Addressing the Elephant in the Room on Organized Retail Crime

Quantifying the scope of ORC is a known challenge, as ORC is not a single event or act

Over the last few months, the National Retail Federation became the focus of various flawed narratives alleging the retail industry distorts retail theft data to drive public policy goals. The NRF made a correction to an April 2023 report on ORC, withdrawing a phrase that suggested ORC accounted for half of the overall inventory losses suffered by the retail industry in 2021.

NRF’s research partner K2 Integrity mistakenly linked the results of the NRF’s 2022 National Retail Security Survey with a statement made by an expert in a 2021 Senate hearing that ORC resulted in $45 billion in annual losses. NRF corrected the citation as soon as the mistake was identified.

Here’s the background:

The NRF commissioned K2 Integrity to lead a study to examine the gaps in the understanding of ORC and provide new information on ORC threats and trends that would inform the public debate. The report, published in April 2023, was intended to provide context for understanding how retail theft rings operate. The inaccurate text and citation, which inferred an estimate—and it was an estimate—of losses due to organized criminal activity was purely incidental to the findings and didn’t even merit a mention in the report’s executive summary or conclusions.

The basic challenge with data is clearly stated right up front in the report. “There are significant deficiencies in the availability of consistent and consolidated data regarding ORC,” reads page four of the report’s key findings. “The fragmentary and disorganized state of data on ORC across national, state, and local authorities, and the lack of standard centralized information on ORC from the retail industry, present difficulties to building a nuanced understanding of ORC’s national and regional prevalence, and operational trends.”

It is a known fact that retailers are facing an increase in theft, crime, and violence, much of it involving organized retail crime efforts to resell stolen merchandise back to consumers.

Quantifying the scope of ORC is a known challenge, as ORC is not a single event or act. ORC networks use shoplifting, break-ins, cargo theft, and other criminal activities to obtain stolen goods to fund their enterprises.

Retailers large and small have differing resources and capabilities dedicated to investigating, tracking, and analyzing events that may be tied to organized retail crime groups.

Retailers admit to underreporting shoplifting due to lack of police response, failure to arrest or prosecute, or when a retailer recovers the merchandise from the shoplifter.

Police department reporting of retail theft is also wildly inconsistent. Some departments may report it as shoplifting. Others may categorize these crimes as larceny, robbery, or property crimes. And furthermore, some departments won’t even respond to shoplifting due to current procedures or response capabilities. At the time of an incident, a retailer or law enforcement agency may not know the theft is part of an organized retail crime effort until an investigation takes place. Law enforcement nationwide is short-staffed and under-resourced, and needs support from the federal government for these major cross-jurisdictional crimes.

A recently released study by the Council of Criminal Justice (CCJ) on shoplifting provided data from the perspective of law enforcement reporting. Within their report, the CCJ highlights similar limitations of data, including a statement that the data used within their report “almost uncertainly undercount total shoplifting.” Of course, certain media outlets even discounted this fact by publishing misleading narratives that retail theft is not a serious issue.

It’s fair to ask questions about the data and the true impact of these thefts and organized groups, but the problem with media coverage that focuses on the known data problems gives many critics an unwarranted excuse to downplay the seriousness of these crimes and delay efforts to address them.

Evidence is everywhere that retail crime is on the rise. Media outlets across the nation continue to report ongoing acts of widespread shoplifting. Law enforcement agencies continue to establish task forces and alliances focusing on organized retail crime. These same agencies are reporting apprehensions of repeat theft offenders and fencing operations involved in stealing and reselling stolen goods. Retailers continue to lock up more merchandise to deter and prevent theft, much to the dismay of legitimate customers who now have to wait for a store associate to unlock commonly stolen items.

Our members have reported incidents where these groups threaten violence, use weapons—including bear spray or mace on employees—or set fires in the store to cause a distraction. We have also witnessed tragic, unfortunate deaths as a result of these actions, including that of a security guard at a department store in Philadelphia.

These crimes can be the tip of the iceberg of a problem with global proportions. We continue to learn of apprehensions involving ORC groups operating across the US with links to theft groups located in China, Eastern Europe, and South America, according to the US Department of Homeland Security. These groups use proceeds from ORC to fund other crimes including drugs, guns, and human smuggling.

Retail theft is not a victimless crime. It impacts employees, consumers, and communities. Increased violence involving theft has caused injury, death, and fear for those working or shopping in high-crime locations. That makes it difficult for retailers to recruit and retain employees.

Better data is absolutely part of the solution, but we should not delay acting on the obvious evidence of retail theft in our communities every day while arguing over the numbers.

It’s time for critics to stop dwelling on flawed, flashy inferences and focus on the facts. Instead, let’s prioritize addressing the flagrant disregard of law that threatens all retailers and weakens our communities.

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