At Home Depot and other retailers, a tug-of-war with shoplifters

Brick-and-mortar stores blame internet as police wrestle with calls

In one Home Depot surveillance video, three men pushing filled carts shove aside an employee who steps in their way as they walk out the door without paying.

In another, a man pushing a filled cart pulls out a gun and walks out the door without paying as an employee who tried to stop him lifts both arms and backs away.

“We want to make it more uncomfortable for criminals to come into the store, but when someone is that brazen, what can you do?” said Scott Glenn, Atlanta-based Home Depot’s vice president of asset protection, playing the videos for a reporter.

Despite a decades-long downturn in U.S. crime rates, retailers say they're struggling to curb shoplifting even as they train more cameras on visitors. Fueling the theft, they say, are organized crime groups that can easily sell stolen goods online in relative anonymity.

While the first surveillance incident happened in Houston and the second in Miami, metro Atlanta is far from immune. Dunwoody police, for example, say most of the service calls they get each day are for shoplifting.

Most incidents don't involve physical confrontations and retailers often eschew armed guards to avoid escalation. Still, violent retail deaths in the U.S. rose by nearly a third between 2016 and 2018, to 488 last year, according to security newsletter D&D Daily. Atlanta was among the three hardest-hit cities in two of the last three years.

Local retailers are pressing police to crack down more on shoplifting. They're also pushing an anti-racketeering bill at the Georgia legislature, HB 488, that would make it easier to arrest people involved in retail theft even if they're not the ones walking out the door without paying.

Meanwhile, they’re grappling with a dilemma: They could make it harder to steal, including putting more merchandise under lock and key, but risk making shopping less convenient and pleasant.

Local police have their own dilemma: Chase retail theft or focus on other priorities. The Atlanta Police Department says it has given zone commanders more leeway on responding to shoplifting calls. Officers were spending up to two hours on such calls.

‘I can always find a guy’

Nearly $50 billion a year goes out the door in retail crime, according to the National Association of Shoplifting Prevention. The venues range from hardware to groceries, Big Box retailers to mom-and-pop shops. The theft runs the gamut, from armed gang members bullying their way past the register to someone quietly pocketing peanuts.

Retailers are most concerned about organized retail crime – the coordination among thieves, gangs and “fences,” the seemingly above-board places that sell the stolen goods.

Decades ago, hot merchandise had to be sold by word of mouth or perhaps from an unmarked van in an alley. Now, a “fence” can use online marketplaces such as Amazon, eBay or Craigslist to sell stolen goods and UPS, FedEx or the U.S. Postal Service to deliver them.

"It used to be, 'I know a guy' to sell to," said Read Hayes, director of the Loss Prevention Research Council, whose members include Walmart and Home Depot. "Now, I don't have to know a guy. Because I can always find a guy."

Crime rings employ a mix of professionals and needy people, including cash-strapped drug addicts. Often the front-line thief will go to a fence and ask what they need before heading to the store. Sometimes the thief will steal first, figuring to sell it to a fence for a few dollars.

One recent morning an undercover investigator for Home Depot, accompanied by a reporter, observed an Atlanta pawn shop from an unmarked car. A white van pulled up to the shop, which investigators say is a fence for stolen goods that it mainly sells on eBay.

A young woman was at the wheel. A man got out – thin, late 20s or early 30s, with a twitch – and tottered into the store, returning a few moments later with a female employee.

He rolled open the side panel of the van and showed her his prize: A large, new television. The woman leaned in, took a good look and then shook her head: The shop already had enough TVs.

The employee went back inside as the disappointed man nodded to himself. The Home Depot investigator, who is a former cop, approached the twitching man to ask about the exchange. The man said he just needed some money badly. He gestured. Near the TV was a newborn baby.

They were going to keep looking for a place to sell the TV, he said, and climbed in the van.

Spider packaging and `Can I help you, sir?’

Home Depot and other retailers are trying several tactics to combat theft:

— Employees approach people if there is any doubt about their intentions. A simple “Can I help you, sir?” lets people know they’ve been noticed.

— “Spider packaging,” on some small but expensive items, is a specially designed wire wrap that prevents it from being easily opened. It also includes electronics that sounds an alarm if it’s not removed at checkout.

— Some items are behind glass, until customers request them.

— Some items aren’t even on the shelf. Instead, customers take a ticket, which they exchange at checkout for the product.

— Numerous cameras sweep the store floor from the ceiling. At least in some stores, Home Depot has added facial recognition, which has triggered a lawsuit in Illinois, where plaintiffs argue it violates anti-privacy laws.

— In a few stores proven to be frequent targets for thieves, retailers have hired off-duty police who are armed and authorized to make arrests. That hasn’t always worked out. A police officer working off-duty at an Atlanta Walmart was sentenced to five years in prison last year after beating a customer he wrongfully accused of stealing a tomato.

"It's a balancing act between customer experience and the need for security and safety," said Home Depot's Glenn.

Organized retail crime is often more than straightforward shoplifting.

Thieves swipe an item, then return it at a different store. Without a receipt they are often given a gift card, which can be sold to a fence.

Sometimes thieves switch tags from cheap items to expensive ones, then bring the product back for a refund at the original price. Some have figured out how to print lower-priced tags, which they attach to pricey products.

Home Depot won't say how much it loses to shoplifters each year. But the rule of thumb, according to experts, is that thieves walk off with about $750,000 worth of goods for each $1 billion in revenue. That would put the $108 billion-a-year company's losses at about $81 million.

Police: Lots of calls from Walmart - and dropped charges

In Atlanta, retailers like Home Depot say they want police to treat shoplifting calls as more of a priority.

But when the city's police department downshifted its anti-shoplifting response more than a year ago, it said officers needed to focus on worse crimes. The department says Walmart in particular required "constant attention." It suggested retailers hire more off-duty cops, who would have power to detain and arrest suspects.

In Dunwoody, police continue to answer shoplifting calls. A “blitz” this spring, in which police staked out stores for several days, produced 24 arrests and the recovery of $6,279 worth of merchandise, as well as fraudulent credit cards.

But Robert Parsons, a spokesman for Dunwoody police, also called on stores to ramp up their internal security and voiced frustration about law-enforcement efforts sometimes being wasted.

“Sometimes the store manager doesn’t have the authority to press charges,” he said. “So you chase and arrest someone and then they tell you, ‘We can’t press charges.’ And you say, ‘Well then, why did you call?’”

Walmart, he said, called police the most often but also had the habit of dropping charges if the stolen item was not valuable. Walmart declined comment.

Under Georgia law, a theft is only treated as a felony if the value exceeds $500. Below that, it's a misdemeanor.

Most retailers now tell employees to talk to thieves, to document the incident, but to avoid a physical confrontation.

Sgt. Parsons agrees that’s smart policy.

“We don’t want unarmed store employees in confrontations with people who could be armed,” he said. ”There are a million ways that could go bad.”