Shoplifters are hitting supermarket aisles across New York City with increasingly brazen heists — emboldened by soft-on-crime laws that are forcing grocers to take matters into their own hands even as they shell out more cash for security.
Audacious thieves are showing up with reusable shopping bags, backpacks and even empty suitcases and waltzing out with stacks of London broil steaks, armloads of air freshener and dozens of ice cream pints at a time. Some brandish knives or hypodermic needles when confronted, and a few employees have been injured while attempting to thwart the shoplifters, grocers say.
“We have rampant theft in our stores,” said Steven Sloan, co-owner of the high-end Morton Williams chain, which has 16 stores, mostly in Manhattan. “We hired uniformed police officers with guns and we’ve never had to do this before. That has helped to deter the thieves but at a huge cost.”
The city’s 30 Gristedes and D’Agostino stores have seen a 30% spike in shoplifting year to date compared with the same period last year, according to president Joe Parisi. He blames the increase on the fact that thieves are not typically prosecuted or arrested for stealing less than $1,000 worth of goods.
“If they know they aren’t going to jail or they are getting out quickly,” Parisi said, “what stops them from stealing?”
In response, Gristedes and D’Agostino managers are marking Haagen-Dazs pints so they can trace where they are resold after they’re filched. Elsewhere, a grocer in the Bronx told The Post he has instructed his staff to face off with thieves in groups as large as a half-dozen.
“We avoid one-on-one confrontations,” the Bronx grocer told The Post, asking that his stores not be specifically identified. “When they see that there are numbers involved — five or six employees — they usually leave us and rob the Rite Aid down the street.”
Some sophisticated thieves are staking out stores, waiting for the moment when a security guard leaves a post. The pilfered merchandise is resold for a fraction of the cost, sometimes right outside the supermarkets, to passersby or bodegas happy for the five-fingered discount amid record-high inflation.
The Morton Williams on West 57th Street in Manhattan has been dogged by a serial “steak thief” who wears a blue baseball cap, Bose headphones and a blue backpack. He has swiped hundreds of dollars worth of meat from the store since May 15, typically heading to a surveillance blind spot to fill his backpack, a store worker said.
“He’s come in at least four times that we know of,” said the assistant general manager, Ryan G., who has confirmed the heists on the store’s surveillance tape. “I even followed him outside once watching him disappear into the subway next door with two men carrying a cooler.”
In another recent incident, the Morton Williams manager said he was leaving work on the N train when someone offered to sell him a Listerine bottle for $1. It still had the $6.99 Morton Williams price sticker.
“I grabbed it and told him, ‘You stole it from my store,’” the manager told The Post.
Enforcement doesn’t always go smoothly, he added, recounting an incident in which he grappled with a thief who tried to steal beer and food from the salad bar.
“I took it away from him and the next week he came back to fight me with an empty beer bottle,” the manager recalled. “I had to testify in court against him.”
The confrontations are taking a toll on grocery workers. Three veteran Gristedes managers recently retired within the past several months, with one of them leaving after he got whacked on the head with a hammer after he tried to stop a shoplifter.
“These were managers who thought they’d work much longer,” Parisi said.
Even as they hire uniformed NYPD cops to moonlight as security guards, grocers say they have been forced to secure hot items like Red Bull energy drinks and Tide detergent in cramped employee offices, which inconveniences customers by requiring them to ask for them. They have also placed Tylenol, Advil and NyQuil behind lock-and-key near checkout counters.
Sometimes those that aren’t stealing goods have another scam up their sleeve. The Bronx grocer said a repeat offender at one of his two stores had the nerve to inform a manager that he planned to be a paying customer that day.
“He told my manager, ‘I’m going to the meat case and I’m buying hamburger patties from you. I’m legit today,’” the owner told The Post.
The thief-turned-customer used his EBT card to make the purchase and then walked across the street to the bodega to resell the goods, according to the grocer.
Petit larceny complaints citywide are up by 43% to 55,876 year to date through July 3, according to NYPD data. In New York, petit larceny — defined as stolen items worth less than $1,000 — is a misdemeanor.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said he would not seek jail time except for the most serious crimes when he came into office in January. His so-called Day One memo received immediate backlash from beleaguered business owners and law enforcement.
Bragg has since addressed concerns about rising crime, unveiling a new plan last month to deal with retail theft. He will focus on the “small group of people driving retail theft in Manhattan,” citing data showing that 18% of people arrested for shoplifting comprised nearly half of all shoplifting arrests from 2015 to 2021.
In response to the recent shoplifting sprees plaguing supermarkets, Bragg spokesperson Danielle Filson said: “No grocer in Manhattan should have to experience theft. And our office has met with grocery store owners and teamed up with the NYPD and local businesses to tackle this issue head on.”