Crain’s Editorial: Retailers’ smash mob problem is Chicago’s smash mob problem

The entire city has a stake in curbing this especially scary form of crime.

“Organized retail theft—in which throngs of people descend on a store in a coordinated way, grab as much as they can carry, and flee, often while breaking glass, overturning displays and generally scaring the living daylights out of customers and clerks alike—has become more commonplace in Chicago and beyond.

As Crain’s Ally Marotti reports in this week’s issue, dollars lost to organized retail crime nationally topped $700,000 per $1 billion in sales in 2020, up nearly 60% since 2015, according to a recent National Retail Federation report. In Illinois, shops lost $3.7 billion to $4 billion worth of merchandise to theft last year, according to the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. Retailers also note that thieves are becoming more audacious, and that the higher demand for online goods brought on by the pandemic has fueled an increase in this type of smash-and-grab crime.

To make shoppers feel more secure—and keep them coming out to the shops instead of opting for the convenience and safety of e-commerce—retailers are walking a tightrope: hiring more security staffers while trying not to create the sensation that customers are perusing the merchandise inside an armed camp.

Crain’s columnist Joe Cahill notes that retailers aren’t the only ones who suffer the loss of revenue when smash mobs strike. Government coffers are drained of tax revenue as well. But even greater than that, perhaps, is the hit that the city’s reputation takes every time security-camera video of an organized retail theft airs on the 10 o’clock news or goes viral on social media.

To be sure, Chicago is not the only city experiencing the smash mob phenomenon right now. But the uptick in this activity comes against the backdrop of the city’s already well-publicized problem with violence in general. Murders are up 59% compared with 2019. Shooting incidents are up 67%.

Cite those numbers anywhere in the vicinity of Mayor Lori Lightfoot or anyone on her staff and they will quickly and pointedly note that Chicago is just one of several major U.S. metros grappling with an uptick in crime since the pandemic began. They’re not wrong. But knowing that someone in, say, Nashville or Kansas City is being carjacked at the same time that you’re being carjacked here in Chicago doesn’t exactly take the sting out of the experience. When asked in a recent podcast interview what sort of feedback the Lightfoot administration is getting from corporate Chicago on the crime situation, Deputy Mayor Samir Mayekar went so far as to tell Crain’s A.D. Quig: “What we’re hearing…is a huge appreciation of engagement.”

Engagement is one thing. Results are another. On the crime front, Chicago needs more of both.

At least when it comes to smash mobs, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul may have struck on a fruitful response, forming a multijurisdictional task force in September that aims to treat these outbreaks not as isolated incidents but as part of a broader pattern of organized crime. On Dec. 3, he announced that millions of dollars worth of stolen goods had been recovered at several storage units in Chicago, the first major bust as a result of the task force’s efforts to link city and suburban law enforcement with retailers to tackle the problem.

Those finds probably represent only a slice of the ill-gotten gains these criminal gangs and their organizers have reaped this holiday season, but it’s at least a tangible first step toward making shoppers—and the retailers who love them—feel a little more secure.”

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