Sunday, December 25, 2011

Season of Giving and Taking

In this season of giving, news reports remind us it also is the season of taking, as in “Shoplifting tab to hit $1.84B,” according to the Associated Press.

The AP story said in the “four weeks leading up to this Christmas, an estimated $1.84 billion in merchandise will be shoplifted from retailers in the U.S., according to The Global Retail Theft Barometer. That’s up about 6% from $1.7 billion during the same period last year.”

No doubt about it, “five-finger discounts” are trending up, what with an economy that hawks purchasing at too many people unemployed or too underemployed to afford all the goodies they and their families want.

The dirty little secret of retail losses from what the industry calls “shrink,” however, is that insiders—retail employees—steal more than customers. It’s been that way for years. Employee theft accounts for about 44% of all losses, compared to 36% from shoplifting. The rest, the AP reported, results from vendor theft and administrative error.

Some years ago I heard about Kmart’s efforts to control insider losses. Management would review each employee’s monthly store purchases. If they fell below a certain percentage of take home pay, red flags would be raised. After all, why would an employee not buy household and health and beauty aid supplies, stationery and other commodity purchases at Kmart, where they’d get an employee discount? One possible explanation would be the employee was simply taking home the goods without paying for them. An investigation would follow.

The story, perhaps, was apocryphal. But I always thought it had a ring of authenticity to it.

Choose Your Obscenity: Which to you is more obscene, the throngs of mostly young men who grappled last week to get their grubby hands on $180 a pair Nike Air Jordans, or the $88 million reportedly paid by the 22-year-old daughter of a Russian billionaire for a 6,774-square-foot penthouse apartment at 15 Central Park West in Manhattan?

Perhaps neither affronts you. By my very question you can surmise I find both disdainful. Push come to shove, as happened across the country with the Air Jordans, I’d have to say I am more repulsed by the real estate transaction (I also wasn’t too excited by another deal at the same address, a mere $24 million for a three-bedroom apartment.)

I’m not against the free market setting prices. But let’s be real, people. The apartment doesn’t come with Central Park thrown in, just a view. I’m not sure if the apartment comes furnished, but even if did and everything inside it was trimmed in gold, $88 million is a little much. I’ve seen castles and mansions, all with extensive grounds, that would sell for less.

As Gilda pointed out, one has to wonder from where the money to afford these purchases came. The Russian father is an oligarch of questionable morality and business dealings. While rank and file Russians struggle, oligarchs and their minions have brazenly usurped wealth, natural resources and power.

The Manhattan real estate market has been pumped up by financial industry bogeymen, er, I mean, moneymen. Naw, I mean bogeymen. Rarely do they contribute anything tangible to human endeavor. Their sole purpose is to make money through arcane, manipulative practices few understand, fewer regulate. Their mistakes plunged the nation and world economies into turmoil. Millions lost jobs, retirement savings, homes. With rare exception, only they and their gilded lifestyles have rebounded. They’ve made it almost impossible for ordinary people to invest without anxiety as their computer-generated trading systems produce huge stock market fluctuations, not just daily but also hour to hour.

It’s hardly a wonder, therefore, when the common folk fight for a pair of sneakers. It’s the most tantalizing asset many of them will ever own. Which is an obscene commentary on our society.