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The Moral Panic Over Retail Theft Is Out of Control
We've landed on another way to give cops an insane amount of money to 'fix' an overhyped problem.
Last week, Target, which operates nearly 2,000 locations across America and rakes in over $100 billion in sales annually, announced plans to close a handful of stores in the Bay Area, Portland, Seattle, and East Harlem in Manhattan, citing theft and organized retail crime as the primary reasons for the closures.
The company said in a statement: “We know that our stores serve an important role in their communities, but we can only be successful if the working and shopping environment is safe for all.”
While they put the emphasis here on “safety,” it’s also important to note that Target has been facing a relative financial downturn during the last couple of years, with revenue continuing to drop in the most recent quarter of 2023. The company blames the aforementioned theft (as well as the Pride month merchandise backlash from earlier this year, among other things) for this dip following a COVID-fueled peak in business during 2020—and they’re not alone. Companies like Walgreens, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Dollar General, Ulta, Whole Foods, Best Buy, and Nordstrom, have all joined the chorus, citing organized theft for their own shrinking profits, even while other issues like a decrease in consumer spending and surplus inventory (and inflation!!) are also at play.
When a company says something you gotta believe ‘em, right? I mean, hey, the National Retail Federation (the trade association that…represents the companies), says it too! According to them, the industry lost $112 billion in 2022 due to theft. That number—which is referred to as “shrink” in the biz—is up from previous years, but uhhh, only slightly, and it really only tells part of the story when it comes to a company’s financial health. It also masks issues like basic mismanagement. (If you want to dig into more of the data and details, The Marshall Project has some great reporting on this.)
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But wait a second, you’ve seen the “smash and grab” videos on TikTok right? As local news outlets and the New York Post really want you to believe, this is an EPIDEMIC, isn’t it? The issue of rising theft has been a talking point of major retailers for the last several years, and as you’ve likely seen, it’s received boatloads of coverage. And this coverage often comes with the message that organized retail theft is especially SINISTER and SCARY compared with the kind of theft that comes from basic need. (Because as we all know, corporations and the legal system have historically treated those thefts with boundless compassion and a light touch.)
There’s something else you’ll find in many of these reports, though: a gentle, but extremely notable, whisper of doubt. It goes a little something like this: It’s actually pretty tough to tell whether organized theft is actually a problem at all. Or rather, if it is a problem, it’s tough to tell whether it’s actually widespread enough to have the financial effects many of these companies are claiming.
It also doesn’t help that these companies—as we saw with Target last week—claim that their concern is largely about the violence associated with this supposed uptick in theft. What’s worse in the American mindset, do you think? The threat of physical bodily harm or a monetary loss? True patriotism is using one to protect the other. And when that doesn’t work, you call the government.
That’s what these huge corporations are doing now. In 2022, Congress passed a bill called the Inform Consumers Act, which aims to address the sale of stolen, counterfeit, or harmful goods by requiring online retailers to disclose and verify the identities of their sellers. It just went into effect in June. Next up is the Combating Organized Retail Crime Act, which seeks to enshrine harsher penalties for retail thievery and change the threshold prosecutors have to meet to charge people with federal theft crimes. Stricter laws are also being passed on the state level, and because beefing things up the punitive side simply wasn’t enough, stores themselves are transforming too. If you’ve been in a drug store anytime in the last few years, you’ve surely noticed that they’re locking everything up behind plastic and boosting security measures across the board.
Perhaps the pièce de résistance in this multi-tiered effort to keep the country’s mega marts as mega as ever is the straightforward cashflow it’s now providing to the police. Just last month, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that a whopping $267 million would go to law enforcement agencies around the state to help get a handle on organized retail theft. And what do you get when you pair a bunch of money with cops and a vague, probably overblown problem? In all likelihood, unnecessary force, harsh penalties, over-policing, racial profiling, excessive surveillance, and the systematic reinforcement of these damaging narratives will keep this cash river flowing in perpetuity. All because some of the most powerful capitalists in the country strong-armed the government into operating like it had a huge crime problem on its hands. It’s a story so old, it’s basically routine.
Look, I’m not here to say that organized theft doesn’t exist or that horrible TikTok trends aren’t causing very real damage to individuals and companies. And of course I’m sympathetic to smaller stores who deal with this kind of thing on a regular basis. But as a practice, we should be suspicious of entities that have an incredible amount of influence, cash, and power, and be wary of the stories they’re trying to tell us about why we should feel bad for them. And we should be suspicious of the media outlets that seem to function as a mouthpiece for those parties, parroting them without interrogating their claims, and serving to feed the eternal flame of overblown crime panic.
Actually, we’re at it, let’s circle back to Target and the story they’re currently telling. Just this morning, Popular Information reported on publicly available data showing that shoplifting was actually lower in the areas surrounding many of the stores that Target is closing than in some of the stores they’re keeping open. And as the company shutters its East Harlem location, it’s—rather interestingly—concurrently opening a new store just a half-mile away, as well as other locations around New York. Another huh! As one shopper put it to New York Magazine, “Why are you opening a new Target if this one is being robbed? You think that one is not going to be robbed too? I don’t understand.”
I don’t understand either! But it’s certainly a fascinating choice made by people who surely have good, honest reasons for every component of their operations. That’s boy math for you! It’s none of my business. What is my business is that we’re on the precipice of a recession, and for many, it’s an awful time to be a participant in the U.S. economic system. And I guess it’s my business too that the government is allocating time, funds, and energy into protecting companies and bolstering the police, while individuals get bupkis. And you know what, it’s probably my business too that we’re being fed stories that make us fear each other, but pity a company. Rest assured, Target will be absolutely fine. I wish I could say the same for everyone else.