After a reduction in the number of incidents reported to the Asheville Police Department in 2021, the shoplifting numbers are rising again. As of Oct. 23, 1,094 such incidents had been reported in the city this year, compared with 971 for all of 2021. Still, the 2022 numbers are slightly lower than those for the same period in both 2020 and 2019.
Xpress reviewed 70 of this year’s reports. Those from big-box stores generally concerned merchandise worth hundreds of dollars and sometimes over $1,000. At smaller independent businesses downtown, in West Asheville and Biltmore Village, most of the thefts were of items costing less than $100. Several area gas stations reported cases involving only a few dollars and, in at least one instance, a mere 85 cents.
But even petty thefts are significant, says Bill Davis, APD public information officer. (On Oct. 28, shortly after speaking with Xpress for this article, Davis left the department.) “You think it’s just a little pack of gum. Well, if it’s gum today, what’s it going to be tomorrow?” he points out.
Under state law, larceny involving items valued at up to $1,000 is typically considered a misdemeanor; beyond that threshold, it’s a felony. But a number of factors, including exiting through a fire door, tampering with product codes to obtain items for less than the actual price or “removing, destroying or deactivating a component of an anti-shoplifting or inventory control device,” can elevate lesser thefts to a felony charge.
In June 2021, the APD announced that, due to staffing shortages, officers would no longer respond to calls for a number of crimes, including “theft under $1,000 where there is no suspect information.” But that doesn’t mean they want the public to stop reporting such incidents, stresses Davis. Instead, businesses and individuals are encouraged to self-report via the department’s online system.
“The crime analyst or the detectives themselves, they can look at the possible trends, possible areas that are getting hit harder with criminal activity and then adjust accordingly with patrol efforts and other manpower efforts,” he explains.
More than half of this year’s shoplifting cases — 619, all told — were reported by businesses along Tunnel Road. Several big-box stores, including Target and Walmart, have reported over 100 incidents each. While neither store was willing to discuss the specifics of those thefts, Robert Arrieta, senior manager at Walmart Media Relations, said the retailer is “committed to working with local law enforcement officials.”
Similarly, Target spokesperson Joe Unger said the company reports thefts “whenever a guest or team member’s safety is in question or if a situation is disrupting our business.” He added that the company works with local law enforcement “on an ongoing basis to address organized retail crime.”
Last month, the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, in partnership with the APD, uncovered an organized theft ring and charged 14 people, including the owners and some employees of Denny’s Jewelry & Pawn in Arden, with organized retail theft, a felony. The stolen items came from stores across the county — including Target, Home Depot, Lowe’s and Sportsman’s Warehouse — and had an estimated total value of more than $150,000.
And in April and May of this year, in response to reports of increasingly brazen shoplifting at big-box stores along Tunnel Road, the APD conducted special operations that resulted in more than 50 arrests. Many suspects were charged with multiple offenses, including possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia. “There seems to be, with a lot of these petty crimes, a connection to opioid addiction, specifically fentanyl,” notes Capt. Joe Silberman.
The police, he explains, were able to work with those stores both because of the large number of thefts they’ve had and because they already had strategies in place, such as high-quality camera and security systems and dedicated loss-prevention professionals on staff, that would help ensure arrests could be made.
According to Silberman, the APD has also carried out other operations that haven’t been publicized. Although he wasn’t able to share the details for fear of disrupting those efforts, he did say, “There’s a downtown initiative going on right now to try to get some level of relief to businesses in the central business district,” including smaller, mom and pop shops.
Even small losses add up
As of Oct. 23, 44 shoplifting incidents had been reported in downtown Asheville this year, which is comparable to the figures for the same period in 2021 and 2019. In 2020, however, there were just 33 such reports during those months. And even small-scale theft can have a big impact when it happens regularly, says Carmen Cabrera, general manager of Mast General Store’s downtown Asheville location.
“They come in really quickly and leave really quickly, or they shop for a while, and we have to watch them,” she explains. “It’s generally one or two items at a time, but because of the frequency, it definitely adds up.” There are thefts almost daily, she says, and the store loses several hundred dollars a week.
Staff members try to be vigilant, and the store also uses security tags and a camera system. But Cabrera says she doesn’t usually file a report unless the total value of the stolen items is more than $100, because the process is so time-consuming. She says it can sometimes take hours to capture a clear image of the perpetrator from the cameras, and even then, it may not provide enough detail to enable police to identify the person.
Still, some area businesses report that incorporating a variety of anti-shoplifting practices has yielded positive results. Lindsay Dunbar, the sales manager at Instant Karma in West Asheville, says local retailers use social media to alert one another to suspected shoplifters. Instant Karma also keeps photos of known perps behind the counter to help staff members recognize repeat offenders.
Having worked in the store for a number of years, Dunbar says she’s developed an intuitive sense of whom to watch. “Body language tells a lot. You can tell when someone’s uncomfortable and doesn’t want to be bothered, or when they aren’t giving any eye contact [because] they don’t want you to recognize them.” In those situations, she says, greeting the person or saying, “Hey, I remember you” can make them turn around and leave.
At Instant Karma, theft often involves smaller items — things like crystals, rings and bracelets — that can be pocketed or concealed in the hand. In the past year, the store has added new display cases for its more expensive jewelry. Items costing less than $10 aren’t kept behind glass, but the business has installed additional cameras and hung a “Karma Is Real Do Not Steal” sign that Dunbar says she’s seen deter would-be shoplifters, who actually put back palmed merchandise after reading it.
Lisa Genevieve Ziemer, who owns VaVaVooom boutique, says a combination of security cameras, locked cases and sensors on most items has kept theft to a minimum at both the downtown and West Asheville stores. She also participates in a merchant watch program with other local retailers.
But paired with those measures are efforts to build positive relationships with customers. “We happily provide information and referrals on all aspects of sexuality, which helps to create a sense of community,” notes Ziemer. And that, in turn, “helps others see us as contributing as a local organization, rather than as some unknown corporate entity.” In the same vein, her business partners with the Western North Carolina AIDS Project to distribute free condoms, which Ziemer says has helped discourage shoplifting among younger adults.
And meanwhile, despite the APD’s current staffing issues, Davis says the department remains committed to supporting the local community and preventing theft. “Nobody likes to see any kind of shoplifting or theft, whether it’s the big-box stores or the local businesses just trying to make a living. If they ever have a concern, we want them to contact us.”