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Shoplifting at grocery stores is on the rise

Cashier Reena Hurtado of Freeport checks out a

Cashier Reena Hurtado of Freeport checks out a customer at Gala Foods in Freeport. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Masks have provided cover from more than just the spread of the COVID virus for the past year or so.

They also have provided anonymity for shoplifters, retailers and security experts said.

Mask wearing, high unemployment and the widespread use of opaque reusable bags are some of the factors that have contributed to a significant increase in supermarket shoplifting, they said.

"It’s absolutely increased at an exponential rate. … It’s something that we’re not used to seeing in Uncle Giuseppe’s locations," said Carl DelPrete, co-founder and chief executive officer of Uncle Giuseppe’s Marketplace, a Melville-based chain of full-service grocery stores that specialize in Italian food.

He declined to give specific theft numbers for the family-owned company of nine high-end stores, seven of which are on Long Island.

New York State’s ban on retailers’ use of single-use plastic shopping bags is another factor, local retailers said. The ban, which the state began enforcing in October, has led to more shoplifting by thieves placing merchandise in their bags and bypassing the checkout lanes, they said.

Where thefts grew

While shoplifting rates had been rising for the past several years, the overall numbers for the crime were down last year as the pandemic led to months of government-mandated shutdowns of nonessential businesses, starting in March 2020. But the story was different at essential stores, such as supermarkets and big-box discounters, that remained opened throughout 2020.

For one thing, "with a limited number of stores being open, shoplifters had fewer choices of stores to steal from, so those stores that were open likely had a larger percent of shoplifters than previously," said Mark R. Doyle, president of Jack L. Hayes International Inc., a loss prevention consulting firm in Wesley Chapel, Florida.

A Hayes survey of 22 large retailers, representing 18,594 stores nationwide, showed that their number of apprehensions for shoplifting fell 43.8% to 158,158 incidents between 2019 and 2020. The dollar value of the merchandise those retailers recovered during apprehensions last year was $49 million, which was 36.5% less than the amount in 2019, according to the survey.

But among those large chains, the essential businesses – six major retailers representing 8,866 stores – reported that their apprehensions for shoplifting rose 8.6% to 135,265 incidents and the value of the merchandise recovered during those apprehensions increased 15.3% to $36.5 million, the survey found.

Walmart, Lidl, Aldi, Stop & Shop and other large retailers declined Newsday’s requests for comment. Target did not respond to requests for comment.

Uncle Giuseppe’s, which in addition to its Long Island stores has one in Westchester and one in New Jersey, has been experiencing a rising number of incidents in which customers walk around its supermarkets helping themselves to merchandise, putting it in reusable bags and then walking out of the stores without paying, DelPrete said.

"The vast majority, 99.9% of our customers, come in with the intention of purchasing, and not stealing," he said.

Among the shoplifting incidents, most are thefts of "opportunity" rather than premeditated actions, and the items being stolen are usually not staple items, DelPrete said.

The value of the swiped merchandise ranges from $35 to $90 on average, he said.

Steaks and shrimp

But about 10% of the thefts are by experienced criminals trying to make off with expensive items to resell, he said.

"We’ve had instances where hundreds of dollars worth of steaks and hundreds of dollars worth of shrimp were trying to be removed," he said.

So, Uncle Giuseppe’s made some security changes over the past several months, including modifying the automatic doors by the entrance so that they open only for people entering stores, not exiting, he said.

In addition to hiring more loss prevention workers, the chain now has employees at checkout lanes bagging all groceries, even when customers bring their own bags, DelPrete said.

More training also is being given to all staff members, he said.

"We want to make sure we never offend our customers but at the same time ensure that those people who come in with the intention to steal realize that it’s not going to be as easy as it was," DelPrete said.

The bag problem

David Mandell owns six supermarkets in Queens and Long Island, including a Holiday Farms in Roslyn and one in Glen Head.

The biggest issue behind the increase in thefts at his stores has been reusable bags, said Mandell, who declined to give theft numbers.

He installed more security cameras at his stores in the last year, he said.

"People who have larceny in their hearts find a way to steal. That’s the way it’s always been in the supermarket business. And now it just gives them another good way to steal. So, yeah, it is a problem," he said.

Aurora Grocery Group, which is based in Charlotte, North Carolina, operates 24 supermarkets in four states, including eight Long Island stores under the Gala Fresh Farms or Gala Foods name.

The stores have seen a 5% increase in shoplifting since the pandemic began, said Jenny Jorge, who is an Aurora board member and vice president of Gala Foods on Merrick Road in Freeport.

"We find that the people shoplifting are taking much more food items as opposed to theft of detergents and high-cost items that used to happen frequently. The theft is happening on items such as meats, juices, spices, or other things that easily fit in pockets and purses," she said.

Gala has increased security measures at its stores, including adding more surveillance cameras, visible and hidden security guards, and more staff members in other areas, she said.

Supporting food pantries

The chain also recognized that need among people who have been laid off from their jobs has risen on Long Island during the pandemic, Jorge said.

"We have also supported local efforts to feed those in need through donations to food pantries and different organizations such as churches and community service groups. Hopefully this helps those in need find other outlets and not resort to shoplifting and theft," she said.

The pandemic ushered in a sense of desperation for laid-off workers who found themselves suddenly without income or an idea of when they would return to work, said Randi Shubin Dresner, president and chief executive officer of Island Harvest Food Bank. The Melville-based food bank is the largest hunger-relief organization on the Island.

"We understand that there are a few people who may resort to desperate measures to feed their families, but we want them to know that there’s no shame in asking for help. Island Harvest Food Bank offers food support to anyone who requests it — no questions asked," she said.

During a typical fiscal year, Island Harvest serves about 300,000 people, she said. During fiscal 2021, which ended June 30, the organization served more than 600,000 people, which was a record, she said.

"These are people who were looking for food. They were looking for service referrals, support, help with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly called the Food Stamp Program), a number of other services," she said.

During the pandemic, especially early on, new populations experienced food insecurity for the first time, said Barbara Staib, spokeswoman for the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention in Melville. The association provides anti-shoplifting education to offenders as a condition of sentencing, probation or diversion from the criminal justice system.

"People who never have shoplifted before have been pushed to the point they’re doing things that they don’t normally do," Staib said.

As recovery from the pandemic has taken hold in recent months, the shoplifting numbers have not declined, said Doyle, the loss prevention executive.

One reason is that, as stores move to more self-service, fewer employees are working on sales floors, so shoplifters have more privacy to steal, he said.

Low-risk crime

Also, shoplifters see theft as a high-reward, low-risk activity, he said.

There are about 30 states, including New York, with a felony threshold for shoplifting/larceny of $1,000 or higher, Doyle said.

"Shoplifting cases less than these high-dollar thresholds result in a misdemeanor offense only, meaning less police assistance and little if any punishment," he said.

That could be why several police departments on Long Island, including Glen Cove’s, Freeport’s and the Nassau County Police Department, told Newsday that they have not seen an increase in retailers calling to report shoplifting over the last year.

Since the state counts shoplifting data in its overall statistics for larceny, which includes all kinds of theft, there are no publicly available statistics specifically on shoplifting, according to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.

But security experts are seeing the effects of the increase in store thefts firsthand, they said.

Retailers seek help

The Associated Licensed Detectives of New York State is a Manhattan-based trade group that represents private investigators, security firms and security officers throughout the state.

Retailers’ calls to the trade group for referrals to security firms and officers have increased at least 50% since the pandemic began, said Thomas Ruskin, chairman of the nonprofit organization.

Demand has not waned since Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo lifted the mask mandate for vaccinated people in stores and other indoor settings in May, he said.

"The people who are stealing are at times wearing a mask, even if they have been vaccinated, to cover their identity. You can still wear a mask and not stand out, whereas two years ago, if I walked into a bank and was wearing a mask, everyone would be calling 911," said Ruskin, who is also president of CMP Protective and Investigative Group in Manhattan.

SHOPLIFTING IN 2020 COMPARED TO 2019

The overall numbers for shoplifting crimes were down last year as the pandemic led to months of government-mandated shutdowns of nonessential businesses, starting in March 2020. But the story was different at essential stores, such as supermarkets and big-box discounters, that remained opened throughout 2020.

22 large retailers (18,594 stores) reported:

158,158 apprehensions in 2020, a 43.8% decline from 2019

$49 million in value of products recovered during apprehensions in 2020, a 36.5% decline

Six essential businesses (8,866 stores) reported:

135,265 apprehensions in 2020, an 8.6% increase from 2019

$36.5 million in value of products recovered during apprehensions in 2020, a 15.3% increase

Source: Jack L. Hayes International Inc. survey

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