For the first time in six years, retail theft has gone up.
While the recession played a role emboldening more amateur shoplifters, experts suggest there is more at work. And many academic studies over the years have failed to find a link between retail theft and a weak economy.
"People aren't stealing to feed their families," said Joe LaRocca, senior asset protection director for the National Retail Federation. "They're taking iPods, handbags and other discretionary items."
Just as big, if not bigger, of a factor is that retailers today have far fewer salespeople on the floor to keep an eye on the goods being spirited out the door.
"Stores are giving thieves more opportunity, which is why we're seeing more amateurs and first-time shoplifters arrested," said Richard Hollinger, a University Florida criminologist who compiles the national retail theft estimate. "I've been shopping where you have to actually track down a salesperson."
Retailers put a dollar figure on all goods they cannot account for, then make estimates based on cases and investigations made by their own store detectives, who build nearly all shoplifting cases for police.
Through that lens, Hollinger's preliminary estimate of missing merchandise in 2008: $36.5 billion — or 1.5 percent of all retail sales — up from $34.8 billion in 2007. His preliminary figures are based on reports from 95 of the nation's biggest retailers.
Employee theft, which accounted for 44 percent of losses, slipped for the first time in years. Vendor fraud and administrative errors dipped slightly to 19 percent. But shoplifting and theft by organized crime rings was up a percentage point to 35 percent of losses, or $12.7 billion.
"Amateurs try to get away with $100 or less, but the organized rings can walk out with $20,000 a pop," Hollinger said.
In fact, 92 percent of retailers said they were hit by organized rings of professional thieves in 2008, and three out of four said the problem was getting worse.
With fewer clerks on the sales floor, stores are leaning more on anti-theft tags, locked-up valuables and ceilings full of high-resolution, digital surveillance cameras.
"Our (anti-theft hardware) sales are off this year, but only because retailers are opening far fewer new stores," said Lee Pernice, retail marketing director for ADT Security Services, the Boca Raton maker of retail theft deterrent tools.
"The latest thing is smart cameras, which can be taught to look automatically for telltale patterns of a theft in progress," she said.
In one popular application, the camera measures how fast products are being removed from a display, then compares the size of the disappearance to the register activity to determine whether to signal a silent security alert.
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or (727)-893-8252.