Tighter security, tough economy fuel increase in merchandise theft reports.

Every week, two or three pairs of high-end work boots walked out of Black Bird Shopping Center on the feet of thieves who left broken-down boots or stinky tennis shoes behind in the boxes on store shelves.

With the price for top-quality work boots nudging $300 a pair, store owner Bill Quitt reorganized displays of hiking and work boots so only one of each type of boot is on display and customers must ask to try on a pair.

The change is just one step Quitt and his employees have taken to help stem an increase in shoplifting.

They're not alone: Local and national statistics point to a rise in thefts from retailers.

The National Retail Security Survey, conducted by the University of Florida with funding from ADT Security Services, found that the rate of retail theft increased for the first time in six years in 2008. The results were reported June 15.

The survey reported that theft ate up 1.52 percent of the nation's total retail sales, an increase from 1.44 percent of revenue in 2007. Losses in 2008 totaled $36.5 billion, the survey said.

In a statement on the results, University of Florida criminologist Richard Hollinger, who directed the survey, said the increase in both the rate of loss and the total value likely resulted from economic conditions and the resulting staffing cuts that created "an opportunistic environment" for shoplifters.

He also noted that the results didn't include the first part of 2009, when the recession was considered by many to be at its deepest.

Medford police marked a 15 percent increase in shoplifting cases between Jan. 1 and April 30 as compared with the similar period a year earlier. The first four months of this year saw 335 shoplifting cases reported, up from 291.

But Medford police Lt. Tim Doney said he isn't sure that the relatively small increase in cases is statistically significant, especially considering that the number of theft cases overall is down nearly four percent.

"We notice and we are paying attention," he said.

Police believe part of reason for the increase in reported cases is that stores are getting more aggressive about stopping shoplifters, a constant problem for retailers. In the past, Doney said, many businesses considered some loss to be part of the cost of doing business and handled things on their own when they nabbed shoplifters, demanding payment and asking the culprit to leave.

Numerous retailers and loss-prevention officials at the Rogue Valley Mall and elsewhere in Medford declined to discuss shoplifting trends.

A security officer at Food 4 Less who declined to give his name to protect his ability to do his job covertly said that people attempt to steal household items — especially health and beauty products — every day.

While he has seen a slight increase in such thefts lately, he's not sure it's related to the economy.

"I've been doing this for 20 years and if I had a nickel for every time I'd heard that excuse, I'd be a rich man," he said.

He said the store takes all thefts, all the time, seriously and will prosecute shoplifters. Food 4 Less recently upgraded a surveillance camera system to help that effort.

Black Bird first installed a nine-camera system about five years ago. When Joe's, a competing outdoor store across town, went out of business, Quitt bought its 12-camera system, which includes a hard drive to record all surveillance video digitally and an Internet connection that will enable him to monitor and even control the cameras from home.

Quitt also relies on astute employees to keep their eyes out for theft. He offers rewards for those who stop thefts or scams and shares tips for eliminating such crimes at staff meetings.

"I tell them that when people steal, the money comes from everybody's pockets," he said.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485, or e-mail aburke@mailtribune.com.