By Glenn Townes
Glenn.townes@njurbannews.com

At about an average price of $70 per pound, jumbo king crab legs are one of the most palpable and expensive items in any upscale supermarket seafood department.
Between late July and mid-August, someone or a group of people managed to pilfer about $500 worth of the seafood delicacy from an upscale Princeton area grocery store. As the COVID-19 pandemic lingers on, grocery store owners have noticed an alarming increase in department or company shrinkage—supermarket lingo–for loss, pullback, or more specifically—theft, according to a recent report from the National Association of Shoplifting Prevention, (NASP) in Melville, NY.

More than $13 billion worth of goods is stolen from retailers across the country every year—with New York City and New Jersey area grocers reporting a noticeable uptick in sticky finger crimes, due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic. While grocery stores have long been a prime target for shoplifters, recent figures from the New York Police Department (NYPD)—the trend has been exacerbated by pandemic plagued, socially distanced weary and cash strapped consumers. High dollar items such as health and beauty care, infant formula and supplies, steak and in the case of the Princeton store, seafood, are the most often high-theft items. Sophisticated organized retail crime rings target mostly small to mid-sized grocery stores. Replete with a large network of crooks,
proficient in ripping off retailers by traditional methods such as “grab and run” or “distract and boost”scenarios, shoplifters are becoming more tech savvy, according to loss prevention experts.

According to the National Retail Federation (NRC)–a Washington DC-based think tank that examines national trends in the retail industry—the practice of switching UPC bar codes on certain items; disabling or blocking security cameras or digitally altering coupons have become common methods of theft in retail. Also, bribing or threatening store workers to become participants in the thefts is common. For example, store cashiers may be in cahoots with shoplifters and not charge certain items or provide security camera details and the location of certain items.
“There are other forms of theft shoplifters use—tools of the trade, including foil-lined
shopping bags to disrupt inventory control tags and bringing in multiple reusable bags and placing both paid and unpaid items in the reusable bags,” said a spokesman for the NRC. “Many shoplifters buy and steal merchandise in the same visit.”

Another reason for the spike in the number of shoplifting complaints is that first or second time perpetrators are usually only given a slap on the wrist with a fine and little or no jail time for cases involving stolen merchandise worth $200 or less. The punishment becomes harsher when the items are more expensive. In some cases, thieves are banned from shopping at the store. Additionally, some supermarkets, including Shop Rite, post pictures of thieves on a private and employee only viewed “wall of shame,” in the store.
Lastly, as the coronavirus continues to wreck havoc on nearly all industries, retailers are being forced to implement and upgrade loss prevention measures like never before. For example, loss security prevention experts offer these simple suggestions to retailers:

***Watch for cluster of cues in context. Look for physical cues, such as large opaque shopping bags, and behavioral cues, as as how close someone is standing to a high theft items, in clusters and context. A shoplifter may stand very close and stooped with their hands down to conceal the item and eyes up to look for people or cameras.
***Do a final check-in at checkout. At checkout, make eye contact with every customer and ask, “is there anything else?” Legitimate customers won’t have a problem with this. However, a shoplifter, especially an impulse thief, will take the question offensively and blab an excuse like, “Oh, I didn’t have room in my basket for that,” or “Oh I forgot about that.” Sell them the item and you’ve deterred them from shoplifting—at least this time.
***The shoplifting community talks—even impulse shoplifters often foolishly share techniques and easy targets on social media. Retailers must take a strong and direct approach with shoplifters and prosecute them, despite the circumstances.

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