Razor blades and baby formula: Inside the shady world of organized retail theft

Organized retail crime is costing Canadian businesses billions of dollars each year.

Recent incidents highlight a crime costing Canadian businesses billions each year

Hamilton police say that three suspects stole $20,000 worth of Lululemon gear from a Stoney Creek yoga studio on July 1. Police say organized retail crime is costing Canadians billions of dollars a year. (Hamilton police)

Boxes of razors, shoved down someone's pants. Thousands of dollars in Lululemon yoga apparel, grabbed from a store in the middle of the night while alarms blare.

This is the world of organized retail crime — and recent incidents in Hamilton and Halton highlight a little-talked-about crime that is costing Canadian businesses billions of dollars each year.

"We're finding it's occurring more and more," said Sgt. Andy Dennis of Halton Regional Police Service. "It's actually quite prolific. Across Canada, it's into the billions."

This is more than simple shoplifting. Organized groups are systematically stripping stores of a specific, targeted item and reselling it to recoup huge profits. But these thieves aren't going after electronics or jewelry, something most people commonly associate with smash and grabs.

Instead, they're pilfering things like cologne, baby formula and clothes. Look no farther than the robbery at a Moksha Yoga Studio in Stoney Creek on Canada Day, where almost $20,000 in Lululemon gear was stolen.

Some are quite violent and will threaten with violence. It's very detrimental to the business.- Peter  Horsley , chief operating officer of Loss Prevention Services

That night, three men wearing masks bashed out the glass front door of the shop with a hammer. Security camera video caught them frantically running in and grabbing what they could.

"It's not surprising. These guys will steal anything," said Sgt. Rob Hardy of Hamilton Police's break, enter, auto theft and robbery unit (or BEAR, for short). "You name it, they'll target it."

Early in July, three men went into a store in Milton and stuffed hundreds of dollars' worth of razor blades into a shopping bag and then fled.

According to statistics from Calgary police, organized retail crime costs Canadians $4 billion a year. Their stats say 87.5 per cent of independent retail stores fall victim to this kind of crime, while two out of every five thefts involve some form of violence.

Police call it a "high-profit, low-penalty crime," and that's why it's so prevalent.

Stolen goods end up online or in stores

Dennis says that generally, organized retail crime breaks down into two scenarios: Someone pays their underlings to go out and steal specific products for resale, or a group of people just grab merchandise, and then sell it themselves.

Sometimes the stolen goods are sold online on websites like eBay or Kijiji, and other times they end up in flea markets or back in brick and mortar shops. "Some are sold to legitimate business that don't realize that they're stolen," Dennis said.

Hardy takes that one step further. "There are also unscrupulous merchants out there who will put this stuff into legitimate stores," he said.

Though it's called a kind of "organized" crime, what people typically define as organized crime doesn't really apply here, says Peter Horsley, the chief operating officer of Loss Prevention Services, a Toronto

"It's not traditionally what you'd think of as biker gangs or mob activity," he said. But, he says, it's something more sophisticated and organized than your average theft.

"There could be vehicles waiting outside for a quick getaway [and] stolen licence plates on vehicles," he said, while adding that he's reluctant to share too many stories about techniques that are being used, for fear of inspiring copycats.

"Some are quite violent and will threaten with violence. It's very detrimental to businesses," he said.

The baby formula underworld

So what types of things are most commonly stolen in the world of organized retail crime? Perfume and cologne are huge, Dennis says, as are name brand clothes like Lululemon and Tommy Hilfiger. Baby formula is also a common target — as are razor blades.

"One person can steal $5,000 in cologne. We've seen thousands of dollars in clothing go out of a store," Dennis said. "Or they'll steal a couple thousand in razor blades, and then sell them to another location."

That has happened in Hamilton a few times in recent memory, like when a Hamilton man faked a disability to steal razor blades and then tried to get away by bus, or when a local man tried to steal them by shoving them down the front of his pants.

Instead of electronics, yoga clothes like these have become a target for thieves. (Lululemon)

On top of their ease in resale value, these kinds of items are attractive to thieves because they're extremely difficult to track. While cellphones have tracking devices and stereos have serial numbers, it's a lot more difficult to track down baby formula or pants.

Halton police are attempting to combat this, by partnering with certain stores to place identifying marks on highly-trafficked merchandise — though Dennis is intentionally cagey about what exactly those marks might look like to not tip off potential thieves.

"Electronics can be tracked, but this stuff just can't," he said. "It's extremely profitable.

"But we're doing our best to combat this."

adam.carter@cbc.ca

About the Author

Adam Carter

Reporter, CBC Hamilton

Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Hamilton home. He enjoys a good story and playing loud music in dank bars. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.