Liquor at Harvest Foods in Walla Walla is behind a counter, with the more expensive brands locked in cases.
Photo by Greg Lehman.
WALLA WALLA — Easy access to liquor on grocery store shelves continues to be an intoxicating temptation for shoplifters.
Total alcohol thefts from local grocery stores continues to rise, according to a report from the Walla Walla Police Department.
Sixty-eight thefts of alcohol have been reported by Walla Walla grocery stores so far this year. Here’s the breakdown:
Albertsons — 1
Walla Walla’s Harvest Foods — 2
Rite Aid — 8
Super 1 Foods — 7
Safeway (two stores) — 50
Reports of stolen alcohol from the last four months of the year have already exceeded those from the first six months. And that was when Walla Walla had already experienced a 175 percent increase in reports of alcohol theft compared to the first six months of 2012 before the privatization of liquor sales.
What’s more, police believe this is just a fraction of the actual thefts.
“I think we’re really just scratching the surface on what’s being stolen,” said Walla Walla police spokesman Tim Bennett.
Since the start of the year the department has fielded 68 reports of liquor theft in the city. More than half of those — 35 — have taken place in the last four months, after Bennett reached out to retailers on strategies to deter thefts.
About 74 percent of the reported thefts have come from the city’s two Safeway stores, on Rose Street and on Plaza Way, Bennett reported. That doesn’t necessarily mean Safeway has more than others. But the store has reported more.
In College Place, there have not been many reports of liquor thefts from the city’s Walmart store, but that doesn’t mean more aren’t happening, said College Place Police Det. Roger Maidment.
“I’m not seeing (reports) every day,” of liquor thefts, Maidment said. However, the large size of the College Place store probably helps shoplifters avoid immediate detection, causing a delay between when a theft occurs and when it’s discovered.
“If it was a smaller store, they would notice it,” he said.
Bennett said gauging actual thefts is impossible. Stores don’t have to disclose their losses to the police. Plus, many of them may not even realize a theft has occurred until they review video or evaluate their inventory.
Local operators of larger chains may not be able to do more to deter thefts because they don’t have the authority to stray from corporate practices.
Bennett said a profile of sorts for the average liquor shoplifter hasn’t been established because the only time the police can glean information is when someone is actually caught. That’s been seldom.
The presence of alcohol on store shelves may actually be the tipping point for someone who wouldn’t otherwise shoplift, Bennett said.
“You look at the risk versus reward,” he said. “For a candy bar or a can of beans, it’s not worth it. But for someone who could end up as the big shot at a party by bringing alcohol, that reward goes way, way up.”
Bennett said a Safeway he encountered in Alaska had the right idea by building the liquor store portion as a separate entity within the grocery store.
He said locally Walla Walla’s Harvest Foods has appeared to deter liquor thefts by keeping it all behind a counter at customer service.
Ultimately, he believes that may be the direction Washington stores go if shoplifters continue to opt for the five-finger discount.
“Down the road there’s no doubt in my mind that alcohol is going to be treated that way,” he said.
Union-Bulletin reporter Andy Porter contributed to this report.