US retailers voice alarm at rising theft, ‘flash rob’ attacks

NEW YORK – Toothpaste, chocolate, washing powder and deodorant – everyday products are increasingly under lock and key at US retailers, as petty theft and organised shoplifting rise while consumers grapple with costs of living.

Major retailers Walmart and Target, drugstore chains CVS and Walgreens, as well as home improvement firm Home Depot and footwear seller Foot Locker are among those to have voiced concern over more thefts – including violent incidents – in their latest earnings results.

“Organised retail crime, and theft in general, is an increasingly serious issue impacting many retailers,” said chief executive at Dick’s Sporting Goods Lauren Hobart, during a conference call.

The impact of stealing on the company’s inventory was “meaningful” on both its second quarter results and expectations for the balance of the year, she added.

Dick’s now expects earnings per share for the year at US$11.33 (S$15.30) to US$12.13, down from earlier guidance of US$12.90 to US$13.80.

“During the first five months of this year, our stores saw a 120 per cent increase in theft incidents involving violence or threats of violence,” said Target chief executive Brian Cornell in a separate briefing.

“Our team continues to face an unacceptable amount of retail theft and organised retail crime,” he said.

He noted a loss of inventory well above what is sustainable over the long term.

This comes as interest rates have surged from close to zero to around 5.5 per cent over 18 months – the highest level in 22 years – as policymakers seek to curb inflation.

Higher lending costs make it pricier to borrow funds for big ticket purchases, or for companies to expand their businesses – and consumers have been feeling the squeeze.

According to the National Retail Federation’s 2022 retail security survey, retailers lost an estimated US$94.5 billion nationwide to “shrink” in 2021 alone.

Retail shrink means the loss of inventory from factors including staff theft, shoplifting or administrative errors.

The survey also noted that retailers on average saw a 26.5 percent rise in organised retail crime in 2021, with a majority of respondents reporting that the pandemic has led to an increase in risks.

As a result, stores have been installing transparent walls with locks on shelves, sometimes padlocked chains on refrigerators, and scattering call buttons in aisles for staff.

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