Analysis: The US shoplifting scourge is a lot of hype with little evidence

Analysis by Allison Morrow, CNN

New York  — There’s been much handwringing over the scourge of shoplifting in America since 2020. To hear some retailers and politicians tell it, retail crime is out of control across the country.

The trouble with that story is, it’s not accurate.

To be clear, theft is happening, as it always has, in stores and on the streets. But the narrative that shoplifting has exploded since the start of the pandemic is unfounded.

In reality, retail crime has not meaningfully gone up nationwide in the past few years, and it has even gone down in many places.

A study released last month, drawing on police data, found that shoplifting reports were 16% higher in the first half of 2023 compared with 2019. But, critically, if you exclude New York City’s stats, the number of shoplifting incidents fell 7%, or about 2,550 fewer than in 2019, according to the Council on Criminal Justice, which conducted the study.

Overall, the study found, shoplifting generally followed the same patterns as other theft, excluding car theft, over the past five years. Shoplifting remained below pre-pandemic levels through 2022.

Even the National Retail Federation, the primary lobbying group for the retail industry, is acknowledging past reports have been inflated and retracting a key point in one of its widely cited reports about retail crime. (These industry reports are frequently cited by lawmakers, journalists and others about retail crime.)

The report initially blamed organized retail crime for “nearly half” of all inventory losses in 2021. But the text has now been updated to remove that “nearly half” claim, because it turns out it wasn’t based on any data or research.

The inaccurate claim was “an inference” made by an analyst linking results of an NRF survey from 2021 with  testimony from a retail security expert, an NRF spokesperson said in a statement.

The spokesperson added that the NRF stands behind the “widely understood fact that organized retail crime is a serious problem. … At the same time, we recognize the challenges the retail industry and law enforcement have with gathering and analyzing an accurate and agreed-upon set of data.”

Major retailers like Target, Dick’s and Walgreens have cited rising theft as a drag on their bottom lines in recent earnings calls. (Walgreens, for its part, later walked the complaint back, with its finance chief telling investors in January that “maybe we cried too much” about shoplifting.)