Retail Shrink and Mass Media’s Role in Reinforcing Corporate Power

Image by Michal Dziekonski via Unsplash

“‘Modern day mafia’: $20M Florida retail theft ring busted; 14 arrested: AG.”1 Just as likening organized retail theft to the modern day mafia suggests, the alarm bells surrounding retail theft have been rung. Retail theft and its corporate term shrink have entered mainstream media parlance. They have become colloquialisms in a matter of years, since the COVID-19 pandemic. Marc Heath, the CEO of the Boston-based security company Marc C. Heath (MCH) Security and Protective Services, explained that retail theft and shrink has recently become “‘newsworthy’” for the first time in his career.2 But, even with this sudden influx of news coverage, media sources merely regurgitate claims of shrink by major United States retailers. This corporate stronghold has led media outlets to mislead investors, consumers, and the broader public alike.

Contrary to the tone of the ongoing media panic, the National Retail Federation (NRF) 2023 survey accounting for retail theft found that shrink only increased to 1.6% in 2022 from 1.4% in 2021.3 This increase amounts to an increase from $93.1 billion in losses due to shrink in 2021 to $112.1 billion in 2022.4 However, even the raw number is comparable to shrink rates in both 2020 and 2019.5 Further, shrink data has remained relatively stable for the past 7 years, with most variation being accounted for by the COVID-19 pandemic.6 What’s even more striking is these numbers themselves lack important context. According to the NRF, “shrink percentage often includes losses caused by both internal and external theft, operational or process mistakes and systemic errors.”7 In 2022, external theft and organized retail crime amounted to 36% of the total loss with internal theft constituting 29% of loss along with 27% from process control errors and approximately 7% of loss unknown.8 Taking this into account, external retail theft accounted for approximately $40.4 billion dollars in loss in 2022 rather than the $112.1 billion repeatedly asserted. Moreover, media coverage and the NRF survey itself have conveniently left the $30.3 billion of loss in 2022 from supply chain issues and corporate mismanagement largely undiscussed.

Despite their own data lacking evidence of a spike in retail theft, the NRF continues to advocate for increased media coverage and policy implementation in favor of corporations. In fact, the organization has indicated they have “worked closely with federal agencies, state lawmakers, local law enforcement and news media across the country to draw attention to ORC [Organized Retail Crime].”9 Further, the NRF is backing the Combating Organized Retail Crime Act of 2023, a bill predicated on the largely unsubstantiated claims of a spike in retail theft.10 Beyond advocating for unnecessary media coverage and policy intervention, the NRF has cited “initiatives to reduce or eliminate cash bail” as a cause of increased retail theft,11 an assertion only substantiated by retailers themselves which is contrary to widespread criminological consensus that cash bail contributes to criminal behavior.12 These corporate biases only add further context to already existing methodological concerns regarding data measurements of shrink. Experts including Trevor Wagener, a chief economist at the Computer & Communications Industry Association, have acknowledged the NRF data is the best available but has significant shortcomings.13 The NRF data only surveys 177 retail brands,14 a relatively small sample that could skew the data. With NRF’s numerically unsubstantiated lobbying for corporate efforts to combat shrink, data limitations only further question the validity of the existing shrink data shaping the media rhetoric for retail theft.

Armed with misleading accounts of the 2023 NRF survey, media sources have become the personal bullhorn for major corporations to justify store closures in major cities across the United States. Recently, Target announced the closure of nine stores stating, “We cannot continue operating these stores because theft and organized retail crime are threatening the safety of our team and guests, and contributing to unsustainable business performance.”15 This statement, legitimized by the surrounding media rhetoric, has largely remained unchallenged despite evidence these closures were likely unrelated to retail theft and crime. In fact, the recently closed 1690 Folsom Street San Francisco Target location had only “23 reports of shoplifting filed this year” compared to “385 reports in the area around the Mission Street store, 155 reports in the area around the Winston Drive location, and 48 reports in the area around the Geary Boulevard location” which will all remain open.16 With evidence of Target stores with higher theft concerns remaining open, it appears Target is utilizing the retail theft rhetoric to minimize their economic loss and maintain investors. For instance, the overemphasis on retail theft has misconstrued the fact that all nine closures have occurred in urban markets which are “somewhat out of Target’s wheelhouse.”17 Along with these locations expanding out of Target’s normal market demographic, Neil Saunders, the managing director at GlobalData Retail, has indicated that Target’s increasingly complex supply chain has left them more vulnerable to losing merchandise.18 Target, along with other major retailers, is stuck with unwanted inventory19 due to broader market forces including a steady 3.7% inflation rate20 which wages only superseded in early 2023.21 Compared to these more probable causes of store closures, retail theft is “a very convenient excuse” that permits Target to deflect blame and tell investors these closures are the result of conduct out of their control.22

Even beyond the convenient deflection of blame regarding current economic difficulty, the narrative created by corporations and aided by willing media participants reflects a broader historical trend of using crime rhetoric to crush labor and social movements. As Alec Karakastanis has described it, “modern news has become so effective at masking the primary function of the punishment bureaucracy: to protect the wealth and power of people who own things.”23 Scapegoating retail theft functions twofold to maintain the wealth accrued by major retail corporations and continue the subjugation of the lower and working classes. In fact, by the media diverting attention to broader economic problems of inflation and wages, it remains unacknowledged that many corporations benefit from inflation at the expense of the working class.24 Shrink and other retail crime rhetoric also distorts how many concerns plaguing the retail profession are related to the corporate refusal to increase wages and improve working conditions for their employees.25 Retail corporations commonly understaff stores and cut employee hours as cost-saving measures that have resulted in lower consumer satisfaction as well as a 75-percent turnover in hourly positions.26 In 2022 alone, 7.3 million retail workers quit and 2023 US News ranked retail salesperson as the least desirable job.27 Poor working conditions have led to attempts by retail workers to unionize, and they have been met by “union-busting tactics” including cutting pay or closing stores with intentions of organizing.28 These tactics are common for Target whose training manuals outlining anti-union guidelines surfaced in January of 202229 and Walmart whose long standing anti-union training videos surfaced in 2015.30 These tactics shed light on the NRF report that 45% of retail stores reported reductions in operating hours and 28% of retailers closed stores due to retail theft.31 Thus, it is no surprise that the NRF ten selected most affected areas by retail theft based on retailer reports are major urban centers in California, New York, Washington, and Illinois with higher percent averages of union membership according to the 2023 Bureau of Labor Statistics.32 With 2023 marking a major resurgence in union efforts33 and major corporations like Amazon and Starbucks resorting to illegal union busting tactics,34 it remains to be seen if retail stores continue with their historical trend.

Regardless, the retail theft narratives within the media function to legitimize the political and lobbying power of these retail corporations by garnering sympathy from the general public regarding criminal activity supposedly out of their control. In turn, this sympathy provides justification for a multitude of anti-criminal justice and union-busting efforts. As discussed, the narratives of retail theft have legitimized the NRF to oppose hard fought efforts for cash bail reform.35 Disproportionate fears of retail crime legitimize these corporate lobbying efforts and permit backlash against criminal justice movements (including the elimination of cash bail) which act against corporate retail investments in the profits of the criminal industrial complex.36 Many retail corporations continue to invest in prison labor,37 an investment otherwise undermined by labor movements and criminal justice reform. Moreover, this form of media is particularly tailored among the public to reinforce class divisions and reinforce corporate power. With higher educational levels and greater access to media coverage, propaganda most effectively targets the middle class.38 The legitimation of retail theft narratives among the middle class further promotes institutional corporate power while ostracizing the exploited labor class. As such, the retail theft narrative is the latest use of mass media to set the institutional “agenda” against labor movements39 and construe social movements in a negative light.40

With these misleading news stories clogging the media landscape, the need for alternative news coverage is evident. Instead of regurgitating the soundbites of corporate executives, journalists could engage with local communities through grassroots journalism efforts to discuss how retail theft, inflation, and corporate power influence their everyday lives. With these efforts, stories can discuss retail workers and their hostile work environment, as altercations with guests have become increasingly violent.41 Rather than relying almost exclusively on corporate retailers for information, journalists could humanize real concerns of unsafe working conditions for retail workers and their intersection with theft, inflation, and low wage jobs. Instead of discussing retail theft, media coverage could discuss corporate crimes including wage theft and union busting.42 Further, journalists could incorporate the Feminist Media Theory approach to specifically address the power dynamics associated with these stories.43 Just as The Evidence of Things Seen44 pivots traditional crime narratives to ask unspoken questions, retail shrink media coverage could pose the question: What do corporations have to gain from emphasizing retail shrink? Until media outlets can pose that question, coverage of retail theft will continue to blindly legitimate deceptive corporate narratives regarding crime and the economy.

1 Kaycee Sloan, Modern day mafia’: $20M Florida retail theft ring busted; 14 arrested: AG, WFLA NEWS (Oct. 24, 2023, 7:14 PM).

2 Rachel Premack, What’s behind the reports of ‘unprecedented’ retail theft, FREIGHTWAVES (Oct. 10, 2023).

3 National Retail Federation, 2023 Retail Security Survey, NRF (Sept. 26, 2023).

4 Id.

5 Id.

6 Daphne Howland, Retail shrink, theft changed little in 2022, RETAILDIVE (Sept. 27, 2023).

7 Id.

8 Id.

9 Id.

10 National Retail Federation, 2023 Retail Security Survey.

11 Daphne Howland, Retail shrink, theft changed little in 2022, RETAILDIVE (Sept. 27, 2023).

12 Allie Preston & Rachael Eisenberg, Don’t blame bail reform for gun violence, AMERICAN PROGRESS (June 23, 2022).

13 National Retail Federation, 2023 Retail Security Survey.

14 Id.

15 Target, Target closes select stores to prioritize team member and guest safety, CORPORATE TARGET (Sept. 26, 2023).

16 Rebecca Crosby, Judd Legum, & Tesnim Zekeria, Target says it’s closing 9 stores due to theft. The crime data tells a different story (Oct. 5, 2023).

17 Rachel Premack, What’s behind the reports of ‘unprecedented’ retail theft.

18 Id.

19 Melissa Repko, Target expects squeezed profits from aggressive plan to get rid of unwanted inventory, CNBC (June 7, 2022).

20 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, United States Inflation Rate, TRADING ECONOMICS (September 2023).

21 Neil Irwin, Wages are finally rising faster than inflation, AXIOS (July 12, 2023).

22 Rachel Premack, What’s behind the reports of ‘unprecedented’ retail theft.

23 Alec Karakatsanis, Real public safety problems, COPAGANDA (April 23, 2023).

24 Rachel Premack, What’s behind the reports of ‘unprecedented’ retail theft.

25 Whizy Kim, “Going shopping” is dead, VOX (Aug, 22, 2023).

26 Id.

27 Id.

28 Id.

29 Betsy Reed, Target directing store managers to prevent workers from unionizing, THE GUARDIAN (Feb. 10, 2022).

30 Steven Greenhouse, How Walmart persuades its workers not to unionize, THE ATLANTIC (June 8, 2015).

31 National Retail Federation, 2023 Retail Security Survey.

32 Bureau of Labor Statistics, Union Members-2022, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF LABOR (Jan. 19, 2023).

33 Danielle Kaye, Why workers are resorting to more strikes this year to pressure companies, NPR (Oct. 28, 2023, 7:31 AM).

34 Steven Greenhouse, ‘Old-school union busting: How US corporations are quashing the new wave of organizing, THE GUARDIAN (Feb. 26, 2023, 4:00 PM).

35 National Retail Federation, 2023 Retail Security Survey.

36 Rahiem Shabazz, 12 major corporations benefiting from the prison industrial complex, MALTA JUSTICE INITIATIVE (n.d.).

37 Id.

38 Jacques Ellul, Propaganda (trans. Konrad Kellen, & Jean Lerner, 1st ed., 1973).

39 Geoff Walsh, Trade unions and the media, 127 Int’l Lab Rev. 205 (1988).

40 Danielle K. Brown, & Summer Harlow, Protests, media coverage, and a hierarchy of social struggle, 24(4) International Journal of Press/Politics 508-530 (2019).

41 National Retail Federation, 2023 Retail Security Survey.

42 Betsy Reed, Target directing store managers to prevent workers from unionizing.

43 Linda Steiner, Feminist media theory, The Handbook of Media and Mass Communication Theory 359-379 (2014).

44 Sarah Weiman, Evidence of Things Seen: True Crime in an Era of Reckoning (2023).