Pulse: Chatter: Crime: Sweating the Small Stuff

NOT ALL THAT long ago, the biggest problem on Walnut Street — a.k.a. Philly’s sparkliest shopping district — was trying to lure people to it. But then came a retail renaissance — Lush and Lacoste, et al. — and with it, people. Today, say Walnut Street retailers, the issue isn’t getting the customers; it’s getting them to pay, thanks to a quiet crime wave of shoplifters targeting Center City’s toniest stores.  

A leather jacket gone missing from Ralph Lauren and a copper pot swiped from ­Williams-Sonoma are hardly the stuff of headlines (the exception being, perhaps, last February, when thieves smashed a Chevy through the Diesel storefront on Walnut near 15th, gathered up goods, and drove away untouched — the most brazen and publicized of a handful of thefts the store suffered in a months-long run-up of $87,800 in losses). But the grumbling on Walnut Street has grown louder as filching has become an almost daily occurrence, according to store managers — all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, given corporate policies about media. (Calls to corporate headquarters about the matter went unreturned.)  

“It’s really gotten to the point where they’re coming in all the time,” says Scott Webster, a former Ralph Lauren employee. By the time he left the company in August, he recalls, “We started to recognize some of them and would tell them to get out. One shoplifter started making gun motions with his hand.”

So what’s with all the sticky fingers? Paul Jones, a retail-crime expert with the Retail Industry Leaders Association, points to eBay and other websites as the cause of the surge. Thieves who used to earn 20 cents on the dollar on the street for stolen goods, he says, have seen returns in recent years soar upwards of 70 cents on the Internet — ­making shoplifting such a lucrative business that places like the swanky stretches of Walnut Street have become prime targets for practiced criminals and even organized crime rings. (Read: The mob.) That may very well be the case here, says local FBI spokesperson Jerri Williams. She notes that the bureau has for two years been investigating “newly forged ties between local shoplifting rings working in the Philadelphia area and Middle Eastern and Russian organized crime.”

And why drive your Chevy through a window when you can just get your jeans online?