'Smash-and-grab' attacks hit posh California shops at start of holiday season

Retailers amp up security on Black Friday after string of recent thefts

Police respond to a report of theft at the Louis Vuitton store in San Francisco's Union Square. AP
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US retailers are adding security and locking up goods after flash-mob heists involving dozens of thieves at once stunned luxury stores in the San Francisco area and southern California, as the holiday shopping season opens.

In the most shocking of recent thefts, about 80 masked people in 25 cars raided a Nordstrom department store in Walnut Creek, California, east of San Francisco at the weekend, plundering its first-floor luxury goods counters in only a few minutes before fleeing.

This took place a day after 40 people swarmed a Louis Vuitton store in San Francisco's tony Union Square shopping district, emptying its shelves in seconds before jumping in cars to speed away. Other nearby shops including Burberry and Bloomingdale's were also hit.

In Santa Rosa, four young men ran into an Apple store on Wednesday morning and fled with $20,000 in goods, police said.

In nearby Palo Alto, 30 to 40 people over the course of 20 hours tried smashing into luxury consignment store The RealReal, but the shop's glass held.

To the south, retailer Nordstrom was the target of two separate mob robberies this week — one at the posh Grove Shopping District in Los Angeles, which involved 20 people and another at the Canoga Park location where a security guard was pepper-sprayed.

Meanwhile, authorities are investigating the smashing on Sunday of storefront windows at the Louis Vuitton store on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills as well as at nearby Saks Fifth Avenue, though nothing was taken from either store.

“The level of organised retail theft we are seeing is simply unacceptable,” California Governor Gavin Newsom said on Tuesday.

“Businesses and customers should feel safe while doing their holiday shopping.”

The thefts come at a key moment on the shopping calendar, with Black Friday sales after Thanksgiving in the US leading into the Christmas season.

Mr Newsom ordered a special task force in the California Highway Patrol to work with local officials to address the theft problem.

He said increased enforcement would start immediately “in and around areas that are highly trafficked and coming into the holiday season [and] Black Friday in shopping malls”.

Smaller crowds as Black Friday kicks off in the US

Smaller crowds as Black Friday kicks off in the US

The thefts are believed to be part of sophisticated criminal networks that recruit mainly young people to steal merchandise in stores throughout the country and then sell it in online marketplaces.

Chicago was also hit by a series of similar thefts when a gang of 14 crooks swept into a Louis Vuitton store in the Oak Brook suburb, snatching more than $100,000 worth of luxury bags and garments — the third such attack on a Chicago-area Louis Vuitton outlet in a month.

Retailers around the country are taking notice and precautions against possible copycat hits as the sheer size of the robbery gangs and their ability to plan secretly have made them nearly impossible to halt.

The National Retail Federation said a recent survey found stores are seeing an increase in organised thefts and perpetrators being more aggressive.

Updated: December 14, 2021, 11:18 PM