It’s difficult to think of Spam and canned corned beef as hot commodities, like fine wines and other luxury items, that need to be locked up to prevent theft. But that’s what’s happening in some stores on Oahu from Kalihi to Hauula.

Retail analysts say canned meats are stolen by drug addicts and others, then sold to middlemen for quick cash to buy drugs or for ready money to survive. Or the thieves sell their stolen goods themselves at bargain prices at swap meets or out of the back of their cars.

“Since the shoplifters got the stolen goods for free, they are able to make a 100 percent profit reselling them,” says Tina Yamaki, executive director of Retail Merchants of Hawaii.

Spam and other canned meats are stolen so frequently that many stores, such as the Walgreens on North School Street, lock up the cans. Courtesy of Patrick Tomiyasu

Although Spam might seem like a small item, she says there has always been high demand for it in Hawaii.

“Spam is a staple in Hawaii. Every home has a can of Spam on its shelves. You can cook Spam 101 different ways. It keeps forever,” she says.

Yamaki says it is not just Spam and other canned meats that are hot items for shoplifters.

“Thieves enter a store with a shopping list just like we take a shopping list for food with us to the market. But their shopping list is of items that can be easily resold such as electronics, power tools, designer purses, sun glasses, expensive perfume, wine, liquor, fresh meat, shrimp, macadamia nuts and canned meats,” she says.

Darlene Kauhi, manager of Tamura’s Market in Hauula says, “It’s crazy. Just crazy. We have to keep corned beef up front at the customer service counter because people steal cases of corned beef. And they also steal Spam.”

Kauhi says corned beef is particularly popular because of its high price, which ranges from $5 to $6 per can.

Kauhi says the Spam and corned beef thieves are organized, usually walking through the store in groups of four, grabbing what they need and fleeing from the store fast.

When Tamura’s caught one group of thieves getting ready to exit, the women claimed they had bought the canned corned beef at another store.

Kauhi says Tamura’s Markets on Oahu located in Wahiawa and Barbers Point also put extra security on their canned meats.

The signs on the shelves say: ”To our valued Customers: All the corned beefs are relocated at the front. Please ask Tamura’s staff for assistance. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

Arden Lee at Tamura’s Market in Hauula, where canned corned beef is sold only behind the courtesy counter. Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat

Walgreens on North School Street in Kalihi has Spam locked up with a sign above the locked case of Spam saying, “Items electronically monitored for theft.”

Walgreens shift leader Glenn Cabe says, “ People take Spam. We have to keep it locked up. We have to keep a lot of things locked up in this store.”

On September 14, three women almost got away with 18 cases of Spam from Long’s in Ewa Beach, but savvy shopper Kurt Fevella spotted the women and followed them through the store.

“I knew there was no way they could pay for all that Spam,” he says.

Kurt Fevella says he saw three women attempt to steal 18 cases of Spam from a Longs Drugs in Ewa Beach. Courtesy of Kurt Fevella

When the women got near the exit, he gave them stink eye.

“The woman pushing the shopping cart with all the Spam then shoved the cart at me and said ‘Here, you take it,’” he said.

Fevella says the two women with the woman pushing the cart still escaped from the store with four reusable shopping bags filled with stolen items.

When the cashier told him about the women getting away with the other stuff, Fevella says he ran out into the parking lot to catch them. “They were gone. They got away so fast. They were vapor,” he says.

Less than a week later, KHON2 news reported that a man stole eight cases of Spam by pushing a shopping cart out the front door of Safeway in Waimalu so fast that astounded shoppers and store personnel who saw him reacted too slowly to catch him.

Yamaki says thieves are getting more brazen, more daring.

A friend of mine who is a recovering crystal meth addict says, “The brain, body and mind will take incredible risks to get this drug. The addicts are roaming, seeking, robbing to obtain their high. Spam is quick money. It’s lucrative.”

She says a person steals the Spam or other re-sellable goods, then makes a cell phone call to a middleman, who often take advantage of them by offering a very cheap price.

She calls the canned meat transactions, “Spam currency.”

Honolulu Police Department spokeswoman Michelle Yu says, “I’ve seen Palm corned beef, Sumo pens, pregnancy test kits, and liquor behind the customer service counters. It seems to vary by neighborhood.”

Yu says there have been 15,248 reports of theft on Oahu from January to September this year, a slight decrease from the same months last year when there were 16,897 reported thefts. She says police do not break down thefts by categories like food items,

Police statistics also don’t reflect the total volume or value of thefts.

Yamaki says since she started working at Retail Merchants of Hawaii
last year, more and more merchants have calling concerned about
their losses to thieves. One thing she believes is driving the increase
reported to her by the merchants is the policy change to encourage people to bring their own reusable grocery bags when they shop.

“That definitely makes it easier for people to steal. The thieves stuff their reusable bags with stolen items. If they are caught, they claim they bought the items at another store,” Yamaki says.

“They work in groups and usually have a getaway car waiting outside in the parking lot.”

Yamaki says another key change her merchant members report is an  increase in the volume of items stolen from their stores. She says this happened after state lawmakers raised the threshold for felony theft from $300 to $750.

“People are stealing right up to the $750 limit,” she says. “Before they stole items only up to $300. Now can take more than double the amount of merchandise and still avoid a felony charge.”

Thefts are another financial burden to small retailers already struggling to survive in the face of competition from e-commerce sites.

I used to think it was funny when I heard about some ne’er-do-well stealing cases of Spam. You know, only in Hawaii would you find someone ready to face a criminal record to steal Spam.

But now I know thefts of canned meat are part of a sadder, darker story driven by the desperation of drug addicts and others encouraged by cunning of criminals to harm themselves, hard-working retailers and families paying increased prices for their groceries.

“Spam currency” hurts everyone.

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