Mob thefts rock retail. What can stores do?

Sources: Twitter/@JodiHernandezTV; Twitter/@CornellBarnard
Nov 23, 2021

U.S. retailers have experienced a rash of highly orchestrated and alarming smash-and-grab thefts recently, notably in California’s Bay Area and Chicago.

Around 80 looters flooded a Nordstrom location in Walnut Creek, CA, on Saturday, stealing armfuls of merchandise and attacking employees with a flurry of punches, kicks and pepper spray, according to NBC News. The raid took only one minute. Looters parked their cars to block the street before carrying out the smash-and-grab.

The previous day an even more widespread episode of mob looting and vandalism struck San Francisco’s Union Square neighborhood, according to ABC News. Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Bloomingdale’s numbered among the 10 retailers targeted in that wave of smash-and-grabs.

Malls in Hayward and San Jose were struck on Sunday by mobs of hammer-wielding looters who ransacked a jewelry store and a Lululemon location, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Jim Dudley, a lecturer at San Francisco State University’s department of criminal justice studies, told the Chronicle that the raids did not appear to be politically motivated and confirmed that there did seem to be an uptick in smash-and-grab style theft occurring.

Further east, the Neiman Marcus store in Chicago’s Magnificent Mile luxury shopping district was robbed on Friday by three carloads of people, according to the Chicago Tribune. Another store had its window broken.

Both the Bay Area and Chicago have experienced significant increases in retail crime over the past year.

The Magnificent Mile has seen such a high rate of theft that in October police issued a formal warning, according to CBS Chicago. Some retail tenants have vacated the area, and a stretch of North Michigan Avenue remains vacant.

Some retailers in San Francisco had taken steps to try to reduce the impact of organized retail crime. Walgreens, for instance, announced in October the closure of five San Francisco stores frequently targeted by organized theft rings, according to The New York Times.

In 2020 the National Retail Federation (NRF) ranked these cities among the worst for retail crime along with Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Baltimore, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you expect to see more smash-and-grab thefts and, if so, how should retailers prepare for it? Is there anything the industry can do to curtail this type of behavior?

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"Shoplifting laws need to be re-visited. It’s open season on retailers from CVS to Louis Vuitton if this does not get addressed."

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24 Comments on "Mob thefts rock retail. What can stores do?"

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Mark Ryski

These criminal acts reflect a deeper discord in society that needs to be addressed. The latest reports are truly disturbing as the mob thefts appear to be more coordinated and deliberate. The danger and peril this behavior presents is dangerous for employees and customers. Retailers can bolster their security, but what can a few security guards do to defend against a band of 50 thieves? Not much. Ultimately, law enforcement need to steps up and provide protection or retailers will be forced to close and relocate stores to areas where the behavior is more manageable.

Bob Amster

You put you finger on it. It is truly a national embarrassment that we even have to have this discussion. There is a root cause here that must be addressed. Additional security is one solution during business hours. Steel curtains is the answer during off hours (not pretty but very effective).

Gary Sankary

I would suggest that these are highly coordinated events, perpetrated by organized gangs who know exactly what they are doing. They’ve found a way to acquire goods for resale with relatively little risk. Given where these events are happening – Walnut Creek, CA, Magnificent Mile – these are not depressed, crime ridden neighborhoods. These are some of the most desired and high-end retail addresses in the country.

Steve Montgomery

I believe these events are more organized crime driven than mob driven.

Ken Morris

I believe store closures are one answer but a better one is to beef up their loss prevention tools to combat these thefts. A richer base BI software set that is prescriptive in nature and that would instruct stores what to do when these cases arise along with advanced video capabilities that would capture license plates, faces and create an actionable case management system to prosecute these offenders. It is not good enough to have after the fact loss prevention but retailers need real-time loss prevention that is wired to headquarters and to the local authorities. The technology exists so why not deploy it?

Joe Skorupa

You nailed it, Ken. Retailers are soft targets for criminals and have absurdly viewed “shrink” or “loss,” both euphemisms, as an after-the-fact line item and a cost of doing inefficient business. Technology is a big part of the solution with real-time video capture in stores, alerts to headquarters and local authorities, video capture in the front of the store to capture license plates and faces (if unmasked), and sharing of data among law enforcement.

Ken Morris

LP needs to get some bandwidth Joe … they can make this happen. If they do nothing, they will be in big trouble.

Neil Saunders

There has been a concerning shift in retail crime over the past few years, it has moved from petty shoplifting (which is serious) to more organized gangs (which are even more serious because of the danger they pose to staff and shoppers). Retailers need to amp up security, but politicians also need to take responsibility. Too many cities are far too soft on crime – especially retail crime. This ambivalent attitude needs to come to an end and local governments and police forces need to get a very firm grip on the situation.

Georganne Bender

I ran a boutique on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile in the ’80s when this type of shoplifting was happening. The group would rush in, knock staff and customers out of the way, grab entire racks of clothing, and run. Every day was terrifying because you didn’t know when the mob would be back.

Part of San Francisco’s problem is its ridiculous shoplifting laws. Retailers have little to no protection from theft. Why would you want to be a retailer there, knowing people can steal up to $950 with no consequences? Chicago’s laws are tougher but the flash mobs set on theft still occur and our city is getting a reputation for being unsafe.

What’s the fix? I wish I knew. Locking the doors and only allowing one guest in at a time? Armed security at the door? Open only for appointments? None of these fixes are particularly shopper friendly. And one way or another a mob intent on entering the store is going to get in.

Gary Sankary

From a prevention point of view, the most effective tool retailers have is cooperation and communication with each other. This is one where they need to drop any competitive barriers and work together. And they do. I’ve seen retailers in shopping districts create early warning networks to alert each other as soon as one of them gets hit. They can quickly implement mitigation tactics – close the store, etc. And they can shorten law enforcement’s reaction time. In addition there are tools that can help law enforcement and retailers find patterns in these events that can help with prevention and prosecution.

These are not random events. Getting 50 people together to participate in one of these smash-and-grabs requires planning and coordination. There needs to be a coordinated and organized response from retail to raise the stakes for the people doing this.

Bob Phibbs

Truly horrifying to see. I lived in Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots when looting was opportunistic. This is planned, organized, and my guess is they had shopping lists. Last year Twitter was LOL to people who did something similar at a Sears. It was all a joke but Nordstrom is bound to be seen as a different matter and politicized. AI and technology should be able to help see patterns in cars and shoppers but, in the meantime, retailers in those areas in particular will need to prepare employees for this new reality.

Richard Hernandez

Shoplifting laws need to be re-visited. It’s open season on retailers from CVS to Louis Vuitton if this does not get addressed. If not, stores will be making the hard decision to close their stores like drug stores and grocery stores, which are critical to communities.

Dick Seesel

I’m not sure there is a national solution to a problem where local laws (and law enforcement) vary widely in their effectiveness as deterrents. The NRF may lobby the White House and Congress about this, but there is no political consensus about a solution.

Mark Ryski is right that these events are symptomatic of the “pandemic of bad behavior” that we are witnessing every day — from shoplifting and reckless driving to terrible events like the Waukesha tragedy. There is no simple answer to the broader issue, but retailers will need to apply more tools — systems, security, and partnership with local law enforcement — to combat the outbreaks of organized theft.

Harley Feldman

As long as thieves are successful, and their exploits are shown on the news, copycats will attempt to do the same thing. Resale sites on the Internet make turning the stolen merchandise into cash much easier than before. The thieves need to be stopped at the store by guards or found by the police before they repeat committing robbery.

Ken Lonyai

California thefts are a reflection of Prop 47 that essentially makes shoplifting merchandise under $950 a misdemeanor and one that police/prosecutors are seemingly reluctant to pursue. So there is a clear signal to those open to violating the law, to give it a try. It looks like that mentality snowballs into organized throngs of petty criminals.

Maybe I’m too radical in my thinking, but as a retail chain, I would make it clear to communities that are creating or at least enhancing the possibility of looting by not pursuing it with appropriate laws/policing, that we will close stores and focus our physical footprint in safer communities.

Wishing that local leadership does something and spreading the cost of losses across all locations are both failed strategies retailers need to avoid.

Unfortunately, honest shoppers and employees suffer, but as these crimes escalate, they are in harm’s way by being present.

15 days 6 hours ago

I wanted to jump back in to this conversation; specifically to give my full throated support to the idea that retailers should take this grievous situation directly to city government and local law enforcement. To state to them, unequivocally, that if something isn’t done to punish criminals and dissuade further nefarious behavior they will shutter said locations.

In San Francisco’s downtown Union Square shopping district, retailers have already contended with years of the homeless driving customers (and businesses) away. Between rent that doesn’t reflect fair value and the reality that many stores in the area are hardly must-shop destinations (why buy here when you can buy closer to home?), and this latest damning turn, these chains are truly waiting for just one more “straw”!

Let’s hope the “camel’s back” isn’t already “broken.”

Rich Kizer

I’ve been thinking about this for days. I perceive it as almost an impossible problem to solve. Put 24-hour night guards in stores? Something horrible will result. The bottom line is as suggested above: metal curtains around the entire store, again not real practical. Once these outlaws find or see success in their actions, it can grow. Houston, we have a problem. And customers start running away.

David Spear

It is a national shame that this is occurring, and I’m sickened by these events. It seems like every day there is a new smash-and-grab taking place. The answer lies in a combination of policies that must change to initially thwart and then consistently defend against mob attacks. But I certainly don’t blame any retailer for closing and moving operations to safer communities.

15 days 11 hours ago
The gist of it, as I see it (from living in the purported epicenter of all this chaos, San Francisco), is to admit that a crime is a crime is a crime — and to those who partake: some (suitable) punishment must be expected. But like another commentator noted, certain crimes are essentially unpunishable here. Seriously, what sly sort of person would not take advantage of that absurdity? So, figure out some way to reprimand the perpetrators of even petty theft. Otherwise, the irony is a sort of “trickle up” effect, of criminals feeling emboldened to steal more and more. Further, it is also for cities, especially ours, to stop conflating policing with infringing on human freedoms. Or of making measures to combat vagrancy and trespassing somehow about being anti-homeless. As far as I can tell there is not such thing as being “pro” homeless(!). Meanwhile, some may wonder why I corral these seemingly different things together. Well, to me (and to many, even farther left types) it’s about trying too hard to be seen… Read more »
Joel Rubinson

This is just the beginning unless society fights back. This is the result of ultra liberal policies that reduce felonies to misdemeanors, eliminate bail so criminals are immediately left out, and allow for justification of such actions based on social issues. Center cities will become ghost towns. electing Adams as mayor of NY is the first sign I see that things might turn around. He is a pro-cop, hard on crime democrat. More local government with this attitude is the only answer. Crimes like organized looting must be singled out with no bail and lots of serious jail time or retail outlets in center city with become a thing of the past.

Peter Charness

Stores — not so much. Cities — a lot. As a resident of Portland, OR, we have a mess on our hands in this city. It all tracks back to the fact that our government leaders chose to turn a blind eye and extend sympathy to protestors when the law was broken the first times. Enforcing the law shouldn’t be a discretionary activity and once that line is crossed, the slip slide to more serious problems goes on unabated.

Craig Sundstrom

This is really a form of terrorism and while no panacea, federal laws should be broadened to encompass using the mail and electronic communications to plan and execute these thefts.

There are certain things that can make things more difficult for thugs, such as restricting parking and dress codes that prohibit incognito attire, but these — particularly the former — also burden actual shoppers. Beyond that, frustratingly, there isn’t much a retailer or small, local police department can do beyond offering the feeble advice to “be alert” … gee thanks! Sadly just one more nail in the coffin for physical retail.

Brian Kelly
15 days 9 hours ago

I ran stores in Chicago and Boston, forty years ago and it was a real problem. I was frequently in court. Now it’s out of control. The laws on theft size, criminal justice system in general, wealth distribution, embolden behaviors, guns.

Lots of boiling the ocean issues, but they must be solved for bricks to remain viable. Or retail becomes “catalog showrooms.”

Of course, as with Covid, the lowest paid are on the front line and in danger.

Where is the NRF on this?

John Karolefski

Stores can’t do much except beef up security. The “root cause” of these incidents can be traced to the attitudes of state and city political officials and their relationship with law enforcement. Instead of “Defund the Police” nonsense, the political leaders should beef up law enforcement, arrest the looters, put them in jail, and don’t give them bail for a few bucks. I bet the looting stops right away.

"Shoplifting laws need to be re-visited. It’s open season on retailers from CVS to Louis Vuitton if this does not get addressed."

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