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Illustration by Security Management; iStock

Report Shows Organized Retail Crime Is Increasing and Increasingly Violent

The National Retail Federation recently released its Organized Retail Crime: An Assessment of a Persistent and Growing Threat report. First, it helps to understand what differentiates organized retail crime (ORC) from other shoplifting and retail theft.

According to the report, which focuses on the ORC activity in the United States, ORC incidents are “systematic largescale theft of retail goods from manufacturers, logistics and transportation providers, distributors, or retailers and the subsequent resale of stolen goods for financial gain to wholesalers, retailers, or individual consumers, typically for a fraction of the retail cost.”

ORC incidents include all the typical methods: shoplifting, fraud, burglary, robbery, and, sometimes, use of insiders.

The key takeaways from the report:

  • ORC groups are selective about their targets and trend toward big-box retailers and everyday consumer goods rather than luxury goods.
  • Electronic goods are the most frequently targeted items.
  • ORC groups targeting stores do extensive surveillance and planning, including studying store layouts, camera positions, anti-theft devices, as well as knowing store policies with regard to their approach to suspected thieves.
  • Most thefts are nonviolent; however, the number of violent incidents continues to grow every year.
  • The primary channel for the sale of stolen merchandise, or fencing, is online marketplaces. On average based on the 46 fencing operations studied for the report, these marketplaces typically handle $250,000 in stolen merchandise before the channel is disrupted by authorities.
  • Fencing is shifting from third-party online sellers to peer-to-peer sites such as Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace. ORC groups do not appear to be using the Dark Web to fence stolen goods, the NRF report found.
  • The report also surmised that high inflation and economic volatility will lead to an increase in ORC activity. It also proposed that a youth subculture based vaguely on anti-capitalist ideology may contribute to acceptance to engage in ORC activity.
  • Finally, the report says that ORC is likely vastly underreported because retailers do not report incidents unless they include violence or involve a high dollar amount of losses. As a result, retailers—as well as national, state, and local authorities—lack a complete understanding of the damage caused by ORC.

This last point led to one of the major remedies in the report: a call for a way to standardize and increase data collection of ORC incidents. Basia Pietrawska, vice president, crime risk analytics and consulting with CAP Index and chair of the ASIS Retail Asset Protection Community Steering Committee, agrees that this is a major need.

“I don’t think there is a single source of data, especially in the context of ORC, that truly captures the magnitude of the problem,” she says. “We need to look both at what is reported to police departments and, more importantly, the incidents reported to corporate retail operations and various industry associations. Most importantly we need to get better at defining this crime to make sure that various institutions follow a similar definition as closely as possible.”

One of the issues she cites is that police departments generally do not have a category to delineate ORCs from other crimes. So, crimes that are reported from retail establishments get reported to national databases as larcenies, assaults, or other broad categories whether they are part of organized efforts or not.

Pietrawska also corroborates the report’s findings that ORCs are increasing.

“There has been a continual increase since the pandemic, and what is concerning is the specific increase in the violent aspect of these incidents,” she says. “In general, we’re seeing an increase in violence across many industries and that goes beyond ORC. …I was just at a conference with [the Retail Industry Leaders Association], and we are starting to see an increase in ORCs in department stores, which is something we didn’t see as much of before.”

In terms of what retailers can do in the face of increasing ORC, Pietrawska again agrees with the study that knowledge is power and that retailing groups and law enforcement need to figure out how to better report and respond to organized retail crime. She also says retailers need to take better advantage of their existing networks in the industry and community.

“The thing that I stress the most is collaboration between retailers, but also between retailers and other businesses, is really important. A lot of times the same criminals that target retail will be targeting restaurants or banks as well,” she says. “And of course, ultimately collaboration with law enforcement is critical. There’s a need to come together and learn from each other. That’s the only way we can prepare for the continuous increase in crime.”

She also emphasizes that more nuanced training is needed. “To me, it’s less about the physical security at a location, and more about the training of employees about how to deal with angry or distressed customers—how to keep a situation from escalating to violence. All locations need to get baseline training, but I think it’s really important for retailers to get strategic in how they think about training. There is probably a need to provide more frequent training for high-risk locations.”

“I was just at a presentation focused on unhoused individuals,” she continues, “and the presenter made the point that de-escalation training is often approached from a very broad perspective—that it applies to all situations more or less equally. However, when it comes to unhoused individuals, de-escalation training requries some level of customization. For example, a homeless person may be more likely to respond to visual cues than verbal cues. So, to mitigate these risks, de-escalation techniques really need to be tailored to the specific type of criminal we are dealing with. And retailers need to understand the environments their stores are in and train their staff appropriately.”