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Research Finds Shoplifting is Declining in Many U.S. Cities

Is shoplifting spiking in the United States? It’s complicated.

Despite widespread media coverage of looting and shoplifting incidents, retail theft is lower this year than before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to police data. While there are some exceptions—such as in major cities like New York City and Los Angeles—shoplifting incidents in major cities have fallen 7 percent since 2019, found a new report from the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ).

The November 2023 report, Shoplifting Trends: What You Need to Know, looks specifically at shoplifting patterns from before the COVID-19 pandemic through mid-year 2023 in 24 cities, leveraging open-data sources, including law enforcement data, to assess the retail crime situation.

The report found that shoplifting incidents reported to police rebounded since falling dramatically during the lockdowns of 2020, but if researchers factor out New York City, incidents were down 7 percent in the first half of 2023 compared to the first half of 2019. New York had the largest increase in reported shoplifting in that period, with a 64-percent increase in incidents. But in some cities, such as St. Paul, Minnesota, and St. Petersburg, Florida, shoplifting reports dramatically fell—65 percent and 78 percent, respectively. Out of the 24 cities assessed, 17 reported decreases in shoplifting.

Shoplifting incidents per 100,000 population hit 48.0 in December 2019, but in May 2023, that number was down to 39.9—an increase from the April 2021 low of 27.0, according to the CCJ, but well below prepandemic levels.

The median value of goods stolen in shoplifting incidents is growing across the board, though, from $75 in 2019 to $100 in 2021. Felony shoplifting—U.S. states set different felony theft dollar thresholds—nearly doubled from 8 percent to 16 percent between 2019 and 2023, signaling thieves’ shift to higher-value heists, including stealing large quantities of goods for resale.

Total retail shrink grew to more than $112 billion in 2022, up from $93.9 billion in 2021, according to the National Retail Federation’s National Retail Security Survey. But losses from internal and external theft were largely on par with historical trends—internal theft accounted for 28.85 percent of shrink, external theft was 36.15 percent, and process and control failures made up 27.29 percent.

“Retail shrink climbed in absolute dollars, but when reported as a percentage of sales as is commonly done, average annual shrink increased to 1.57 percent, up from 1.44 percent in 2021,” CNBC reported. “The share is largely in line with past years. Average annual shrink was 1.62 percent of sales before the pandemic in 2019, though it was as low as 1.33 percent in 2017, according to previous surveys.”

Although flash robberies got a lot of media attention and caused havoc at many retail stores, they are relatively rare. More than 95 percent of shoplifting incidents in 2019, 2020, and 2021 involved just one or two people; only 0.1 percent involved more than six people, the CCJ report found.

But flash robberies and other major shoplifting incidents carried the threat of violence against store employees and other customers, attracting additional attention. In the 2023 NRF survey, 67 percent of retailers reported more violence associated with organized retail crime than in 2021. The CCJ found that the proportion of reported shoplifting incidents that involved an assault or other crime rose 9 percent from 2019 to 2021, but it constitutes a small share (less than 2 percent) of overall theft incidents. Store assaults in the first half of 2023 were 7 percent lower than in the first half of 2022.

Assaults in stores are still serious issues, though. The eight cities included in the CCJ sample reported 10,024 assaults at retail stores in 2019 and 11,273 in 2022. Companion offenses to shoplifting occurred in 1.8 percent of incidents in 2021, with simple assault the most likely (2,349 cases among 300,277 incidents of shoplifting), followed by vandalism—including smash-and-grab tactics (1,670 cases).