‘Flash Robs’ Fuel Retailer Fear of Holiday Season

Group theft—instigated, in part, through social media—has stores on guard

Upscale retailers along Chicago’s Michigan Avenue are accustomed to seeing groups of teens hanging around outside their stores. But that scene took a sinister turn this past spring when gangs of adolescents descended on The North Face, Filene’s Basement, and Express—yelling to distract security, scooping up thousands of dollars worth of goods, then dashing out the doors.

Police refer to these incidents—which are happening nationwide— as “multiple-offender crimes.” Retailers have another name: “flash robs.” And with the holiday shopping season about to begin, many brands are afraid they’ll see more of them than ever.

“We’re seeing multiple occurrences of these things,” says Johnny Custer, director of field operations for retail consultancy Merchant Analytic Solutions, who says retailers are calling him with growing frequency asking for advice. For instance, Custer says, “Companies are starting to reprioritize their training to let them know customer and employee safety comes first.”

“There have been some real serious incidents,” adds Joe LaRocca, senior advisor, asset protection for the National Retail Federation. “We’re approaching the holidays now, and we think the numbers will grow.”

The numbers are already surprisingly large. According to a recent NRF study, 79 percent of retailers have been victims of multiple-offender crimes in the past year, with 10 percent of those targeted by flash robs. Since this past summer, reported incidents have included Victoria’s Secret, Sears, and even Dunkin’ Donuts.

What especially concerns retailers and experts now is that the holiday season not only means more shoppers jamming stores, but also an invigorated demand for black-market merchandise amid a still-lugubrious economy.

Flash robbers, LaRocca says, “resell to consumers looking for a better deal, most likely in pawn shops and flea markets.”

Though group shoplifting is nothing new, experts believe that the ubiquity of social media among teens is also responsible for flash robbing’s popularity. The NRF study found that 42 percent of such groups organize via texting or sites like Facebook. “With the push of a button, they can contact 2,000 people,” Custer says. “Even if only a quarter of them show up, you have a riot.”

That many flash robs end up on the nightly news and YouTube is, perversely, an outcome only likely to result in more robberies, experts say. “We know there will be copycat incidents,” says LaRocca.

In fact, according to Chris McGoey of McGoey Security Consulting, “The media coverage fuels future flash mobs more than anything else. If no attention was given to the mob, the trend would soon die out.”

As the holiday shopping crunch approaches, however, few express hopes for that.