Shoplifting is an ongoing, pervasive problem for store operators across all retail sectors. Although it’s tough to draw specific conclusions about how and where it’s done — for obvious reasons — there are some interesting factoids associated with the practice.

  • The size and scale of shoplifting is staggering. According to the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, more than $35 million worth of goods are stolen by shoplifters … every day. The annual totals of shoplifted merchandise may exceed $60 billion a year, and officials with that organization claim that thieves aren’t deterred by surveillance cameras, security guards, or anti-theft packaging.
  • Most shoplifting is impulsive. Dr. Read Hayes of the Loss Prevention Research Council told Forbes magazine that, “Most theft is greed, not need. They talk themselves into self-justifying the behavior. ‘It’s a big corporation; they charge too much; everyone does it.’ ”
  • The most popular items to steal from grocery stores are Tide detergent, Gillette razors, infant formula, electronics, batteries, fragrance, and over-the-counter drugs Prilosec and Abreva.

Of course, here are “opportunistic” thieves who plan their heists with the intention of reselling the merchandise for cash.

For those folks, meat remains the most attractive target.

“We’ve been witnessing a steady increase in theft of meat at retail for the last several years,” Heather Garlich of the Food Marketing Institute, told Forbes. “From anecdotal discussions with our food retail and wholesale members, meat and health and beauty aids are the highest ranked products for shrink.”

Now, however, an Ohio television station decided to do something about all that theft by shrinking the pool of thieves.

According to a televised report on ABC-TV 6, reporter Tom “6 On Your Side” Sussi dressed up as Undercover Cow and headed out onto the mean streets of Columbus to try to track down four meat thieves caught shoplifting hundreds of dollars’ worth of beef and pork:

  • Richie Staley allegedly stole more than $300 worth of Angus whole tenderloin
  • Dale Fritz allegedly stole nearly $500 worth of steak
  • Sierra Malone allegedly stole $528 worth of Red Bull and meat
  • Rodney Hartley allegedly stole $118 worth of pork tenderloin and beef roasts

The Columbus City Prosecutor’s office was in on the stunt, with the goal of finding the four (alleged thieves, who all apparently had outstanding warrants for their arrest after skipping out on court appearances.

What was supposed to be a serious crime prevention, get ’em off the street intervention turned comical in a hurry.

A cow by any other name

When Sussi showed up at the residences of the (alleged) perpetrators, he was dressed in a cow suit, but he was holding a microphone and accompanied by a camera crew. Surprisingly, nobody was fooled into thinking they’d won some contest offering free cheese for life.

In fact, one of the parents of the suspected thieves actually recognized the cow, saying, “You’re Tom Sussi.”

Do you think the microphone labeled “abc 6” and a crew member pointing a camera with a big “abc 6” stocker on the side might have been a clue?

The whole ridiculous episode practically screamed “Sweeps Week,” although in the posted story online that accompanied the broadcast report, the station appeared to claim credit for busting the thieves.

“Dale Fritz was arrested after stealing nearly $500 worth of steak, while Richie Staley was also apprehended after allegedly taking more than $300 worth of Angus whole tenderloin,” the story stated.

But if Tom On Your Side had anything to do with an arrest, you can bet that footage of the police perp-walking one of the suspects out to the patrol car — with his shirt off, a la “Cops” — would have capped off the segment.

I guess the road to network stardom in broadcasting is sometimes paved with “serious” journalism that involves renting a cow suit and cruising around Columbus “interviewing” the relatives of people accused of shoplifting.

What have we learned here?

Only this: If TV reporters want to fool suspects into confessing, or surrendering, they’re going to need better disguises.

And less equipment plastered with their station’s logos.



The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator