Flash mobs the latest threat this holiday season

The holiday season rings in more than just higher sales for retailers. There's also more shoplifting and lower profit margins than the rest of the year, according to a report released today. Plus, this year, there's an extra surprise -- flash mobs

iphone7 Apple store

A flash mob stole more than $13,000 worth of iPhones at an Apple store in Natick, Mass.

Credit: REUTERS/Thomas Peter

The holiday season rings in more than just higher sales for retailers. There's also more shoplifting and lower profit margins than the rest of the year, according to a report released today. Plus, this year, there's an extra surprise -- flash mobs.

Not the dancing, music-playing, watching-a-couple-get-engaged kind of flash mobs. But the kind of flash mobs where a bunch of people all show up at a store at once, pull hats low over their heads, grab everything in sight, and split.

Just last week, there was a flash mob at an Apple store in Natick, Mass., that took off with more than $13,000 worth of iPhones in less than a minute.

Another flash mob last month near Boston netted more than $14,000.

"They've been manifesting for the past two years, but have recently become a mainstream media focal point," said Ernie Deyle, report author and spokesperson at Checkpoint Systems.

And now the mobs are becoming more organized.

They're in and out quickly, hide their identities with ski masks, hats, or hoodies, and bring cutters to unclamp the iPhones.

"It's not a spontaneous thing," he said.

Defending against a flash mob requires preparation, he added.

Stores that depend heavily on foot traffic tend to be located in malls or in popular retail areas such as Chicago's Michigan Avenue, he said. That means that there might be security guards available to call on in case of an emergency -- or to provide early warning that a mob is assembling.

Stores that customers drive to are less vulnerable, he said.

"You're not going to get a full bus pulling up to the front door," he said.

Either way, crowd control at the door can limit the number of people who can come in at any one time, he said. That way, employees can monitor what happens on the floor and both staff and other customers stay safe.

Whether it's a group of people who get together and decide, on a whim to do something, or whether it's an organized, planned event, retailers may need to rethink their tactics, he said.

That includes not just door control, but also better monitoring of customers in the store and more eye contact and interaction with the customers.

Finally, having a plan ahead of time is critical, he said.

"You need to be prepared so that you can react appropriately and with some kind of level-headedness," he said.

Biggest targets

Even without flashmobs, shoplifting goes up during the holidays.

During most of the year, on average, one out of 1,000 customers will steal something. During the holidays, it's one out of 800.

The most stolen items this holiday season will be apparel, children's toys, and electronics and electronics accessories, according to Deyle.

And in addition to shoplifters, there's also store employees, he added.

As a result, theft is not only going up quarter over quarter because of the season, but is also up slightly by 3 to 7 percent, depending on the country, compared to the same period last year.

Customers and employees are stretched thin because of the economy, he said, so the risk situation is different than it was in times when the economy was doing better.

"And we didn't have flash mobs coming and stealing everything in the store," he added.

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