Retailers Taking Matters Into Their Own Hands to Combat Retail Theft Rings


When it comes to dealing with the rampant retail theft that plagues many retail stores, especially in our major cities, state and local governments have been all over the place, and enforcement has been, well, uneven.


Now, retailers are starting to take matters into their own hands. One, Home Depot, is setting up high-tech tracking centers and working with local law enforcement to break up organized theft rings.

When SWAT officers swarmed a house in a sleepy San Jose, California neighborhood last month, they found what could best be described as a make-shift hardware store inside: Shelves lined with boxes of brand-new tools, bathroom fixtures and spools of industrial wiring.

It resembled a mini Home Depot. And in some ways, it was.

Much of the cache of products—worth about $150,000—had been stolen from real Home Depot stores. The retail chain’s internal security force spent months investigating the thefts, scanning security camera footage, tracking license plates and surveilling suspects. They connected dots of the criminal network allegedly responsible and shared their findings with the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, which executed search warrants and arrested the suspects.    

That Home Depot internal security force — which, I might add, was made necessary by the failure of local authorities in many jurisdictions to control this problem — looks like it would do credit to any big-city police department.

While retailers have long partnered with law enforcement, the industry has bolstered its role in recent years, devoting more staff and financial resources to thwarting theft. Some retailers are researching body-worn cameras for employees. Others, including Home Depot, have invested in police-like investigation centers to sift through data and pinpoint theft-group members.    

“A lot of times, local and state resources don’t have the capacity to investigate these crimes at that scale,” said Sean Browne, senior manager of asset protection for Home Depot. Browne said Home Depot, which has nearly tripled its investigative team since 2016,  has started using license-plate readers in some store parking lots. “We try to full-service the investigations and ensure we cut off the head of the snake.” 


There is a downside, of course: As with the thefts themselves, all of these things represent costs that are passed on to consumers. Retailers often operate on narrow margins, making their money on the volume of sales, and just as theft rapidly cuts into their margin, so does the cost of high-tech theft prevention centers that the thieves make necessary.

See Related: New York's Lax Laws Have Spawned a Billion-Dollar Shoplifting Industry 

Ron DeSantis Announces Massive Crackdown on Retail Theft, Slams California and New York While Doing So

The problem of rampant retail theft has been years in the making, and the resolution will likewise take years. While state and federal politicians have emitted enough hot air on the topic to melt polar ice, the problem is essentially a local one; most of these crimes will only ever come up in front of local authorities at the municipal or county level. The resolution will come at several levels: voters casting out soft-on-crime DAs and prosecutors, making sure local law enforcement can go after the offenders, and vigorously prosecuting thieves.

This requires the citizens of these jurisdictions to pay attention, to analyze what their elected and appointed officials are doing, and to act accordingly.

Home Depot here is doing what they can do to attenuate this; and it's to the credit of San Jose's law enforcement that they, in the case noted above, responded appropriately when given the evidence that Home Depot had gathered.


One of my first non-farm jobs was in a Woolco store in Cedar Falls, Iowa, in the late '70s. After a spike in shoplifting issues, the general manager hired a new plainclothes security guy — a big, broad-shouldered former Air Force Security Policeman (SP) — and announced that shoplifters henceforth would be detained and that the store would press charges every time. That happened a few times, word got around, and the shoplifting problem at our store tapered off.

That can still work. Some weeks back, my wife and I went to our local Three Bears store for some groceries. As we were leaving, I stopped to gas for a moment with the store's manager, a big guy, a retired Marine, who regularly stations himself by the front doors of the outlet. In the course of the conversation, I mentioned the retail theft that is rampant in the nation's major cities and asked him what would happen if anyone thought to try it at a Three Bears full of Alaskans. 

He just grinned and held up one massive fist. "I don't think so," he said, echoing, I'm sure, the sentiments of many small-town and rural people around the nation.

When it comes to societal behaviors, we often get what we put up with, before realizing at last that we don't have to put up with it. Sometimes the simplest methods are the best methods.



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