The retail theft problem has been greatly exaggerated
America’s largest retail lobby has admitted that it fudged the numbers on organized retail crime, conceding that the issue might not be as bad as originally feared.
The National Retail Federation (NRF) originally claimed that “nearly half” of the $94.5 billion in inventory losses reported by retailers in 2021 was due to theft.
According to Reuters, NRF spokesperson Danielle Inman acknowledged that the estimate was inaccurate and based on previous testimony from Ben Dugan, who headed the advocacy group Coalition of Law Enforcement and Retail.
In 2021, Duggan reportedly told a Senate committee that organized retail crime was a $45 billion problem. So, NRF’s data consultant subtracted that number from the $94.5 billion in inventory losses retailers suffered that year.
In reality, the lobby group has no idea how bad the problem is. To its credit, it has removed all references to the claim in subsequent reports.
Creditnews reported on NRF’s data in August but questioned the accuracy of the claim that organized crime was the main cause of “shrink” —a term used to describe any loss of inventory from non-sales activity.
At the time, it seemed more likely that retailers were scapegoating shoplifters for their problems to downplay the growing threat posed by Amazon.
Playing the blame game
With Amazon firmly in the driver’s seat, it’s easy to see why retailers are looking for alternative explanations for their poor business performance.
According to industry data, Amazon owns 38% of the U.S. e-commerce market. Walmart is a distant second at 6%, and nobody comes close after that.
The e-commerce giant saw its revenue jump 13% to $143.1 billion in the third quarter. In the fourth quarter, Amazon expects sales to reach as high as $167 billion.
Meanwhile, traditional retailers, including Target, Home Depot, and LVMH, have reported disappointing earnings results and are warning of a discretionary recession on the horizon for consumers.
“In some ways, theft is a great excuse as it absolves a retailer of any responsibility as theft is somewhat outside of their control,” Neil Saunders, managing director at GlobalData, told NBC News.
“I don’t think anyone denies the problem of theft, it’s just that a lot more transparency and nuance is needed in the discussion,” he said.
Has shoplifting really spiked?
While several retailers have complained about shoplifting—it was mentioned 31 times in earnings calls in the first half of 2023—the data tells a different story.
According to the Council on Criminal Justice, larceny declined by 7% in the first half of the year compared to the same period in 2019. That means theft is actually lower than it was before the pandemic.
Research from William Blair & Co., a boutique financial firm located in Chicago, shows that theft and other forms of inventory loss fell to unusually low levels during the pandemic and are only now just returning to normal.
Data from the NRF’s own research corroborates these claims. According to the NRF National Retail Security Survey, average annual shrink accounted for 1.57% of retail sales in 2022, slightly higher than in 2021 (1.44%) but lower than in 2019 (1.62%).
Alex Piquero, a criminology professor at the University of Miami, said shoplifting incidents tracked by the FBI are down compared to five or ten years ago.
Overall, “the United States’ shoplifting hasn’t changed too much,” Piquero said. “There are pockets of real increases in certain cities, but the national trend is pretty flat.”