For small business owner Steven Lien, opening his downtown Portland store looks a lot different than it did a few years ago.
"We didn't have gates on the entryway. We weren't worried about our windows being broken," Lien, the owner of underU4men said. "And shoplifting was something that almost never happened."
But he can't say the same today.
"We've gone through a lot," Lien said. "I actually put my hand in my pocket. Make sure my mace is available. I go to steel gates and I have to open them with a key."
Lien isn't alone. A Business.org survey showed 54% of small businesses reported a rise in shoplifting in 2021.
"We've gone up 800%," Lien told Scripps News. "The changes are stark, and there are things that I didn't expect when I opened a small business so many years ago."
It's not just happening in Portland, and it's not just small businesses. The National Retail Federation says it's a problem impacting every state, which the organization says cost retailers $94 billion in 2021. The NRF says the broader problem focuses on organized retail crime.
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"These are criminal enterprises that organize, plan and orchestrate groups of shoplifters who go in and steal often, and large quantities of theft," said David Johnston, vice president of asset protection and retail operations at NRF.
An NRF survey shows organized crime cost stores an average of more than $700,000 per $1 billion in sales in 2020, up more than 50% in the last five years.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to members of Congress urging them to pass legislation to stop the sale of stolen items online.
"These crimes are not victimless. In addition to the growing number of thefts that turn violent, innocent consumers, employees, local communities, and business owners and shareholders bear the costs of rising retail theft," the letter reads. "25% of small businesses report raising prices as a result of shoplifting. Some retailers have been forced to shutter locations in response to rampant theft."
Lien is still processing the news that outdoor recreation retailer REI will close its doors in Portland's nearby Pearl District by early 2024.
In a letter sent to customers, REI leadership said, "Last year, REI Portland had its highest number of break-ins and thefts in two decades, despite actions to provide extra security."
"When I see the big box stores pulling up roots, and whether it's a Walmart or REI or even a Nike store closing, it's a knife in the heart," Lien said. "I am really needing the big guys to step up and back up my back because I'm already stepping up and doing what needs to be done in the community. There's a lot of inventory in the store. It's my retirement. It's personal. So it does hurt when I see them give up. When we're still on the frontlines fighting. I need them to fight too."
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It's not just the sting of retail losses felt by businesses.
"We've had three major windows broken out with rocks with grabbing product out through the windows. Each of my windows is little over $4,500 to replace," Lien said, adding that expenses have to be passed on in many cases.
There's also the cost of extra security measures in the form of gates, staff and cameras. Some larger retailers are locking up every day items like coffee and deodorant.
"This impacts the consumer as much as it impacts the retailer," said Johnston with the NRF. "There are a lot of factors that have contributed to this the past couple of years."
Some point to inflation, saying the value of goods stolen is higher. Others point to the open availability of online marketplaces that make it easier for criminals to sell stolen items. The NRF blames part of the rise on thieves not being harshly prosecuted.
Many states have passed laws that stiffened the punishment for stealing, which gives Lien hope, along with collaborating with his community.
"It's dozens and dozens of small businesses that get together and we share our stories and we've solved the problems together," Lien said. "It's those levels of community that is really where my hope comes from. That and of course, an amazing staff because they've been with me a long time. We're all in this together."
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