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    Cheese is Hot – In More Ways Than One

    Cheese nabs a spot on an unwelcome retail list

    It’s no secret that cheese is a white-hot fresh category in supermarkets these days. Accordingly, progressive grocers have been aggressively accelerating their better-mousetrap-building strategies in recent years to enable premium-priced specialty cheeses to fly out of the cases and front doors – preferably, of course, after they’ve been paid for.

    Indeed, its surging popularity has brought forth a bit of unwelcome news for cheese, which has garnered a spot on the top 10 list of high-risk retail items on the theft circuit in the U.S., alongside the usual five-finger discount suspects: Tide, razor blades, baby formula and coffee (more on the full list momentarily). And though cheese might be new to the mix, retail theft has long been the bane of retailers’ existence. However, as heightened interest in higher-ticket specialty products continues to intensify with consumers, organized retail crime (ORC) rings are following suit by targeting more unique, in-demand items to steal and resell for profit.

    These more savvy, confident organized retail crime gangs – which steal billions of dollars worth of merchandise annually to peddle online or at physical “fences” – continue to test retailers to the core.

    According to the National Retail Federation’s ninth annual ORC survey released in June, 93.5 percent of retailers say they have been a victim of organized retail crime in the past year, down slightly from 96 percent in 2012. For the past three years, more than 90 percent of the retailers surveyed have admitted to being victims of ORC. Equally disturbing: eight in 10 (81.3 percent) believe that ORC activity in general in the United States has increased over the past three years.

    However, thanks to more advanced methods of communication between retailers and law enforcement, awareness and collaboration between the two parties to thwart today’s more sophisticated crime rings is trending at an all-time high with improved results.

    To wit: In tandem with a report from the St. Paul, Minn.’s police department which found that half of all shoplifting activities in their city stems from organized crime, a first-of-its-kind ORC crime unit was recently launched to target thieves who steal everyday household items in retail outlets. The St. Paul PD established a designated team that works directly with retailers and the district attorney’s office to identify and reduce the number of boosters and fencing operations in the Twin Cities area while freeing up other investigators to focus on other matters.

    Meanwhile, down in Chandler, Ariz., police, with the help of Fry's Food Stores, earlier this month arrested seven people in connection with a retail theft ring that started in June. Chandler police said the suspects sought high priced merchandise from various grocery store chains throughout Chandler and Mesa.

    Surveillance video inside Fry's captured groups and individuals stealing products using large bags or lining the inside of shopping carts. "They're not a typical shoplifter. They're people that have cell phones and are talking to each other and watch and take massive amounts of merchandise,” Fry’s Foods’ Joe Kopelic was quoted as saying in a local media report.

    As for a look at the top 10 highest risk retail items on the theft circuit in the U.S., PriceGunStore.com has compiled the following list:

    1. Tide: As the nation’s most popular and recognizable detergent selling at an average of $20 per 150-ounce bottle, Tide is also a staple in most homes across the socioeconomic spectrum, making it an ideal currency for drugs.

    2. Price Guns: Recently occurring in stores across Virginia, price guns are being stolen from behind the counters for resale on the Internet. Price guns are used to take inventory and make price tags or labels for items sold within the store. The average cost of a price gun is more than $1,500 brand new, with used guns still selling for more than $800 on eBay.

    3. Baby Formula: This necessity for many infants has been lifted off the shelves since it was invented. An always in-demand item, formula can be turned around for quick cash with a high resale value. Selling for between $15 and $30 in stores, formula is being resold for pennies on the dollar, and then sold again in smaller mom and pop stores for even more than bigger retailers will sell it for.

    4. Cheese: As noted above, with the price of cheese rising, so is the number of retail thefts. A big story in the last year was the Illinois man who stole 21 tons of Muenster off of a truck traveling from Wisconsin. Another recent story involves two women in Oregon who stole over $600 worth of Gouda and blue cheese wheels. The cheese is being stolen for resale and the thieves are making a pretty penny. Cheese is the most stolen food in the world, with 4 percent of the cheese in more than 250,000 retail outlets in 43 stores going missing.

    5. Hair: As in hair extensions, $80,000 worth of which were recently stolen from a Chicago hair salon. Further, $150,000 worth of human hair was reported stolen from a salon in Houston and $60,000 from a beauty shop in California. Real human hair extensions are going for big bucks on the streets. Priced between $50-$200 in stores and salons, real human hair extensions can go for double that on the Internet. When stealing tens of thousands of dollars worth and reselling to stylists who work out of their homes, flea markets or eBay, the profits are indeed pretty.

    6. Metal Wire/Copper: Prime candidates for heists from homes, cars, streetlight poles and appliances. Copper wiring, pipes and copper-friendly appliances like air conditioning units are being stolen from homes across the country at a rapid clip. Metal rich catalytic converters in cars or aluminum streetlight poles are being cut down and sold as well. Here’s why: Copper is currently the most in demand metal in the U.S. The cost of copper has risen from $3.5/pound to $4.5/pound in the last year. In the past year alone, there was more than $1 billion worth of damage done to homes, cars and other copper-laden places across the nation.

    7. Razor Blades: Gillette and other name brand razors are feeling the hit of thieves across the country. Because of the high demand and popularity, razor blades are easily resold at a lower rate outside of stores. Razor cartridges are also expensive and easy to conceal.

    8. Batteries: Car batteries are being stolen left and right. In Nebraska, one man had six batteries stolen out of his tractors at a cost of $750. Recently in New York, two men were using the bus depot they worked at as their own auto parts store. They stole 16 bus batteries at a cost of $140 each to sell for scrap. Vehicle batteries are the only item that will result in cash when sold for scrap. When selling copper or other metals, the seller receives a check that they must go cash, providing a paper trail. Most thieves do not want a paper trail, so stealing vehicle batteries is the best way of achieving that. Thus, retailers and suppliers would be wise to reinforce security safeguards for corporate fleets.

    9. Electric Toothbrushes: Thieves are finally catching on that dental hygiene is a lucrative business. Electric toothbrushes and whitening kits go for upwards of $55 dollars a pop, making them one of the more expensive items on store shelves. Police found that more than $3.2 million worth of electric toothbrushes were sold on eBay over the last year. Through a crime ring in Florida, tens of thousands of dollars worth were sold through a single man’s pawn shop.

    10. Coffee: Premium coffee is hot – and pricey – and depending on the blend and growing region, specialty brews are even more expensive. International thieves are taking advantage of this phenomenon and are starting to steal coffee beans and parchments by the barrel. In Hawaii, over 2,300 pounds of parchment coffee was taken over the course of two weeks for a combined total of $21,700. Even more thefts are taking place in countries like Kenya and Ethiopia because the U.S. demand for their coffee beans drives up value, making them more appealing to thieves.

    As the timeless adage says, “Desperate people do desperate things,” and the rise of increasingly savvy organized retail theft rings targeting grocers these days are indeed proof positive of the same.

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