This article was adapted from an item in the Current Affairs Biweekly News Briefing. Subscribe today!
Over the past year or two, the news has been full of horror stories about shoplifting. To hear some people tell it, you’d think petty theft was a crisis of apocalyptic proportions. In the New York Post, for instance, we read that shoplifting is an “epidemic taking over America.” The Financial Times issues dire warnings of “surging shopping crime,” while Fox News insists that “the shoplifting crisis is a nightmare.” ABC’s Nightline airs scary-looking footage of what its hosts call “brazen smash-and-grabs”: people in masks breaking store windows, grabbing armloads of clothing, and running off. In the opinion pages of the New York Times, Pamela Paul waxes poetic over “What We Lose to Shoplifting.” (The loss in question? Paul herself feels less comfortable in stores these days. Riveting stuff.)
In response to this supposed scourge, there’s been a resurgence in “tough-on-crime” tactics, both from corporations and political leaders. In department stores like Target, customers are confronted by elaborate new security measures, with everything from toothpaste to frozen pizza locked behind glass. Rite Aid pharmacies have turned to facial-recognition software to guard their merchandise, only to discover that their computers falsely identify people as “likely shoplifters”—particularly if those people have dark skin. In New York City, Mayor Eric Adams has launched an entire police task force dedicated to retail theft. And on the campaign trail, Donald Trump has called for more violent measures, saying that police should simply shoot shoplifters on sight.
But statistical data shows that the reports of a shoplifting “epidemic” are highly exaggerated, if not outright made up. In a recent report, the Council on Criminal Justice gathered data about retail theft from 24 different U.S. cities, examining the frequency of reports, the dollar value of items stolen, the number of people involved in each crime, and several other factors. At first glance, it did appear that shoplifting was on the rise in the first half of 2023, as it increased by 16 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels. However, as German Lopez notes in the New York Times, that figure was heavily skewed by data from New York City. Remove the Big Apple, and the numbers tell a different story: shoplifting has actually decreased in 17 of the 24 cities surveyed, and is now fairly rare, with just 38.6 reported incidents per 100,000 people. In June 2019, that number was 45.1. Shoplifting might be happening more often in New York City specifically, but an “epidemic taking over America,” it isn’t.
So why does the media perpetuate the idea of a retail-theft crisis, if the evidence doesn’t bear it out? Lopez has a few theories. He points out that “events in New York tend to receive outsize scrutiny,” even if they aren’t relevant to the rest of the country, since so many media outlets are based there. (With our headquarters located in New Orleans, Current Affairs is one of the few publications immune to this bias.) Lopez also notes that “outlandish anecdotes” about crime are popular on social media, with footage of “looting flash mobs or thieves ramming cars into stores” likely to go viral and give the impression that such things happen all the time, when they really don’t. Finally, he writes that “Conservative media has promoted these videos as evidence of disorder in liberal cities and under President Biden,” using the crisis narrative to push their own political agenda. This last point seems clear enough: just look at how many stories Fox News runs about shoplifting, often noting that the crime in question took place in “a Dem-run city.” (The right, in general, loves to promote the myth that “woke” leftists have turned large U.S. cities into crime-infested wastelands.) For pundits like Jesse Watters, this kind of fearmongering and moral panic is practically a weekly feature.
Another part of the problem, though, is that news outlets rely on information from retail companies and don’t question what they’re told. In a CNN article about “Why Retail Theft is Soaring,” for instance, we can find the phrases “Target last week said,” “Nordstrom, Whole Foods and some other big chains said,” “Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said” and “Many other retailers have blamed” used to introduce key points. The writer in question simply repeats the statements and opinions of retail executives uncritically, as if they were settled fact. This is basically journalistic malpractice, and it’s especially bad because retailers have spread false information about shoplifting in the past.
In December 2023, the National Retail Federation retracted the claim that “organized retail crime” was responsible for nearly half of all “shrink”—the industry term for missing merchandise—in 2021. The claim had been repeated by the editorial board of the Washington Post, by Fortune, by CNN Business, and by the New York Post, significantly influencing the public discourse around this issue. But it was completely false: later, it turned out the actual organized-crime figure was closer to 5 percent. In a similar case, Target blamed shoplifting for its decision to close a store in East Harlem, and the New York Post parroted the claim—but its landlords said that the closure was actually the result of a “business decision to move to small-format stores,” and that theft hadn’t been raised as an issue at all. Last January, Walgreens’s finance chief admitted on an earnings call that “maybe we cried too much” about shoplifting in the previous year, as the company’s rate of “shrink” had actually fallen from 3.5 percent of total sales to around 2.5 percent. At best, retailers have been playing fast and loose with the information they put out; at worst, they’ve been engaging in a pattern of deliberate deception. Either way, their statements can’t just be taken on faith.
Sloppy journalism can’t explain the whole phenomenon, though. As author and civil rights lawyer Alec Karakatsanis points out, there’s also a strong class element involved in what kinds of behaviors are deemed newsworthy to begin with:
When the daily news media reports on a “crime wave” or a “surge in shoplifting” nearly every time the numbers from the police department fluctuate upward (note that no similar metaphors are used for decreases), they are almost always using these terms to describe the collective behavior of poor people and other marginalized groups. Things rich people do don’t often get this same metaphoric treatment in daily news. How many times do you see a major news story on a “surge” in tax evasion (a problem over 60 times the magnitude of other reported property crimes) or a “wave of crime” by oil companies?
In other words, petty thefts committed by poor and working-class people are treated as a crisis, while the much greater crimes committed by the wealthy are just business as usual. Karakatsanis doesn’t mention wage theft in this passage, but according to data from the Economic Policy Institute, U.S. employers steal as much as $50 billion a year from workers in the form of unpaid wages. Often, the very retail companies that complain the loudest about shoplifting—like Target, Walmart, and Dollar General—are among the offenders. They’re also complicit in things like child labor, which is widespread in retail supply chains. But these crimes are rarely the subject of breathless news coverage, and the executives responsible almost never face real consequences. Instead, the full weight of the carceral system is brought crashing down on people like Reggie Randolph—a Black man from Manhattan who spent more than 850 days imprisoned at Rikers Island, just for stealing NyQuil from a pharmacy. The injustice couldn’t be more obvious.
For a walking, talking example of the class divide at work here, just look at Donald Trump. Listen to the visceral anger in his voice when he bellows that shoplifters should be “shot!” and killed. He never says this kind of thing about tax cheats, corporate embezzlers, or other white-collar criminals who steal much greater sums. In fact, Trump is a brazen and prolific thief himself—it’s just that he steals primarily from working people, by not paying them for their labor on his various properties. (Theft, as Samuel Stein details in Jacobin, is his family’s business.) Trump clearly has no problem committing wage theft, but he thinks other kinds of theft are offenses worthy of death, even though they’re committed on a much smaller scale. This mirrors the attitude of the news media: shoplifting is a crisis threatening society, while white-collar crime is not. This bizarre double standard only makes sense in terms of class. What Trump (and the media) objects to isn’t theft or criminality itself, but who’s committing it. In this twisted worldview, the rich are supposed to be able to steal from ordinary people with impunity; that’s their class privilege, and a completely normal state of affairs. But if ordinary people threaten the property of large retail corporations, even slightly, their lives are forfeit. Steal a few bucks worth of merchandise from a Walgreens, and you’re basically “vermin,” another of Trump’s favorite words. Steal millions over decades, and you’re fit for the Oval Office.
The media might want us to think society is wracked by a shoplifting “epidemic” or “crisis,” but when we take a look at the facts, it’s obvious that isn’t true. In fact, when we look at the problems facing the world today—from climate change, to poverty and hunger, to mass shootings and the threat of nuclear war—shoplifting shouldn’t even crack the top 100. It’s only a badly skewed sense of priorities that treats petty theft as some kind of existential threat, while excusing the systematic wrongdoing of the people who actually hold all the wealth and power. True justice would mean inverting that relationship. Forget about the guy stealing pants from the mall. It’s the criminals in the world’s boardrooms, executive suites, and houses of government who are the real threat.