Business, Finance & Economics

The unusual suspects


MADRID — Flat packages of sliced sausage hidden under a baby in a carriage. A deodorant bar in a pocket. A jar of baby food in another. A bag of diapers placed at the bottom of a cart, the buyer “forgetting” to place the goods on the check-out belt.

There's a new shoplifter profile surfacing in Spain with the economic crisis: housewives and heads of households. It is called "robo famelico," literally "starving theft."

Thieves have long targeted CDs, DVDs, batteries, cell phones, expensive perfumes, razors and gourmet food items, which are later sold at a discount at flea markets. Now people are stealing even food and basic products, said Carlos Martinez, director of communication at Niscayah, a leading company in technological security solutions.

People even conceal packages of frozen fish under their shirts. “Imagine trying to keep a straight face,” Martinez said.

Those who steal to eat are embarrassed when caught. They even apologize sometimes, Martinez said. But they often keep coming back, believing it is the only way to make ends meet. And there is little supermarkets can do to stop them since non-violent theft of goods worth less than 400 euros isn't considered a crime in Spain. Spain has the highest unemployment rate in Western Europe, at 18 percent. Spaniards enjoyed a period of impressive economic growth that ended abruptly when the real estate bubble burst. More than 4 million people are jobless, and more than a million households have all members out of work.

For security, supermarkets employ technology — such as alarms and video cameras — alongside uniformed security guards at the doors to help spot thieves in action, analyze what products are the most “in demand” for thieves and determine what areas of the store need greater vigilance.

The “professionals” line their bags with foil to deceive alarms. They also work in groups, with several people, often members of the same family, spreading out in a store. One or two are bound to be caught, but while the security guard is busy with them, the others get away with their bounty.

The "robo famelico" thieves empty large products out of the containers only to fill the boxes with valuable food items. Others put produce inside a bag, weigh it, print the scale receipt and fill it up with more before closing the bag; they pay for a kilo but take 1.2 kilos home. These “starving thieves” are often regular customers recognized by staff at their local markets where they buy some items and take others “for free.”

Some stores now assign an employee to weigh the produce instead of letting patrons do it. It is more common to see basic food staples like sardine cans locked inside glass cases as though they were a delicacy.

Big supermarket chains do not provide figures about theft and investment in security. They are reluctant to share this information “because they do not want to admit security failures,” said a spokesperson for one of the supermarket associations.

According to the Global Retail Shrinkage 2008, a survey conducted by the Center for Retail Research in Nottingham, Spanish retailers lost 1.31 percent of sales to what retailers call shrinkage. Half of that was customer shoplifting, while close to 30 percent was theft by employees, according to the survey funded by the security firm Checkpoint. The rest were misplaced items and errors. In the U.S., shrinkage represented 1.48 percent of sales, according to the same survey, but there employee theft was estimated to account for more losses than client shoplifting.

Shrinkage has essentially doubled this year, with "starving theft" increasing more than 50 percent in neighborhoods suffering high unemployment, said Mariano Sancho, director of La Unica, an association of Madrid grocery stores. Police don’t have accurate figures because stores do not report all cases. Lorenzo Nebrera, spokesman for the Spanish Police Confederation, a police union, said “starving theft” has increased “alarmingly” in the past eight months. The crisis has spurred a price war among supermarkets, competition is fierce, sales are decreasing and there is little margin to increase costs. “Some businesses are considering shutting down. People will be laid off,” Sancho warned.

Mom-and-pop grocery stores and small supermarkets can rarely afford investing in security so there is often little to do other than trying spot thieves, asking them to return the stolen items and letting them go since this type of theft is not a crime. Goods are recovered if the thieves are caught red-handed. But the thieves keep coming back for more, the police union and businesses say.

Sancho demands changes in the Spanish penal code. “Thieves are caught, arrested by the police and then released almost immediately. Two days later, they’re back,” he explained, in frustration.

The most vulnerable sectors of the population to the economic crisis are currently undocumented immigrants and the jobless whose subsidies will be up shortly. A few months ago, an air-conditioning machine installer, father of two, standing in a long line outside the unemployment office, openly assured me he would eventually steal if that was the only way to feed his children.

“When things improve," Martinez said, "this will be minimized."