Two days in a row, Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, the lead story in the Bulletin reported on an incident with shoplifting. In both cases the charges filed on the suspects ended up being rather serious, more than the penny-ante connotation many people unfortunately have for the offense. The two incidents also appear to demonstrate a sign of the times for local retailers.

According to a recent national newspaper report, shoplifting seems to be rising steadily and alarmingly at many retail chains, and the experts are pointing to the sputtering economy as the primary cause. Apparently, law enforcement experts agree. They report having seen an increase in store theft during the current slowdown, and not only from customers. According to Richard Hollinger, professor of criminology at the University of Florida who compiles the annual National Retail Security Survey, it’s clear that both employee theft and shoplifting are up. In a survey of 116 retailers 74 percent said shoplifting incidents last year had risen from 2006. In a recent update, retailers said it has continued to rise this year.

It is difficult to find information on shoplifter profiles because typically police departments don’t collect that type of data. But some police officers who deal directly with the problem report that in addition to an increase in incidents, they are seeing a shift in the type of offenders. In general, most shoplifters in the past were people trying to fuel a drug habit. They stole the type of merchandise that could be turned into cash quickly. As the economy has declined, the police say they are seeing more common everyday items being stolen, such as groceries. The district attorney’s office in Knoxville, Tenn. says it has seen a similar change. The Knox County assistant district attorney general said there is a lot more food theft and it tends to come from repeat offenders, many of whom seem to be struggling with financial issues.

Retailers appear to be caught in a catch-22 scenario. The economic slowdown has paying customers making fewer trips to their stores as they struggle to meet their week-to-week and month-to-month bills. The slower sales have stores looking to trim their costs and in some instances reducing the number of employees on the floor. With fewer clerks greeting people and watching them in the store, it becomes easier for shoplifters to grab and hide merchandise. Joe LaRocca, vice president of loss protection at the National Retail Federation, said in a survey members of his organization took in April, retailers identified the reduced sales and staff cutbacks as a contributing factor to the rise in theft rates. Compounding the problem, with fewer employees promoting the store’s merchandise, some retailers have felt the need to unlock the glass cases and began openly displaying expensive items like jewelry and watches.

Retail theft is estimated to cost about $40.5 billion a year and guess who pays for it? The paying customers do in the way of higher prices. Store owners cannot afford to eat the losses. They have no choice but to pass on the costs to customers. Hollinger said “it is the single largest category of property crime in America, bar none. Bank robberies, car theft — nothing comes close to this.”

The shoplifting cases reported on page one in Brownwood are examples of one of the sub trends occurring within the increases in retail theft. According to a Retail Theft Trends report, discount, department and supermarkets accounted for 41 percent of the respondents in a recent survey. However, they represented a whopping 88 percent of the shoplifting cases. The retail chains and independent owners are turning more to technology as a way to fight against the upward spiral of theft. They are trying to balance the introduction of anti-shoplifting systems, video surveillance, and more monitoring throughout the store with maintaining customer-friendly service.

The consuming public can help. The woman apprehended in Wal-Mart had taken 22 DVDs to the restroom, removed the wrappers and put them in a bag. After her arrest she said she heard that she could make money selling DVDs. The economic slowdown has increased the temptation of many shoppers to seek deeply discounted products through the Internet and other outlets. And there are people exploiting the opportunity, zeroing in on popular retail products, stealing them and selling them cheaply. At the end of the day, the shoplifters are really stealing from all of us.

Robert Brincefield is vice president and publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at bob.brincefield@brownwoodbulletin.com.