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How Criminals Are Ruining Your Shopping Experience

If on your next shopping trip the store happens to be out of electric toothbrush heads, the ink jet printer cartridges cost a little more, or there’s a security guy at the exit checking your receipt against the clothing in your shopping bag, don’t chalk it up to bad luck. Such experiences are becoming more common as retail theft increases.

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A new survey from the National Retail Federation found that 95% of retailers say they have a problem with organized retail theft, perpetrated by groups that repeatedly steal big quantities from multiple stores or warehouses with intent to make money by reselling those goods. (Rogue, lipstick-lifting housewives need not apply.) And while it’s always been a problem (90% said it was last year), it seems to be escalating, with more than half of retailers saying they’ve seen more incidents over the last year than in previous years. Figures are hard to calculate, but the NRF estimates retailers lost as much as $30 billion last year.

At first glance, stores are the big losers, but organized theft has a big impact on consumers, too.

“When retailers lose significant amounts of merchandise, those costs are passed along in the form of higher prices,” says Joseph LaRocca, the senior advisor on asset protection for the National Retail Federation. At current rates, he says, a penny out of each dollar a customer spends at the store goes to offset those losses.

It also makes for a less satisfying shopping experience. Because organized retail crime often targets say, all the baby formula or disposable razors at drugstores within one area, or a retailer’s entire shipment of winter jackets, an operation in your area could make shelf selection scarce. (One 2010 arrest of a Los Angeles ring detailed in the NRF report turned up $2.5 million worth of Levi’s jeans.) Then there are the new security procedures that help the store but annoy shoppers, like keeping targeted items in locked cases on the aisles or behind the register, requiring a receipt and ID for returns, and posting security personnel to check your receipt against shopping bag contents at the door (a contentious issue The Consumerist tracks). Theft has also prompted retailers to tighten return policies, requiring both a receipt and some form of ID, he says.

Discount hunters may be inadvertently perpetuating the cycle. Stolen merchandise frequently shows up for as little as 25% of the retail price on online auction sites, at flea markets and street-corner stands. But buyers could be putting themselves at extra risk. Often-stolen products like over-the-counter meds, baby formula, diabetic testing strips and beauty products have expiration dates and require storage at set temperatures — which criminals ignore, La Rocca says. Baltimore police destroyed more than $3 million in over-the-counter meds and beauty products confiscated in a raid last year for that very reason. Two warning signs a product may have been stolen: the price and inventory control tags have been removed, leaving a gummy residue, and the expiration date is smudged, blacked-out or covered.

What do you think, readers? Would you buy something that you suspect had been stolen, if the price was low?

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    • “What do you think, readers? Would you buy something that you suspect had been stolen, if the price was low?”

      What a ridiculous question. I think that most readers of such a high quality web-site such as this one would be far removed from the ilk who lack the moral compass to make the right decision regarding stolen goods, not to mention the ramifications of the misdemeanor or felony one would blight one’s record with by buying said stolen items.

About Pay Dirt

  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to quentin.fottrell@dowjones.com or tweet @SMPayDirt.

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