What’s Going on With Retail Robberies in the U.S.?

By  //  December 10, 2021

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Retailers in the United States and worldwide have not had an easy time the past couple of years. Since COVID-19, there have been shutdowns and public health measures significantly affecting retailers.

Now, in the United States there is a spree of so-called smash-and-grab robberies that are leaving retailers feeling anxious and worried about not only monetary losses but the safety of employees. 

These aren’t being seen in Europe in the same way as the U.S., but there has been some looting in the past year, related primarily to protests and social unrest. 

So what’s going on in the U.S., and what are the implications for retail security potentially worldwide?

What is Smash-and-Grab?

Rather than calling it looting, police and local authorities refer to what’s going on in the U.S. as smash-and-grab. 

These types of burglaries involve smashing a window, which is often something like a display window, and quickly grabbing items. The thieves then leave quickly, and the display windows are usually on open streets. In some cases, burglars will go as far as driving through the walls of stores to grab items. 

Sometimes, the cost to replace broken and damaged windows and walls can be more expensive than the items actually stolen. 

Across the country, business owners and community leaders are worried about brick-and-mortar shops. 

Some of the major metropolitan areas where smash-and-grab has been an issue include San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles. 

Another term for these situations is flash mob robberies. 

Often these thefts are organized crimes, and thieves will take anything from razor blades to luxury handbags. 

These problems are creating even more turmoil for retailers, already dealing with shoppers who are nervous about returning to in-person stores, issues with supply chains and employee turnover. 

Recently in Walnut Creek, California, dozens of thieves in ski masks swarmed a Nordstrom store. They blocked the road access with their vehicles and then started smashing display cases. They all escaped to the getaway cars that were waiting for them. 

Two Nordstrom stores in the Los Angeles area had been hit days before on a smaller scale. 

In Union Square, San Francisco’s upscale shopping area, there were thefts at Bloomingdale’s, Louis Vuitton, and Burberry. 

Walgreens closed five stores in San Francisco because the problem was so bad, the company says. 

Target said over the summer it would temporarily reduce operating hours at five locations in the city because of theft. 

Response from the California Retailer’s Association

The president of the California Retailers Association recently spoke out, saying that something needs to happen to stop what she called brazen robberies. 

She discussed the need for a safe working and shopping environment. The president of the association said their customers and employees are being traumatized, and something has to be done to improve safety for everyone. 

Many in California feel the issue stems from the passing of Proposition 47, which lowers the penalties for retail theft. Under the law in California, stealing property under $950 is considered a misdemeanor instead of a felony. 

According to the association president, there are organized retail crime cases that prosecutors in California have had for years and done nothing about. The organization is calling for more policing and faster prosecution. 

In San Francisco, a recent decision was made to allow businesses to hire sheriff’s deputies for more law enforcement presence. The private guards are hired through a partnership between the San Francisco Police Department and Sheriff’s Office. 

The plan allows the hiring of deputies to patrol on an occasional basis and for special events. The idea is the presence of the deputies may serve as a deterrent to thieves. 

The plan is paid for by private funding, and according to the Sheriff’s office, wouldn’t affect current staffing levels. 

Many cities have effectively decriminalized shoplifting or eliminated cash bail for non-violent crimes. 

Gangs, mafias, and syndicates are using these changes to take advantage of retail. 

Los Angeles Announces Arrests

Authorities in Los Angeles recently said they’d arrested more than a dozen because of smash-and-grab thefts, with almost $340,000 in merchandise being stolen. 

Eleven robberies occurred between November 18 and 28, and 14 people were arrested. They’re now out on bail for the most part or didn’t have bail.  

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti called for an end to the no-bail policy for some defendants that was initially put in place to reduce overcrowding in jails during the pandemic. Garcetti said that as the pandemic is easing up, there needs to be a focus on putting criminals in jail when they put store employees in danger. 

A statewide policy of $0 bail for misdemeanors and low-level felonies ended last year. The LA County Superior Court system kept it in place. 

In San Francisco, District Attorney Chesa Boudin announced felony charges against nine people for thefts. Prosecutors in the Bay Area announced a joint effort to deal with organized retail theft. 

The Role of the Pandemic

Some blame the pandemic for the serious uptick in smash-and-grab robberies in major cities. 

For example, Michael Hanson, who’s the senior executive vice president for public affairs at the Retail Industry Leaders Association told The Hill the recent spike in organized retail crime is due at least in part to COVID-19. He said with many customers staying home and moving to online shopping, organized criminals are taking advantage of the opportunity to sell their stolen goods to a broader audience. 

Hanson says criminals see the chance to make a lot of money selling counterfeit and stolen items because they have a bigger market to do so. 

Proposed Legislation Targets Selling Stolen Goods

A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House and Senate introduced legislation earlier this year taking aim at the sale of these stolen goods, called the Integrity, Notification, and Fairness in Online Retail Marketplaces for Consumers Act. 

The goal of the bill would be to combat the sale of stolen and counterfeit consumer products online through increases in transparency. 

The legislation calls on online retail marketplaces to authentication the identity of high-volume third-party sellers. The hope is that this would help prevent vendors from selling counterfeit and stolen goods. 

The bill would also help law enforcement more effectively track down criminals. 

What is a Flash Mob Robbery?

Sometimes you’ll see smash-and-grab robberies described as flash mob robberies. For example, in a suburban area of Minneapolis, dozens of people stole items from three different Best Buy stores over Thanksgiving. 

Home Depot says theft apprehensions in their stores are up about 10% year-over-year. The home improvement retailer said in response they’ll be hiring more security for stores. Home Depot representatives also said they’ll be changing the layout of entrances to prevent theft. 

One way of doing this will be adding more gates that let traffic flow into stores at an entrance rather than out. 

The company also started adding technology to items that make it not work until it’s checked out through a register. 

In Alameda, California, after two businesses were targeted in November, the police department tools local business owners to take precautions like adding shatterproof film over store windows and using motion-sensor cameras. They also told business owners to remove high-value items from the floor. 

At Best Buy, the company is looking for new ways to secure products without causing too much inconvenience to customers. One way they’re doing that is by letting you pay by scanning a QR code before you leave with a product from locked cases. 

It’s difficult for retailers because when you lock up items on the shelves, it can prevent sales since you have to then go find someone to help you. 

Best Buy, similar to Home Depot, is hiring security and changing the layout of its stores.

The Role of Organized Crime

Officials are saying what’s being seen across America isn’t the same as looting. Instead, it’s the work of organized crime networks.  

Thieves are usually paid as little as a few hundred dollars to take items that are worth much more. These criminal networks often recruit young people to steal specific merchandise which they can then turn around and sell online. 

Officials say these aren’t people who are doing it because they need food or money. They’re doing it for a profit and often because they find it thrilling. 

While some say that theft is a non-violent crime, thus the no bail guidelines, others say it’s anything but a victimless crime. 

For example, there are frequently people with visible guns carrying out the robberies. Employees are feeling traumatized, and they are often assaulted. 

For example, in Walnut Creek, two employees were assaulted, and one was hit with pepper spray. Two suspects were arrested, and police recovered a gun. 

Local people will usually organize the mob robberies, sending crews to steal very specific merchandise. The bosses of the criminal crews will provide them with escape routes and sometimes rent them cars. 

What can appear as chaotic is often highly organized