Addressing the Elephant in the Room on Organized Retail Crime

Over the last few months, the National Retail Federal (NRF) became the focus of various flawed narratives alleging the retail industry distorts retail theft data to drive public policy goals. NRF made a correction to an April 2023 report on organized retail crime (ORC), withdrawing a phrase that suggested ORC accounted for half of the overall inventory losses suffered by the retail industry in 2021.

It is a known fact that retailers are facing an increase in theft, crime and violence, much of it involving organized retail crime efforts to resell stolen merchandise back to consumers.

Quantifying the scope of ORC is a known challenge, as ORC is not a single event or act. ORC networks use shoplifting, break-ins, cargo theft and other criminal activities to obtain stolen goods to fund their enterprises.

Retailers large and small have differing resources and capabilities dedicated to investigating, tracking and analyzing events that may be tied to organized retail crime groups.

Retailers admit to underreporting shoplifting due to lack of police response, failure to arrest or prosecute, or when a retailer recovers the merchandise from the shoplifter.

Police department reporting of retail theft is also wildly inconsistent. Some departments may report it as shoplifting. Others may categorize these crimes as larceny, robbery or property crimes. And furthermore, some departments won’t even respond to shoplifting due to current procedures or response capabilities. At the time of an incident, a retailer or law enforcement agency may not know the theft is part of an organized retail crime effort until an investigation takes place. Law enforcement nationwide is short-staffed and under-resourced, and needs support from the federal government for these major cross-jurisdictional crimes.

A recently released study by the Council of Criminal Justice on shoplifting provided data from the perspective of law enforcement reporting. Within their report, the CCJ highlights similar limitations of data, including a statement that the data used within their report “almost uncertainly undercount total shoplifting.” Of course, certain media outlets even discounted this fact by publishing misleading narratives that retail theft is not a serious issue.

It’s fair to ask questions about the data and the true impact of these thefts and organized groups, but the problem with media coverage that focuses on the known data problems gives many critics an unwarranted excuse to downplay the seriousness of these crimes and delay efforts to address them.

Evidence is everywhere that retail crime is on the rise. Media outlets across the nation continue to report ongoing acts of widespread shoplifting. Law enforcement agencies continue to establish task forces and alliances focusing on organized retail crime. These same agencies are reporting apprehensions of repeat theft offenders and fencing operations involved in stealing and reselling stolen goods. Retailers continue to lock up more merchandise to deter and prevent theft, much to the dismay of legitimate customers who now have to wait for a store associate to unlock commonly stolen items.

Better data is absolutely part of the solution, but we should not delay acting on the obvious evidence of retail theft in our communities every day while arguing over the numbers.

It’s time for critics to stop dwelling on flawed, flashy inferences and focus on the facts. Instead, let’s prioritize addressing the flagrant disregard of law that threatens all retailers and weakens our communities.