As Retailers Struggle With Flagrant Thievery, Employees Who Go After Shoplifters Are Getting Fired
Many large retail chains have strict ‘no confrontation’ policies when it comes to shoplifters, in part to avoid liability should resisting the robbers lead to injury or death.
A Colorado grocery store employee who filmed thieves making off with $500 in laundry detergent is just the latest in a string of store employees fired for confronting shoplifters. Despite growing public outrage at these kinds of incidents, the country’s biggest retailers are holding fast to their policies: Fight back against the shoplifters, and you’re out of a job.
In the Colorado case, a King Soopers supermarket chain employee, Santino Burrola, followed two shoplifters outside the grocery store on Father’s Day and filmed them loading a shopping cart full of detergent into an SUV driven by a third man. Mr. Burrola then uploaded the video to TikTok, where it went viral, with 1.5 million views including from the rapper Snoop Dogg.
“Really bro, you got to resort to this? The economy isn’t that bad,” Mr. Burrola is heard in the video telling the thieves.
Mr. Burrola does not at any point touch the thieves or try to get back the stolen merchandise. He does, though, pull off a piece of aluminum foil covering the car’s license plate as the SUV starts to pull away. The license plate number is clearly visible in the video.
This confrontation cost Mr. Burrola, a former military police officer, his job. It also helped police catch the getaway driver. On its Facebook page, the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office credits Mr. Burrola’s license plate exposure with leading to the apprehension of the driver, though the other two suspects are at large.
“Did I feel that I overstepped boundaries? Not really, because I didn’t physically touch them or alter their shoplifting in any way. I just revealed the license plate to help the community to be aware, the police be aware, and to help better catch them,” Mr. Burrola told 9News.
King Soopers did not respond to the Sun’s request for comment. A subsidiary of Kroger, King Soopers has a “no touch” and “no chase” policy with regard to shoplifting, which means store employees cannot confront suspected thieves. This is a common policy at retail chains.
In May, two Lululemon employees in Georgia were fired for filming and yelling at three masked thieves in one of the company’s stores. “No, no, seriously get out,” the female employees are heard saying in the video as they follow the shoplifters out of the store.
Lululemon’s chief executive, Calvin McDonald, defended firing the employees, despite the public backlash. “We have a zero-tolerance policy that we train our educators on around engaging during a theft,” Mr. McDonald told CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street.” Lululemon calls its employees “educators.”
“We put the safety of our team, our guests front and center,” Mr. McDonald said. “It’s only merchandise. At the end they’re trained to step back, let the theft occur, know that there’s technology and there’s cameras and we’re working with law enforcement.”
In May, an employee at a Dollar General store at Fresno, California, chased a thief in her car, swerving into the thief as he rode his bicycle on the sidewalk. In doorbell security footage of the incident, the thief falls to the ground and the female employee confronts him. The employee lost her job.
Large retailers enforce these policies of nonconfrontation mainly for liability reasons. They don’t want an employee or customer getting injured and then suing the store. Critics say this gives shoplifters a free pass. They add that since the start of Covid, thieves can wear masks to hide their identities from security cameras.
Retail theft has become an increasing problem since the start of the pandemic. The largest national retail trade association, the National Retail Federation, calls “retail shrink” — merchandise lost primarily to retail theft — a “ballooning issue” in its 2022 safety report. The organization says retail shrink is a nearly $100 billion problem for the industry.
While the National Retail Federation’s report finds the “shrink rate” has been steady the last five years, it also finds that on average retailers reported a 26.5 percent increase in “organized retail crime.” Eight in 10 retailers surveyed also said that aggression associated with organized retail crime, which is often referred to as ORC, has increased.
“Retailers desire stronger ORC legislation,” the NRF report states. “They also favor increased penalties for theft, and a reduction in felony thresholds; 70.8 percent of survey respondents reported increases in ORC in areas where felony thresholds have increased.”
The rise in blatant thievery as staff stands by is being documented daily on social media, with tens of millions of online viewers watching in fascination. In 2021, a video of a man bicycling out of a San Francisco Walgreens with a black garbage bag full of stolen goods went viral. The drug store chain later announced it was closing five of its San Francisco stores due to “organized retail crime” in the city.
At the start of 2023, Walgreens conceded in an investor call that it had overestimated the cost of retail theft at its stores. Then in April, a San Francisco Walgreens security guard shot and killed a transgender person suspected of stealing candy at a downtown store. Protests erupted in response.
Lawmakers in California are now debating a bill that would prohibit retailers from requiring their employees to confront shoplifters.
In New York on Thursday, an employee at a Midtown Manhattan CVS fatally stabbed a suspected shoplifter after confronting him at the store’s entrance. This outcome is why many retailers bar employees from confronting shoplifters.
Video inside a San Francisco Target store showing all of the merchandise locked behind cabinets went viral in May. If you live in any major city, you’ve likely gotten used to — even while being annoyed at — having to call an attendant to unlock the toothpaste or soap.
Videos of “swarms” of young people raiding stores and leaving en masse with loot are also becoming commonplace.
In May, Mayor Adams was mocked for his plan to install “resource kiosks” in stores to connect potential shoplifters to services. One Democratic New York assemblyman, Jeffrey Dinowitz, recently said that Democrats made a big mistake in going soft on shoplifting.
Major retailers are not just dealing with retail theft but also competition from online sales. Bed Bath & Beyond declared bankruptcy and is closing all its stores. Foot Locker announced in March that it will close nearly 500 stores. Walgreens has also said it will close about 150 stores. Party City, Banana Republic, and Bath & Body Works are also closing retail locations.
In a sign that regular citizens are getting fed up with the theft, two videos of customers rather than employees confronting thieves have also gone viral. In one, a customer at a TJ Maxx tackles a young woman trying to walk out with bags of goods. In another, a grandmother blocks a thief’s cart from trying to leave the store and then rips off his mask for the cameras.
“It’s about time citizens stand up to criminals. Cops won’t do anything,” a commenter wrote.