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November 20, 2013

Why are shoplifters flocking to this one Wal-Mart?

By Justin Peters
Slate

— The Denver Post had an interesting story this week about a Denver-area Wal-Mart that appears to be the city's the most shoplifter-friendly store. Sadie Gurman's entertaining lede gives the reader a sense of how bad things have gotten:

In one week alone at the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Stapleton, two men walked off with a paintball gun, another tried to steal a futon and a pair of pillows, and a fourth told a Denver police officer he had no receipt for the 97 items in his shopping cart because "Aw . . . Um. . . . Because I didn't pay for any of this."

That last guy gets credit for honesty, though I wish he would have tried harder to come up with an excuse — something like "I won them in a raffle." Anyway, the Wal-Mart in question reported 283 shoplifting incidents over the past year, 179 more than the second-most-shoplifted-from merchant, a downtown Rite-Aid. Denver police even parked unmanned squad cars in the Wal-Mart lot, in hopes of deterring thieves. The tactic failed miserably: "At the end of the day we pick up the car, and it's been spit on and kicked, and you can only cry wolf so often," a morose-sounding cop told Gurman.

How did this particular Wal-Mart become a shoplifter's delight? It's not necessarily because the store is in a crime-ridden neighborhood — the Post reports that the Home Depot down the street has reported one-tenth as many shoplifting incidents over the same time period. The Post notes Wal-Mart's "recent abandonment of zero-tolerance shoplifting policies, and the removal of door greeters who would look out for thieves" as possible reasons why theft is on the rise. But Wal-Mart abandoned its zero-tolerance shoplifting policies back in 2006, which hardly counts as recent — and, anyway, these broad corporate policy changes wouldn't explain why crime is spiking at this one particular store.

So what's gone wrong at the Stapleton Wal-Mart? While I've never been to this particular store, its Yelp reviews are almost all negative, with many reviewers criticizing the store for being cluttered and short-staffed. You can take a single Yelp review with a grain of salt, of course — but when multiple reviews over multiple years cite the same exact problems, it seems likely that those problems actually exist. "It's crowded, dirty and the produce section is just gross," one reviewer wrote in 2012. "This place sucks, it's packed, dirty and the employees are just straight up rude," wrote someone else that same year. "This store is crowded, dirty, and busy. Shelves are not restocked," another wrote in 2013.

The Stapleton Wal-Mart has received 34 total Yelp reviews, 17 of which award the store a measly one star. (The store received two four-star reviews and zero five-star reviews.) Compare this with the Home Depot down the street, which has received 22 total Yelp reviews. Nine of those are four-star reviews; five of them are one-star reviews. The word "helpful" is used in a positive context in seven separate Home Depot reviews; the word "friendly" is used in five reviews. Neither of those words is found in any Wal-Mart reviews.

How does all this relate to shoplifting? Research has shown that shoplifters seek out cluttered stores with indifferent employees. In 2006 a University of Florida master's student named Caroline Cardone analyzed data from the Loss Prevention Research Council and found that a store's layout can have a huge impact on retail theft. By tidying up, installing mirrors to reduce blind spots, and implementing a few more design tweaks, stores can significantly reduce their shoplifting losses.

Peters writes Slate's crime blog. @slatecrime.