It's taking shoplifting to a new level: Organized retail crime, where bad actors take items from stores or from shipments delivered to them with an intent to turn a profit for a gang or other group, is causing retailers across America to lose precious inventory.

Retail demand remains high with Americans continuing to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, which at its outset caused factories to shut down production and consumers to focus more on what they could order from home rather than experience in person.

Mark Mathews, vice president of research development and industry analysis for the National Retail Federation, said the organized activity is contributing to something known as "retail shrink," which accounted for $94.5 billion in losses to sellers in 2021 according to an NRF survey.

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The shift in purchasing trends brought on by the pandemic caused a spike in numbers that was "unheard of," according to Mathews.

"The 10 years prior to the pandemic, the average retail sales growth was about 3.7% per year," he said. "Then in 2020, it grew 7%. Then in 2021, it grew 14%."

The dangers of organized retail crime

Not only is there an obvious shrinkage effect for consumers, because retailers need to charge more to cover their losses, but Mathews said there are also inherent elements of danger and violence, which are ever increasing.

So when shoppers see certain goods locked up in cases, where only an employee can allow access, they should be aware of the reason why.

"It's for everybody's benefit that that's happening, because the more these things get stolen, the more you have to pay for them, the higher the price goes," Mathews said. "A lot of this 'smash-and-grab' activity is coming not from your everyday shoplifter, it is coming from these organized criminals."

What do these bad actors want?

Often, the items organized shoplifters — which also include online bots diverting shipments — want aren't luxury items, although they may be.

Take for instance slender but expensive dental strips, to use one example Mathews provided.

"They also want stuff that they know that they can move, and stuff that isn't necessarily that bulky," Mathews said.

Nothing is immune: apparel, electronics, home furnishings, office supplies, toys, even food and beverage.

What can businesses do?

Mathews said retailers need the government to step in to help solve the problem, because employees might understandably be hesitant to put themselves in the middle of a violent operation.

But that doesn't mean just at the state level; many gangs operate across state lines, so Mathews said federal authorities need to give the issue their attention.

Patrick Lavery is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at

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