So-called smash-and-grabs at high-end stores across the nation frequently make the national headlines, as do retail closures—especially in San Francisco—that are seen as partly due to shoplifting. Our examination of retail theft and robbery in California points toward recent increases across the state. Using the most up-to-date data and focusing on California’s 15 largest counties, we find that while these recent trends are especially notable in the Bay Area and the Central Valley, there have been significant jumps in commercial burglaries in Southern Coastal California, and Los Angeles County has the highest commercial robbery rate.
We used recently released 2022 statewide crime data to examine changes and differences across the state’s 15 largest counties. While crime analysts typically focus on reported shoplifting incidents, we provide a more complete picture of retail theft by also examining commercial burglaries and robberies of commercial establishments.
Data on reported commercial shoplifting—defined under Proposition 47 (2014) as entering a commercial establishment with intent to steal property valued at less than $950 during business hours—failed to reveal evidence of increases until 2022, when the state saw a 28.7% jump from the unusually low rates of the pandemic years. Even after this sizeable increase, the shoplifting rate in California remains 8% below its pre-pandemic level. However, shoplifting is not the only type of retail theft that can shed light on the challenges retailers may be facing.
For example, the crime category of burglary includes both residences and commercial structures (including retail establishments). In California, a commercial burglary incident occurs when an individual enters the premises with the intent to steal merchandise worth more than $950. Unlike shoplifting, commercial burglaries increased during the first year of the pandemic; after a 5.8% uptick in 2022 the rate is 15.7% higher than in 2019.
While shoplifting is a misdemeanor with a punishment of up to six months in jail, district attorneys have the discretion to charge commercial burglary as either a misdemeanor or a felony; felony convictions can come with a sentence of up to three years.
A theft in which force is threatened and/or used is categorized as robbery, which is a violent crime. Robberies of commercial establishments (such as department, grocery, and convenience stores, as well as gas stations, hotels, and motels) are much less common than shoplifting and commercial burglaries. For example, the statewide commercial robbery rate was 53 incidents per 100,000 residents in 2022, compared to 210 and 231 for reported shoplifting and commercial burglary incidents. However, the data shows that the commercial robbery rate has increased by 13.3% since 2019, with an uptick of 9.1% in 2022.
Recent trends in retail theft and commercial robbery vary notably across the state’s 15 largest counties. Beginning with shoplifting, we see that San Mateo had the highest rate in 2022, with 347 reported incidents per 100,000 residents, followed by San Francisco (333). These counties saw increases of 53% and 24% compared to 2019, the largest jumps of all 15 counties. Three Central Valley counties had the next highest shoplifting rates: San Joaquin at 297, Kern with 278. and Fresno with 272. Increases in Kern and Fresno relative to 2019 were relatively low (1% and 7%, respectively); the only other large counties with increases were Santa Clara with 14% and Alameda with 10%. Shoplifting decreased by 20% or more in 5 of the 15 counties: San Joaquin (25%), Orange (24%), San Diego (21%), Ventura (21%) and San Bernardino (20%).
Commercial burglary has increased across the state in recent years; in 2020 it became a more commonly reported retail theft crime than shoplifting. Of the 15 largest counties, only San Joaquin saw a decrease (11%) between 2019 and 2022. The highest rates of commercial burglary in 2022 were in Kern (512), San Francisco (429), and Fresno (352); the lowest rates were in Ventura (121), San Diego (157), and Contra Costa (177). Rates in Fresno, Alameda, and Orange Counties were more than 50% higher in 2022 compared to 2019, while four counties saw increases of 25% to 50%: Santa Clara (44%), San Diego (38%), Los Angeles (29%), and San Francisco (26%). The smallest increases were found in San Bernardino (1%), Kern (2%), Ventura (9%), and Riverside (9%).
Robberies of commercial establishments were up in 9 of the 15 largest counties in 2022 compared to 2019. The state’s largest county, Los Angeles, had the highest commercial robbery rate in 2022 (60 per 100,000 residents), followed by San Joaquin (58), Sacramento (56), and Kern (52). The lowest robbery rates were in Ventura (15), Orange (23), and San Francisco (25). The biggest increases were in Fresno (51%), Sacramento (29%) and Los Angeles (19%), while Ventura (-29%), San Francisco (-27%), San Bernardino (-21%), San Joaquin (-20%) and Contra Costa (-18%) all saw decreases of more than 10%.
In sum, the 2022 data shows that while California’s shoplifting rate jumped notably in 2022, it remains lower than it was at any point in the decade before the pandemic. The commercial burglary rate, however, reached its highest level since 2008, and the commercial robbery rate rose to roughly where it was in 2017. The challenges of retail theft and robbery appear to be widespread, but they vary across the state.
Organized retail theft is frequently cited as a driver of recent trends across the country, but particularly in California. Like many other states, California has launched efforts to curb organized retail theft. AB 331 (2021) toughens penalties and includes funding for a California Highway Patrol task force to identify trouble spots and assist local law enforcement. In June 2023, Attorney General Bonta announced an information-sharing partnership with a number of large retailers.
The impact of these efforts will depend partly on the extent to which organized retail theft is actually driving recent trends. It will be important to continue monitoring retail theft and robbery rates and examining other possible contributing factors.