,” Bauer said. “That’s important for when the store is closed at night, when a police officer could look inside to make sure that things are okay. At the same time, people who are inside the store should see out…I think it would create a safer situation for anyone.”
Some Madison Avenue shops on Manhattan’s Upper East Side have taken preventative action such as opening by appointment-only to combat would-be shoplifters and with good reason.
In February, a team of seven thieves stole nearly $500,000 worth of handbags and jewelry from The RealReal on Madison Avenue. This occurred only three months after a Givenchy store six blocks south was robbed of $80,000 in luxury merchandise in a similar smash-and-grab involving 10 to 15 suspects.
Professor Susan Scafidi, founder and director of Fordham’s Fashion Law Institute, shared an anecdote from a boutique owner, advising more shops to hang clothing on a rack with the open part of the hanger facing forward.
“It’s harder to grab very quickly and run,” she said. “It about tiny details…little things that even a small business owner can do immediately today this afternoon, to help deter some of that opportunistic theft.”
Retailers also must recognize that crime can happens through e-commerce as well, and take preventative action where possible. Last month, one woman was convicted of stealing 1,290 eyewear frames worth nearly $130,000 from Warby Parker from October 2017 to September 2018. The arrest came after the thief ordered and received the frames through the retailer’s home try-on program under separate email addresses and prepaid debit cards—and never paid for or returned the eyewear.
“We’ve definitely started to look at and test tools that essentially just scour the system, our database and our point-of-sale system for interesting, unique anomalous buying patterns,” Ashley Valdes, principal counsel for Warby Parker, said. “Why has this person made 258 home try-on orders of five frames each, but she can’t seem to decide?”
Valdes said Warby Parker has started retraining its customer experience teams to identify customers who repeatedly inquire about the home try-on program, or say they lost the free frames they received.
NY DA office takes case-by-case approach
Preventing retail crime, whether it is a first or repeated offense, is now a burden of many prosecution teams nationwide, particularly as the federal government and several states seek to get different variations of the INFORM Consumers Act signed into law. Each version of the act targets thieves who sell stolen goods through digital marketplaces.
Estelle Strykers-Santiago, director of the community partnerships unit at the New York County District Attorney’s Office, is tasked with tackling these problems under Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg.
Bragg formed the Manhattan Small Business Alliance to target repeat offenders, which comprised nearly half of all shoplifting arrests in the borough between 2015 and 2021, according to the office.
But Strykers-Santiago knows that the assignment isn’t necessarily cut and dry, saying that the alliance is attacking the problem from different angles that don’t always involve incarceration.
“We’re going after the opportunistic folks that are doing this, and following the money for the bigger picture,” Strykers-Santiago said. “On the other end, we’re being smart in how we handle the lower-level crimes, and being strategic in terms of how we ensure that they don’t happen again. It looks different for different people. If there’s mental health issues behind the reason that somebody is conducting very low-level theft or other crimes, we need to figure out what’s the best strategy to help those folks to stop doing that.”
NJ senators introduce “gang shoplifting” crime bill
The bill from Republican Senators Jon Bramnick and Anthony Bucco would create a new third-degree crime called “gang shoplifting” that’s punishable by at least one year in jail during which the offender would not be eligible for parole.
“We’re seeing more and more instances where flash mobs of shoplifters have run through clothing stores, pharmacies and even a 7-Eleven recently where they smash and grab anything that isn’t bolted down,” Bramnick said. “If people want to do these crimes, they need to get the message that their next flash mob will be in jail.”
Bucco called out California as the state where “the organized looting of stores seems to be happening most,” blaming the state for failing to prosecute most shoplifting crimes in recent years. While no data was provided backing the claims, the state has faced more than its share of high-profile retail crimes in recent years, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“We’re seeing a combination of organized criminal gangs and flash mobs planned on social media that have the ability to destroy a business in a matter of minutes,” Bucco added. “These crimes have the greatest impact on struggling urban communities that already have a hard time attracting and keeping grocery stores and pharmacies to serve their residents. With videos of these incidents widespread on TikTok and social media, New Jersey won’t be safe unless people know they’ll face real jail time for participating.”