The Bold and the Brazen: Unmasking the Shocking Surge of Shoplifting in the US

Published May 14,2023 By Insuranks Editorial Team 

Major U.S. retailers are calling shoplifting a national crisis, and theft rates across multiple retail industries have soared in the last year. As the cost of living and interest rates spike, Americans are becoming desperate—and more brazen—in their theft. Companies have even turned to increasing business insurance to offset losses from shoplifting.

We wanted to know, where is shoplifting increasing the most, and why? We also set out to learn how retail workers are feeling about this alarming trend. To find out, we surveyed retail workers in the U.S. to ask about recent changes to theft rates, how employees are responding, and the overall sentiment toward shoplifting.

Key takeaways:

  • 55% of retail workers have seen increased shoplifting activity in the past year

  • Three-quarters of warehouse stores like Costco have experienced a recent bump in theft

  • More than half—56%—of retail workers don’t feel safe at work partially due to shoplifting prevalence

  • 88% of retail stores don’t encourage workers to stop theft

  • Over 60% of Americans believe shoplifting is sometimes justifiable

Most Retail Workers Have Seen Increases in Store Theft in the Past Year

Of all the retail workers we surveyed, more than half, 55% have noticed increased rates of shoplifting in the past year alone. Warehouse stores like Costco and BJs have seen the largest increase in theft, with 76% of workers reporting a bump in stolen goods in the last 12 months.

71% of workers in department stores (think: Macy’s and JCPenney) and 67% of employees in big box stores (like Best Buy, Walmart, and Target) saw an uptick in theft in the past year.

Where is shoplifting of greatest concern, you ask? 

California has seen the largest bump in shoplifting overall. Approximately 20% of all major cities in the U.S., where at least half of employees have observed an increase in store thefts, are located in California, also known as the Golden State.

 The proportions of retail employees in major cities who have observed a rise in theft rates:

  • Baltimore, Maryland: 100%

  • Fresno, California: 100%

  • Oakland, California: 100%

  • Omaha, Nebraska: 100%

  • San Jose, California: 100%

  • Tucson, Arizona: 100%

  • Portland, Oregon: 86%

  • Tulsa, Oklahoma: 80%

  • New Orleans, Louisiana: 75%

  • Denver, Colorado: 70%

  • Seattle, Washington: 70%

  • Jacksonville, Florida: 69%

  • Los Angeles, California: 68%

  • Dallas, Texas: 67%

  • Raleigh, North Carolina: 67%

  • Sacramento, California: 67%

  • Fort Worth, Texas: 60%

  • Nashville, Tennessee: 57%

  • Columbus, Ohio: 57%

  • Tampa, Florida: 55%

  • Detroit, Michigan: 55%

  • Louisville, Kentucky: 54%

  • Charlotte, North Carolina: 53%

  • Albuquerque, New Mexico: 50%

  • Austin, Texas: 50%

  • Las Vegas, Nevada: 50%

  • Long Beach, California: 50%

  • Milwaukee, Wisconsin: 50%

  • Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: 50%

  • Virginia Beach, Virginia: 50%

  • Washington, D.C.: 50%

How and When Retail Workers Respond to Shoplifting

Thwarting shoplifting efforts seems like a dangerous game that could put employees at risk, and the large majority—82%—of retail workers agree. Thankfully, employers at retail stores are even more concerned with the risks, as 88% don’t encourage workers to step in if they see shoplifting occurring.

In fact, lots of these stores have specific rules against employees attempting to stop theft attempts. More than four in 10 workers we surveyed said they wish they could do something but can’t because their employers instruct them not to.

And perhaps the most discouraging statistic of all: 56% of retail workers feel unsafe in their workplace, partly because of the rise in shoplifting.

So, why has shoplifting gotten so bad in the past year? Well, 82% of survey respondents said they believe it’s because the sticky-fingered shoppers are facing financial hardship. With inflation and a country-wide bump in living costs, that seems plausible.

Half of Americans believe that shoplifting is worsening because employers aren’t taking enough action to stop it. Another 42% believe a lack of security measures in stores—possibly because insurance policies cover loss—is to blame for the recent rise in theft.

Shoplifting is “Sometimes” Okay, Says 62% of the US

The worker sentiment toward shoplifting, surprisingly, isn’t all negative. A compassionate 62% of all retail workers said they’re willing to ignore when shoppers steal necessities.

Stolen food and baby supplies are the easiest necessities for retail workers to look past, with just under half of all respondents saying it’s sometimes okay to steal them. Around a quarter believe stealing clothing is justifiable, compared to just 7% that believe it’s sometimes okay to steal non-essentials, like electronics and makeup.

Probably in part because of the American sentiment toward corporate greed, 55% of U.S. retail workers believe it’s more acceptable to steal from a large store like Walmart or Target than from a mom-and-pop store.

Where Retail Workers Are Least Likely to Report Store Theft

Surprisingly, employee response to shoplifting depends largely on the retail industry in which they work. A staggering 88% of pet store employees in the U.S. don’t report shoplifting at all, while only 22% of sporting goods store employees fail to report stolen goods.