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Stealing in Supermarkets

There’s an interesting news brief in today’s N.Y. Times about a report just issued by the Food Marketing Institute about shoplifting in supermarkets. In previous years, health and beauty products were the most frequently shoplifted items, making up 23% of all stolen items in 2000. But last year, the percentage of health and beauty products had fallen to 14% of the total, now third on the list, “after meat and analgesics.” (I must say, I love the seeming randomness of these category groupings — i.e., “meat” gets its own category, while “health and beauty products” probably includes thousands of items; but I digress.)

Why the big drop in stolen health and beauty products? “The decline,” writes Alex Mindlin, “partly reflects increased security for pseudoephedrine, a decongestant that can be used to make the drug methamphetamine. By the end of 2005, 34 states had passed laws restricting sales of medicines with the chemical, and often requiring stores to keep them under lock and key.” Interesting. I wonder how many of the people who used to steal pseudoephedrine are the ones who are now stealing the meat.

But there was an even more interesting note in the article, about the behavior of shoppers using self-service checkouts. “The report also suggested,” Mindlin writes, “that self-service checkout lanes, where customers scan and pay for their purchases themselves, are surprisingly theft-free. Of the roughly 5,400 stores in the survey with self-checkout lanes, 63.6 percent reported no increase in theft rates.”

Because the article includes no information about the overall trend in theft rates, it’s hard to make much sense of this statistic. But to my mind, if “63.6 percent reported no increase in theft rates” at self-service checkouts, that sounds like 36.4 percent did. If this is considered a victory, as Mindlin and/or the F.M.I. seem to consider it — “surprisingly theft-free“? — then it is also a good reminder to not invest in supermarket stocks.

FWIW, here’s an earlier post about WalMart’s change in shoplifting guidelines.