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There's been a noticeable pushback against shoplifting this year

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

It is peak shopping season, which means it's also peak shoplifting season. At least that's according to retailers. In a survey by the National Retail Federation, 70% of retailers said theft was a bigger priority for them than last year. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, those complaints have led to new efforts to try to roll back the wave of retail theft.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The holiday tunes are already playing on a loop at Southcenter Mall near Seattle when, at the entrance to Macy's, three men suddenly chase down a young woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Screaming).

KASTE: The men are in street clothes, so it takes shoppers a second to realize that they're security. They take a bag from the woman, pinion her arms and hustle her back into the store.

JEREMY GIRARD: Yeah, so that would probably be the loss prevention associates.

KASTE: This is Jeremy Girard, an expert on this kind of theft who's also on the board of the Washington State Organized Retail Crime Association. The Seattle area is now ranked as one of the worst for this kind of crime, according to the National Retail Federation. But Girard says things have been bad across the country.

GIRARD: You know, there's been less officers that can respond to these type of crimes, and the criminals know that.

KASTE: That said, Girard and his whole industry are now seeing some reasons for hope. A lot of these stolen goods are resold online, and this year a new federal law requires sites such as Facebook Marketplace to collect information about their high-volume sellers. States are also spending more money investigating retail crime rings - $267 million just in California. And some local police departments are now stepping up their efforts to catch thieves in the act.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO BEEPING)

CASEY HIAM: Looks like she's got concealment on that guy in Nike.

KASTE: Sergeant Casey Hiam sits in an unmarked SUV outside another mall near Seattle. He's with the Bellevue Police Department. Four more officers are lurking in other cars nearby.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLPHONE BLOOPING)

KASTE: They're all texting back and forth with the loss prevention staff inside two of the stores. The staff tell the cops when they're watching someone, and if that person walks out without paying...

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLPHONE BLOOPING)

KASTE: ...They text the word green.

HIAM: And he's green.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO BEEPING)

HIAM: All right, we're greenlit on this guy as he comes out.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO BEEPING)

HIAM: He's going towards Panera.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLICKING)

KASTE: Inside the mall, two other officers have already cuffed a small man in droopy jeans.

KEVIN: It's not me. It's not me. The shoes are right there.

KASTE: A new pair of white Nikes are on a bench nearby. Back in the SUV, Hiam says that man has a record but probably is not part of an organized theft ring. Still, he'll be booked because Bellevue has declared a zero-tolerance policy on shoplifting.

HIAM: Humans talk about experiences. Criminals talk about experiences, too. And hopefully they're communicating back to each other that, well, don't go to Bellevue because they're proactively out there. And if you get caught, you're going to go to jail even if you do steal just a pair of shoes.

KASTE: This is a labor-intensive kind of operation. The police here only do a couple of these stakeouts every week. Hiam says other retailers have asked for this kind of help even though some of those stores don't make the effort to report their thefts to the police.

HIAM: You're saying that you're getting pillaged all the time, but I don't have any case reports for you guys. So how can I go and pay attention to your parking lot or your store if you're not even calling us? That's the biggest problem that I've seen.

KASTE: Retailers vary a lot in how they respond to theft. A growing number, 41%, say they don't allow any employees to intervene. This is driven by a fear of violence and the liability. But it also means more viral videos of brazen thieves walking off with merchandise unchallenged. That can be frustrating not only to the police but also to store employees.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hey, Macy.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) You're no good. Treat your workers like you should.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hey, Macy.

KASTE: Last week Macy's employees in the Seattle area were on a brief strike, and among their demands - more store security. Jeanne Petersen works at the fragrance counter.

JEANNE PETERSEN: We have these Chanel girls that come in and steal thousands of dollars in Chanel.

KASTE: You call them Chanel girls.

PETERSEN: Chanel girls. We've got names for all of our thieves.

KASTE: Petersen says some of the thieves bulldoze their way to the products they want.

PETERSEN: They will show their pepper spray, or they will spray you. What we've been trained to do is just to let them come behind the counter and let them take what they want to take.

KASTE: While Macy's does apprehend thieves, these strikers say it doesn't happen often enough. They want more guards in the stores, and they don't want the company disciplining staff who call police. Asked to respond, Macy's sent NPR a written statement saying, in part, our top priority is to ensure the safety of our colleagues and customers in store. But employee Kathy Henderson says that's not how it feels.

KATHY HENDERSON: Total anxiety. If we hear loud noise or if there's a whole bunch of people talking loud or whatever, it's like PTSD.

KASTE: And in fact, just a few hours after this interview, Jeanne Petersen followed up with a text to report that a shoplifter was briefly caught, then got away right in front of the picket line. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.