Six months ago local law enforcement agencies estimated liquor thefts have increased 175 percent in the wake of the voter-approved initiative that closed down state-run liquor stores. In Seattle, the theft rate at grocery stores — where most of the booze is sold — was described by police as “practically an epidemic.”
It’s not just Walla Walla or Seattle where liquor shoplifting is rampant, it’s happening across the state.
Law enforcement is frustrated. In July, a Lewiston TV station reported the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs want the State Liquor Control Board to require retailers to keep detailed records of theft. The police are still waiting.
Grocery stores are not releasing information about theft and they are against any mandate to make them do so. The retailers say the exact amount of liquor lost through theft is proprietary information that would be valuable to competitors.
The stores are looking at this all wrong. They seem to be looking at the thefts as simply a cost of doing business. The reward (profits) of displaying spirits in the middle of the store outweighs the risk (loss) of having product stolen.
KING-TV in Seattle this month looked at the efforts taken by stores to reduce liquor thefts. It reported Safeway and other large grocery chains have created organized retail crime investigation units to help gather evidence when organized crime rings are suspected. In less than three years they’ve busted 116 rings in the Pacific Northwest, KING reported.
And this information has helped police indict more than 200 organized crime suspects for stealing items such as baby formula, detergent and teeth whitening strips, according to the TV station.
“It’s a delicate balance,” said Rick Whidden, head of Safeway’s loss prevention in Washington and Oregon. “You can remove it from the shelf and turn your customers away. You put too much product on the shelf and you’re exposing yourself to theft.”
But many of the thefts are not associated with crime rings; they are done by teenagers who want to get drunk with their pals or sell hooch to them.
The profit-and-loss equation is irrelevant. It is about the problems and dangers associated with underage drinking.
Perhaps it’s time for the Legislature to tweak the initiative that moved liquor sales to private stores.
The law should include a record requirement that helps law enforcement but does not overly burden retailers.
And liquor sales should be limited to secure areas with only one entrance in and out, much like state-run liquor stores or video-rental areas that were once prevalent in grocery stores. If this was a mandate for all, it would not give any one retailer an unfair advantage in liquor sales.
The high rate of liquor thefts is simply not acceptable.