Shoplifting losses mount amid inflation, product shortage and labor crunch

Always Investigating

HONOLULU (KHON2) — Shoplifting continues to be on the rise in what retailers have called the “perfect storm” of steep inflation, supply shortages, hiring difficulties and brazen theft.

Stores told KHON2 they could not afford shoplifters before, but it is reaching the breaking point with price hikes, production delays and shortages pushing them to the brink.

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“Most of our stores — it’s kind of like the perfect storm,” explained Tina Yamaki of Retail Merchants of Hawaii. “Prices have gone up, and also, too, we having a hard time finding employees to come in, so some stores are not fully staffed. The criminals — they know this. What it is, basically, it’s organized retail crime.”

“We see, at the most, maybe two to three people,” said Sgt. Chris Kim of CrimeStoppers. “But it hasn’t been like what’s being portrayed across the U.S. mainland; people coming like five, 10, 15 in a group, and it’s just a free for all. Fortunately, I can say that I haven’t seen that yet.”

The scenes on the mainland have led major stores, like Walgreens, to shut down in San Francisco; others are cutting back hours or putting more things under lock and key.

What Hawaii does have in common with the mainland trend is more product needing to be locked up for theft prevention, especially as inflation causes prices to skyrocket.

“One of our highest things is Spam that people steal,” Yamaki said. “On the mainland, it might be infant formula or Tide Pods.”

The most frustrating issue for stores and police: what they said is a revolving door for repeat offenders targeting stores over and over.

“Here at CrimeStoppers, we have seen many ‘frequent fliers,’ people who have been arrested, have been identified and next thing you know, we see him again; we feature them again,” said Kim.

“The next step where we’re needing help with is to get the judges to actually sentence them because it’s not a violent crime. A lot of times the judges just go, ‘Bad person, don’t do it again’ and let them go. “And they tell us when we go to court, ‘I’ll see you back in your store in a couple of hours.’ And sure enough, they’re back in our store stealing again.”

Tina Yamaki of Retail Merchants of Hawaii

Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm told Always Investigating that his office will push judges to crack down on the revolving door, even though anything worth $250-$750 is a misdemeanor theft.

“Particularly, if they’re professionals, and we have repeated misdemeanor cases, we can charge them as a felon with a habitual property crime,” Alm explained. “We really will try to work with the courts on sending those guys to jail. OCCC is open for business.”

That is after a wave of jail avoidance at all levels of the criminal justice enforcement system during COVID, but police and prosecutors said the time is up for that lenience.

“If somebody is a repeat shoplifter — and I don’t mean going in there stealing a banana because they’re hungry — I’m talking about stealing clothes, stealing tools, stealing other things that you can sell — they should be sent to jail,” Alm said.

The official data can be deceptive. The Honolulu Police Department (HPD) recorded 3,141 shoplifting cases in 2019, then a drop to 2,100 in 2020 but that is with many retailers forced to close or scale-back entries during the height of the pandemic. HPD told Always Investigating they have had about 1,500 shoplifting cases so far in 2021.

“I think with COVID and with HPD trying to be judicious in their resources, I think they ended up doing a lot of citations, instead of arrests, for a petty misdemeanor or a small amount. Well, the problem is a number of those guys wouldn’t just don’t show up in court,” Alm said. “So as the courthouse opens up, we’re hoping probation will be back full steam as far as drug testing, face-to-face meetings — that’s a real deterrent — and you can help people to stay clean. A lot of the shoplifting are people that have drug problems, who are trying to steal stuff to trade it for drugs, or sell it and buy drugs. So, if they’re not using drugs, they’re not going to be doing the stealing.”

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KHON2 will continue to follow up on retail, law enforcement, prosecution, court and probation efforts to clamp down on shoplifting.

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