“Excuse me. Are you going to pay for that?”
It is a simple question. And one that retailers should be allowed to ask anyone who is clearly attempting to shoplift.
But they can’t. Why? Because Washington state law does not allow retailers to approach shoplifters until they have left the store.
Organized Retail Crime (ORC) is a growing problem nationwide and in our state. According to a 2019 report by the National Retail Federation, ORC affected almost all merchants, and more than two-thirds of those surveyed saw an increase in the past year. The average loss last year was $703,320 per $1 billion in sales, which makes it the fourth consecutive year the figure exceeded $700,000.
Despite these numbers, retailers in our state are forced to sit helplessly on the sidelines — watching — as ORC thrives. This is not just a big-retailer issue. This rampant problem is also hurting the smaller stores and markets we shop at every day.
So, why is it that retailers cannot stop would-be shoplifters before they get outside? It is because current law does not include concealment in the definition of theft.
I introduced House Bill 1159 last year to address this problem. The legislation would simply change the definition of theft to include concealment. This would provide retailers the ability to approach would-be shoplifters before they leave the store. The bill has strong bipartisan support, including the Democratic chair of the House Public Safety Committee, who is a co-sponsor. It passed out of that committee this legislative session with overwhelming support. The majority party scheduled it for a House floor vote three times, but then something happened. It never came to a vote.
Why? Because of a concern the bill would promote racial profiling.
This legislation is not about profiling race. It is about observing activity. Retailers do not care what shoplifters look like. When they see someone in their stores stuffing items in coats or bags with clear intent to steal, they just want to stop it.
This approach would have countless benefits for our state. Retailers would be able to save millions of dollars by preventing ORC rings from robbing them. It would also help consumers, who must pay higher prices for goods to help make up lost revenue.
The dark side of ORC does not stop there. There is evidence that ORC bosses are recruiting some of our most vulnerable people in society to do their dirty work: the homeless, and people with mental-illness and substance-abuse problems. These individuals take the risks, while crime bosses take the profit.
House Bill 1159 needs to become law — this year. Any legislator in the majority party who prevents this legislation from moving forward will need to answer to the communities that are less safe under the current law and to consumers who must pay higher prices for goods.
Until retailers can ask the simple question, “Excuse me. Are you going to pay for that?” our communities and public safety will continue to be at risk.