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Most Stolen Products: Razors for Men

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Organized crime inflates the cost of your daily shave.

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Shoplifting violations for men's razors is as common on police blotters as traffic stops. Razors are the bread and butter of thieves, both small- and big-time, and their theft is the bane of pharmacy and department stores like Walgreens (WAG), CVS (CVS), Rite Aid (RAD), Target (TGT), and Costco (COST). Shoplifting razors -- in particular Gillette's expensive, ever-evolving Mach series -- is also an international phenomenon. In 2003, they were the most shoplifted item in the world, and experts say nothing has changed.

"It is on the all-time top list and it continues to be year after year," says Rhett Asher, the vice president of the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), an industry group that represents 1,500 food retailers and wholesalers. "It is a high-demand product, it's something that a lot of people want…and it is small enough that these groups of thieves can steal them easily."

Men's razors made the list beginning in 1998, with Gillette's release of its Mach 3, which the company reportedly spent $1 billion to develop and promote. That investment has paid off for the company, but also for what's known inside the industry as organized retail crime groups. These groups, Asher says, target razors and other non-luxury, common products, such as baby formula, batteries, and printer ink cartridges. They're inelastic products few people can do without, and small enough to steal in great quantities.

While local newspapers often recount small-time theft at the local CVS or Walgreens -- for example, the individual or small group who uses keys to open display racks or swipe several items off the shelves -- this is a drop in the bucket of overall theft, Asher says. Organized retail crime groups, which make off with high-value merchandise in bulk, are the real danger.

At the end of March, in one example, police raided 35 locations in Baltimore County, including pawn shops, residences, and warehouses, and turned up about $22 million in stolen merchandise, mostly from grocery chain Wegmans, and produced 15 arrests in one of the nation's largest organized retail crime cases.

As trade publication Grocery Headquarters wrote, in July, "The most common practice of organized crime rings is a shelf sweep, when a large quantity of high-value items such as razors, teeth whitening strips, and baby formula are taken off the shelf in a short period of time."

These rings use low-level thieves and turn around and sell the shoplifted razors out of the back of a van, false storefronts, flea markets, and, most notably, on the Internet. With razors, even the Russian mafia supposedly got in on the action with the Mach 3, operating so-called "razorhead" shoplifting gangs across Germany. While organized retail crime is nothing new, Asher says, the ability to move products online has made felony theft more popular.

Retail stores have responded in kind, with increasingly sophisticated electronic practices. About five years ago, stores started to move razors into locked display cases. But then an honest customer would have to search for some hidden employee and wait interminably as the person moseyed over to open the case. Some stores then streamlined the process, adding call buttons next to the case. Now, Asher says, many stores use cases which allow the customer, with a push of button, to get one pack of razors.

Above all, electronic surveillance within stores is more readily employed now. At Tesco branches in the United Kingdom, for example, the company placed RFID tags in the packaging of razor blades; anyone picking up a pack triggered CCTV surveillance of themselves wherever they went in the store.

Asher says estimates of customer theft, otherwise known as shrinkage, range between $15 and $30 billion in the United States, depending on whom you ask. Besides electronic technology and surveillance, retail companies also employ dedicated investigators, who work closely with law enforcement.

All these practices, although invasive, may also serve the interest of the honest customer. One reason men's razors are expensive -- besides their high demand -- is because manufacturers pass the lost profits caused by shoplifting onto customers. So smile for the camera next time you refill your razor supply.
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