Light-fingered customers cost Germany's retailers billions of euros last year, a new study has shown. Petty larceny stagnated while police registered an unsettling rise in organized, sometimes violent theft.
As police in the western German town of Bielefeld closed in on a gang of Vietnamese shoplifters earlier this week, their success marked a rare victory in the fight against petty crime.
Authorities nabbed three of the thieves, aged 17 to 25, as they were preparing to steal 1,500 euros ($1,685) worth of perfume from a drug store downtown. It wasn't the store's first encounter with the group - in early June, store employees alerted police to a similar heist in which the same perpetrators made off with bags full of tiny, fragrant bottles.
As far as shoplifting goes, catching thieves red-handed remains the exception in Germany even as stores invest heavily in state-of-the-art anti-theft technology, such as sensors and video cameras. Only two percent of store thefts are ever prosecuted, according to a recent study by the EHI Retail Institute.
There were 365,373 registered cases of theft in the retail sector in 2014, a 2.6 percent year-on-year rise. But researchers estimate more than 26 million acts of larceny went unnoticed, incurring roughly 3.9 billion euros in damages for merchants.
Thieves mostly pocketed cosmetics, perfumes, spirits and tobacco. High-priced electronics such as data storage devices, video game consoles and smartphones were also high on their wishlists.
Bookkeepers attribute the losses to "inventory differences" - discrepancies left over from light-fingered customers, employees or vendors as well as logistical errors. Put together with money spent on in-store security systems, guards and special training for workers, the cost of theft as well as measures to prevent it rose to 5.2 billion euros a year.
More organized heists
The study, which the EHI institute presented at a security conference in Cologne on Wednesday, revealed a dramatic increase in the number of organized, sometimes violent thefts while total instances of petty larceny stagnated.
The police are overwhelmed. A police union spokesman for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Stephan Hegger, noted at Wednesday's conference that stores' opening hours were expanding as workforces shrunk.
To combat the rise in serious crimes in the retail sector, Hegger suggested shifting detectives' focus from many smaller crimes to fewer, more serious ones.
"We have to treat these people differently than we do grandmothers who forget to pay for the butter," he said.