Is the U.S. in the middle of a shoplifting wave? Target and other retail chains have warned of widespread theft. News outlets have amplified the story. On social media, people have posted videos of thieves looting stores.
But the increase in shoplifting appears to be limited to a few cities, rather than being truly national. In most of the country, retail theft has been lower this year than it was a few years ago, according to police data. There are some exceptions, particularly New York City, where shoplifting has spiked. But outside New York, shoplifting incidents in major cities have fallen 7 percent since 2019, before the Covid pandemic.
Why has the issue nonetheless received so much attention? Today’s newsletter tries to answer that question while taking a deeper look at recent shoplifting trends.
The various sources of crime data — from government agencies and private groups — tell a consistent story. Retail theft has not spiked nationwide in the past several years. If anything, it appears less common in most of the country than it was before the pandemic.
The most up-to-date source is the shoplifting report published this month by the Council on Criminal Justice, which uses police data through the first half of 2023. The other sources go through only 2022.
The council tracks 24 major U.S. cities. Overall, shoplifting incidents were 16 percent higher in the first half of 2023 than the first half of 2019. When New York City is excluded, however, reported shoplifting incidents fell over the same time period. Out of the 24 cities, 17 reported decreases in shoplifting.
The shoplifting problem “is being talked about as if it’s much more widespread than it probably is,” said Sonia Lapinsky, a retail expert at the consulting firm AlixPartners.
Other data also indicates that shoplifting is not up in most cities since 2019. Retailers’ preferred measure, called shrink, tracks lost inventory, including from theft. Average annual shrink made up 1.57 percent of retail sales in 2022, up slightly from 2021 (1.44 percent) but down compared with 2019 (1.62 percent). The F.B.I. and the Bureau of Justice Statistics also found that theft and property crime ticked up in 2022 but remained below pre-Covid levels.
The notion that the U.S. is enduring a period of higher crime in some areas is not wrong. Car thefts are up by more than 100 percent since 2019. Murders are on track to be 10 percent higher this year than they were in 2019.
Many major downtown areas have also become emptier and more chaotic since the pandemic, which may explain why drugstores and other retailers are more often locking up items even if shoplifting isn’t much more common than in the past.
There seem to be several reasons that shoplifting has received so much attention lately:
Events in New York tend to receive outsize scrutiny. It is the country’s biggest city, a big retail market and the headquarters for much of the national media. Another city where property crime has risen is Washington, D.C., where many journalists, as well as politicians, also live.
Videos of extreme but rare crimes can go viral today. On social media, people post videos of looting flash mobs or thieves ramming cars into stores. “There are millions of property crimes a year,” said Jeff Asher of the research firm AH Datalytics. As a result, people can always find outlandish anecdotes, even if crime is down.
Conservative media has promoted these videos as evidence of disorder in liberal cities and under President Biden.
Retailers have an interest in spreading the shoplifting narrative because it can suggest that disappointing profits are beyond their control.
Inflation may play a role, too. Even if retail theft is not up, retailers might care more about it now. After all, higher prices have eaten into their profit margins by increasing the underlying costs of doing business. That makes reducing theft more important.
The rise in murder, car theft and some other crimes makes shoplifting seem like part of a larger story even if it isn’t in most cities.
Whatever the full explanation, the current focus on shoplifting is part of a broader trend: The public often overestimates crime. Over the past two decades, most Americans have said that crime is rising, according to Gallup’s surveys. In reality, crime rates have generally plummeted since the 1990s.
Related: Some middle-aged white women shoplift at self-checkouts in Britain because people assume they won’t steal, a Guardian columnist argues.
THE LATEST NEWS
Hamas released 12 more hostages, 10 Israelis and two Thais. Israel released another 30 Palestinian women and minors from its jails.
More releases are expected on both sides today, the last agreed day of the cease-fire. Top intelligence officials from the U.S. and Israel are in Qatar to discuss extending it.
Israel is facing external pressure to make the cease-fire permanent and some internal pressure to resume fighting, The Times’s Patrick Kingsley writes.
“They are broken”: Relatives of freed Israeli hostages described the mental state of their loved ones. A 9-year-old girl spoke in whispers after her release, her father told CNN.
This chart shows how many hostages are still in Gaza.
Christmas is canceled in Bethlehem. Palestinian Christian leaders plan to forgo celebrations in solidarity with Gaza, The Washington Post reports.
Biden is struggling to navigate anger from some supporters, and some younger staff members, who disagree with his response to the war.
Democrats are clashing over whether to attach conditions, like measures to avoid civilian casualties, to an aid package for Israel.
“Too many Americans are exploiting arguments against Israel and leaping toward a virulent antisemitism,” Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, writes in a Times Opinion essay.
Rosalynn Carter’s Memorial
Jimmy Carter, 99 and in hospice care, attended the memorial service for Rosalynn Carter, the former first lady who died last week at 96. He sat in a wheelchair wrapped in a blanket.
“My mom spent most of her life in love with my dad,” said their daughter, Amy, who read from a letter Jimmy wrote to Rosalynn 75 years ago. The Carters were America’s longest-married first couple.
Biden, Bill Clinton and every living first lady — Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, Michelle Obama, Melania Trump and Jill Biden — attended the service, at an Atlanta Methodist church.
The Koch brothers’ conservative political network endorsed Nikki Haley for president, a blow to Ron DeSantis, who had hoped to be the alternative to Donald Trump. Voters are warming to Haley’s candidacy.
Hunter Biden, the president’s son, offered to publicly testify to Congress about his family’s business dealings. House Republicans want him to testify behind closed doors first.
Trump’s lawyers plan to use his federal Jan. 6 trial to question the results of the 2020 election.
The United Arab Emirates, host of this year’s U.N. climate conference, sought to use its position to lobby on oil and gas deals, a leaked document showed.
The wife of Ukraine’s military intelligence chief was poisoned, Ukrainian officials said. She is recovering in a hospital.
Sierra Leone arrested 13 military officials and a civilian after a coup attempt that released more than 2,000 prisoners.
France plans to ban smoking in parks and near public buildings next year.
Google will soon delete accounts on its services — including Gmail and YouTube — that have been idle for two years or more.
Amazon, which had been quiet about its A.I. plans, launched a workplace chatbot.
A commercial plane crossed the Atlantic without using fossil fuels for the first time, The Washington Post reports.
Sports Illustrated published online product reviews under fake author names, possibly generated by A.I., the tech news site Futurism reported.
Other Big Stories
Pope Francis evicted a top U.S. cardinal, Raymond Burke, from his Vatican home, reports say. Burke, a conservative, is the pope’s leading critic within the church.
Charles Munger, Warren Buffett’s longtime partner at the investment firm Berkshire Hathaway, died at 99.
A far-right leader’s surprise election success in the Netherlands speaks to an urban Dutch population that’s been out of touch with farmers’ needs, Paul Tullis writes.
Black Americans are at higher risk of amputation and death for treatable limb diseases. A standardized treatment could save them, Anahita Dua writes.
Houston has cut homelessness by more than 60 percent. On The Opinions, a new audio show, Nicholas Kristof follows outreach workers to see the city’s strategy in action.
Here are columns by Thomas Friedman on the Palestinian Authority and Bret Stephens on the Palestinian cause.
Belém: A food-obsessed Amazonian city cooks with ingredients hard to find anywhere else.
Status symbol: Dyson’s cordless vacuum has become a must-have for the younger generation.
Lives Lived: The singer Jean Knight had one Top 10 hit in her long career, but it was a memorable one: “Mr. Big Stuff,” a brassy anthem of female strength that topped the Billboard R&B chart in 1971 and sold two million copies. She died at 80.
N.B.A.: Mark Cuban agreed to sell a majority stake in the Dallas Mavericks to Miriam Adelson, a casino magnate, in a multibillion-dollar deal. He’ll keep control over basketball operations.
N.F.L.: The Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who tore his Achilles’ tendon in Week 1, cast doubt on his return this season. “I’m not at an ability to play at this point,” he said in a TV interview.
College football: Ohio State dropped to No. 6 in the penultimate playoff rankings.
ARTS AND IDEAS
10 Best Books: The editors of The Times Book Review chose their favorite books of the year, including:
“The Fraud” by Zadie Smith, a tale of 19th-century London centered on a real-life criminal trial over the impersonation of a nobleman.
“The Bee Sting” by Paul Murray, a tragicomic tale about an Irish family whose fortunes plummet after the 2008 financial crash.
“Fire Weather” by John Vaillant, an account of a raging 2016 wildfire in Canada and the perfect storm of factors that led to the catastrophe.
See the full list here, and hear Times editors discuss their picks on the Book Review podcast.
More on culture
Paris Hilton surprised her family with the birth of her second baby, a girl named London, via surrogacy, The Cut reports.
Peacock is paying the family of Rex Heuermann, who is accused of killing three women and burying them in Gilgo Beach, to participate in a documentary.
THE MORNING RECOMMENDS …
Turn white beans, garlic and chile flakes into a pasta sauce.
Work out with your kids.
Stuff grown-ups’ Christmas stockings with these Wirecutter-approved items.
Monitor your health with a wearable fitness tracker.
Here is today’s Spelling Bee. Yesterday’s pangram was braving.
And here are today’s Mini Crossword, Wordle, Sudoku and Connections.
Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — German
Correction: Yesterday’s newsletter misstated the film for which Lily Gladstone won best lead performance at the Gotham Awards. It was “The Unknown Country,” not “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
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