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Shoplifters of the World Unite


Recession brings back the five-finger discount.

About 20 years ago, The Smiths released the great song "Shoplifters of the World Unite." It's also the new mantra for this holiday season.

Shoplifting arrests across the country are 10% to 20% higher this year than last, according to latest reports. A recent New York Times article pointed out that the numbers might be even higher, however, since shoplifters are often banned from stores rather than arrested. Overall, it's a sad indicator of the recession - but one that predictably highlights how, in our shopping-mad culture, people would rather steal than suffer a gift-less holiday season.

"More people are desperate economically, retailers are operating with leaner staffs and police forces are cutting back or being told to deprioritize shoplifting calls," Paul Jones, the vice president of asset protection for the Retail Industry Leaders Association, told the Times.

Shoplifters and employees who steal walked away with $34.8 billion in 2007, or an average of $350 per US household, according to the National Retail Federation in Washington, DC. The shoplifting portion of that figure is estimated to be $12 billion. According to the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, about 1 in 11 people in America have shoplifted. In the last 2 months, the 2 largest retail associations say that more than 80% of their members are reporting sharp increases in shoplifting.

Although there isn't a regional breakdown for this rise, my own anecdotal research of local newspapers shows that, not surprisingly, shoplifting appears to be higher in areas devastated by the real estate collapse. Take Naples, Florida - the eye of the real-estate hurricane.

Over the weekend, 11 teens were arrested at the Coastland Center Mall for shoplifting. In fact, retail theft cases in Naples are up more than 37% this December, compared with the same time last year. Local police say the spike is attributable to both the economy and increased security, which leads to more arrests. However, most of those arrested are teens, and, with unemployment high in southwest Florida, job-placement agencies there report that adults are now forced to take the part-time or minimum-wage jobs once held by teens. The youth are left out in the cold.

Reports also indicate shoplifters are becoming bolder. For targets like Macy's (M), Nordstrom (JWN), or the Gap (GPS), stealing gift cards may be one strategy, though people also often line their bags with aluminum foil to prevent detection. One undercover security guard said there have been more sprinters - people who make a run for the exit. This smacks of desperation.

Grocery and drugstores are hit the hardest, because the items are easy to steal and easy to resell online. In the end, shoplifting doesn't just affect a retailer's bottom line, but also we law-abiding customers. The cost of theft is factored into higher price tags. And it's why the Gillette Mach 3 razors at my local Walgreen's (WAG) are double-locked behind impenetrable Plexiglas, as if they were the crown jewels - and why I always have to wait 10 minutes for the lone cashier to mosey over and unlock the case.
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