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'Just be a good witness': Amid spike in organized theft, retailers reassess loss prevention

·6 min read

LOS ANGELES – When it comes to fending off an attack from a flash mob of smash-and-grab thieves, the Citadel Outlets believes it can live up to its name.

The sprawling shopping center, packed with outlet stores from Coach to Reebok, was crawling with security officers and sheriff’s deputies over the Thanksgiving weekend to deter grab-and-go criminals like those who recently broke into stores in several major cities.

Mall cops roved on foot, bikes and patrol cars. They watched the entrances, parking garages and monitored banks of closed-circuit camera screens. And the center vows not to let down its guard down through the remainder of the holiday season – morning, noon and night.

“We stay particularly aware as we get closer to the evening. People are unwinding from the day, but not our security people,” said David Blagg, general manager of the 50-acre complex converted from a shuttered Los Angeles tire factory.

He’s not alone. Retailers and mall operators have stepped up security to protect shoppers and employees as gangs of thieves have taken sledgehammers to storefront windows in organized, lightning-quick operations to relieve boutiques and department stores of as much high-end merchandise as they can carry before police arrive.

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The gangs can be violent. In one incident, a thief sprayed an officer with bear repellent at a Nordstrom department store in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley.

Camera footage of the incidents, from San Francisco to Chicago, has received wide attention in the news media. The attacks constitute yet another crisis for brick-and-mortar retailers, who have pinned their hopes on a lush holiday season critical to rebounding from the catastrophic loss of sales during the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s going to be a self-feeding frenzy for a while. Hopefully, it will die down, but if it doesn’t, it is going to change the face of retail to some degree,” said John Hassard in Birmingham, Alabama, a loss prevention and security expert for Robson Forensic.

In response, shopping centers and store owners are beefing up defenses in ways both visible and invisible to shoppers and clerks.

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Police officers and emergency crews park outside the Louis Vuitton store in San Francisco's Union Square on Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, after looters ransacked businesses late Saturday night. (Danielle Echeverria/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)
Police officers and emergency crews park outside the Louis Vuitton store in San Francisco's Union Square on Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, after looters ransacked businesses late Saturday night. (Danielle Echeverria/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)

At The Grove, one of Los Angeles’ most upscale open-air malls, entrances are secured at night by unspooling rolls of circular tape resembling a giant Slinkylaid on its side. It’s designed to stop, or at least slow, intruders. Ballistic film has been applied to storefront windows to make them harder to shatter in order to gain entry to stores.

Mall officials believe the precautions may have been a factor in holding down losses as a mob smashed a streetside window to enter the Nordstrom at The Grove. They never entered the mall itself and three suspects were later arrested.

Nordstrom has been a top destination for grab-and-go thieves during the spree, with several locations hit in the West. But the chain said it is reacting by taking steps such as making sure it has security officers both inside and outside its stores.

“Given the recent incidents at our stores and across the industry, we’re heightening our in-store security presence and implementing additional protective measures to keep everyone safe,” the retailer said in a statement.

It isn’t just luxury retailers being struck. One mob even blazed into a Home Depot and stole a load of tools. Four people were later arrested, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department reported.

Home improvement stores don’t carry the kind of obvious bling that makes headlines, but the array of tools, supplies and chemicals they stock made them a destination for thieves long before the criminal flash-mob phenomenon became a thing.

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A security guard stands outside the Nordstrom store at The Grove retail and entertainment complex in Los Angeles, Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021. Los Angeles police say a group of thieves smashed windows at the department store at the luxury mall late Monday, the latest incident in a trend of smash-and-grab crimes is part of a national trend. (AP Photo/Eugene Garcia)
A security guard stands outside the Nordstrom store at The Grove retail and entertainment complex in Los Angeles, Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021. Los Angeles police say a group of thieves smashed windows at the department store at the luxury mall late Monday, the latest incident in a trend of smash-and-grab crimes is part of a national trend. (AP Photo/Eugene Garcia)

“Organized retail crime has been growing for us and retailers for many years. We do many things to harden the target,” said Home Depot spokeswoman Christina Cornell. “We don’t want to be an attractive place for thieves or shoplifters to go.”

Home Depot takes steps like putting tethers on high-value items in a way that can’t just be plucked off the shelf. Some drills and other power tools have embedded technology that requires an employee to enable them at the checkout stand.

The chain also lends support to a trade organization, the Retail Industry Leaders Association, pushing for tougher laws to thwart fencing of stolen goods online.

RILA, as it is called, points to a study in which it took part that found two-thirds of asset protection managers at leading chains have observed a moderate to a significant increase in organized retail crime. It’s was part of the estimated $68.9 billion in theft from stores in 2019, the year before the pandemic struck.

RILA says the ability of people to anonymously sell stolen goods online adds to the trouble, an issue that would be addressed by a bill working its way through Congress.

"We need more transparency online,” said RILA spokesman Jason Brewer. The bill would “make it harder to hide behind a screen name to sell a stolen product.”

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More than 80 people stormed and robbed a Nordstrom in California. "Organized theft" robbers streamed out of the department store into dozens of cars.
More than 80 people stormed and robbed a Nordstrom in California. "Organized theft" robbers streamed out of the department store into dozens of cars.

In some cities, police and district attorneys are perceived as having shifted away from vigorously prosecuting criminals involved in property-related crimes, like shoplifting or other retail theft, and instead emphasize tracking down violent offenders. But Brewer said recent brazen flash-mob incidents, especially the ones involving weapons and bear spray, show that thievery can become violent.

Indeed, Home Depot’s Cornell urges anyone who is in a store during an attack as either a customer or employee to stand aside and not get involved to avoid becoming a casualty.

“Do not get in the way. Just be a good witness,” she advised.

Out at the Citadel Outlets, so far witnesses haven’t been needed. The flash-mob thieves are yet to strike.

That might be part luck, but also good planning. General manager Blagg said the center’s employees and security staff drill for all kinds of emergencies, whether its defense against flash-mob bandits or what to do if the 115-foot holiday tree catches fire.

The Citadel, like other retailers, had protocols in the works before the recent incidents. Last year, in the wake of the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis, gangs of thieves around the country took advantage of police focused on keeping the peace during protest marches in order to launch flash-mob attacks on stores. Blagg said that encouraged the Citadel Outlets and other properties to prepare for the contingency of attacks that never came.

He has one key advantage, however: The complex, unlike many malls and shopping centers, is surrounded by gates that can be closed in a couple of minutes, if needed. Even then, the worries never end.

It’s “quite a daunting task to make sure no one is slipping over a wall,” Blagg said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How U.S. retailers are guarding against organized shoplifting gangs

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