A man bolts for the door carrying a leaf blower. A woman nabs $140 in canned crab meat and shoves it in her purse. A customer threatens to shoot an employee.
It’s just a typical week at Walmart — Beaufort County’s top spot for reported crime.
In 2014, more crime was reported at the Walmart in the city of Beaufort than any other single address in Beaufort County. Not far behind, the Walmart on Hilton Head Island ranked as the county address with the second-most crime reports that year.
An analysis by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette of every non-traffic crime report in Beaufort County across all police agencies in 2014 revealed:
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▪ The Beaufort Walmart Supercenter at 350 Robert Smalls Parkway posted 206 total crime reports. Most of them — 132 cases — were for shoplifting and other property crimes. But there were also 15 assaults and domestic violence reports and five cases of public drunkenness. The store accounted for more than 8 percent of all non-traffic crimes reported by Beaufort police.
▪ The Hilton Head Walmart Supercenter at 25 Pembroke Drive posted 162 crime reports. Again, many of the cases — 80 — were shoplifting and other property crimes. But reports included 22 cases of fraud, forgery and theft involving employees along with four assaults. The store accounted for 4 percent of all non-traffic crimes reported on Hilton Head.
▪ A both stores, a handful of violent incidents were also reported, including one attempted murder and three armed robberies in 2014.
The criminal activity cost taxpayers. Between the two stores, police officers were at Walmart about once a day, writing reports and making arrests.
Beaufort leaders say they’re aware that the stores are hot spots that can eat up police time. But they are stumped as to what more can be done.
The problem is likely to grow. Three more Walmart locations are scheduled this year for Beaufort County: a new Walmart Supercenter on Lady’s Island, another in Bluffton and a smaller Walmart Neighborhood Market grocery store planned for Bluffton Gateway, a shopping center to be built at the intersection of U.S. 278 and S.C. 46.
“We should always try to prevent any type of crime,” Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said. “But when you have a big parking lot and a big retail store like Walmart, it becomes a target. We can work on prevention — but it’s not something that will immediately go away.”
On Hilton Head, the amount of police time spent at Walmart has not been discussed as an issue of public concern in recent years, said councilwoman Kim Likins, who represents the area.
“It may just be the nature of the beast with a business like that,” Likins said. “Of course, I’d love the police to be working on prevention rather than writing reports at Walmart, but I’m not sure there is a way to stop the types of crimes there.”
Beaufort police say they may need more resources to respond to the large numbers of calls expected at the proposed Walmarts and other businesses planning to move in around the stores.
“If it is the same call volume or close to what we get from the Beaufort Walmart, that is a concern,” said Beaufort Police Chief Matt Clancy.
The spot proposed for the new Lady’s Island Walmart is at the edge of the city limits — farther away from the police station and population centers.
“It spreads our resources thinner,” he said. “You look at the time that an officer takes to make the case and transport the prisoner from Walmart, and that’s time that they are not patrolling someplace else. That’s something we’re going to have to deal with.”
Best Buy, Kmart don’t come close
Crime reports at Walmart far outpace other big-box retailers in Beaufort County.
The Best Buy electronics store in Beaufort, located next to Walmart, posted only 10 incidents reported by police in 2014 compared with its neighbor’s 206 reports. The Beaufort Kmart also only had 17 reports that year.
Walmart says the higher number of crime reports are proof the store’s tight security measures are working.
“Other stores might not report (crime) as much,” Walmart spokesman Whyet Jefferies said. “Our stores are being hyper vigilant.”
In addition to in-store security teams that patrol for would-be thieves and a camera system that watches over shoppers, Walmart consistently reports crimes to police and almost always presses charges, local law enforcement officials say.
At the Beaufort store, for example, the store called police in December when a man took a soda worth $1.29 without paying. Police took a report and arrested the man, according to police records. And two days before Christmas, the store pressed charges against three teenage girls for stealing cosmetics from the Hilton Head store.
The two local Walmarts’ calls for shoplifting alone make up more than 55 percent of all shoplifting reports in their respective cities.
You look at the time that an officer takes to make the case and transport the prisoner from Walmart, and that’s time that they are not patrolling someplace else.
Beaufort Police Chief Matt Clancy
But Walmart officials say the two stores are far from crime havens when compared with other locations of the store. In fact, they have the lowest rates of theft and damage to products of any Walmart in the region, Jefferies said.
So why the hyper vigilance to catch wrongdoers?
Company executives last spring cited theft as one of the biggest issues for the retailer’s bottom line, affecting its more than 4,500 U.S. locations.
In a June 2015 earnings call, Walmart CEO Greg Foran estimated the company loses $3 billion each year to loss of inventory, according to reports from Reuters. That’s about 3 percent of its inventory, more than double the industry average, Bloomberg News reported.
Local law enforcement speculates the sheer number of customers Walmart stores serve could also explain its high theft rate, though the company does not release information on store traffic.
“They get more people in one place more than anywhere else in Beaufort,” Beaufort Police Chief Clancy said. “Unfortunately some of those people bring their problems with them.”
The Walmart effect
Academics have long studied “the Walmart Effect” — the way the large retailer changes communities where it builds, including a rise in crime reports.
U.S. counties where a new Walmart was built in the 1990s experienced 17 additional property crimes and two additional violent crimes for every 10,000 residents — even when controlling for socioeconomic factors that impact crime, according to a study released last year by researchers at the University of South Carolina and Sam Houston State University.
“We found that this one store may have an effect on an entire county’s crime rate, which is really unusual,” said study co-author Scott Wolfe, a criminology professor at USC.
While the study didn’t reach a conclusion to explain why the stores increase crime rates, Wolfe speculates it may be the large number of people and large amount of merchandise in the stores.
Beyond crime, researchers have also found a new Walmart changes local economies in ways that can be perceived as positive or negative, Wolfe said. For example, a new Walmart Supercenter may initially create new jobs. The stores often employ 300 people and can significantly lower the cost of local products, including groceries, Wolfe said.
But Walmart can also put competing local retailers out of business and local workers out of jobs, Wolfe said.
“The Walmart effect can be good and it can be bad,” Wolfe said. “The problem is, you don’t know until time tells.”
Beaufort County’s top 10 spots for reported crime:
1. Walmart Supercenter at 350 Robert Smalls Parkway, Beaufort
206 incidents reported
2. Walmart Supercenter at 25 Pembroke Drive, Hilton Head
162 incidents reported
3. The Barmuda Triangle at 7 Greenwood Drive, Hilton Head
146 incidents reported
4. Battery Creek High School at 1 Blue Dolphin Drive, Beaufort
128 incidents reported
5. Hilton Head Gardens Apartments at 11 Southwood Park Drive, Hilton Head
115 incidents reported
6. August on Southside Apartments at 2808 Southside Blvd., Port Royal
113 incidents reported
7. Avalon Shores Apartment at 20 Simmonsville Road, Bluffton
107 incidents reported
8. Beaufort High School at 84 Sea Island Parkway, Beaufort
102 incidents reported
9. Robert Smalls International Academy at 43 W.K Alston Drive, Beaufort
89 incidents reported
10. Lakes at Myrtle Park Apartments at 4921 Bluffton Parkway, Bluffton
88 incidents reported
Source: 2014 police reports
About this series
A few spots in Beaufort County demand an outsized share of police time and public resources. The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette reviewed thousands of police reports to identify the addresses where officers wrote the most reports in 2014. The data was used to build a top 10 list of crime hot spots.