Rotorua workers are feeling "threatened and scared" as shoplifting numbers hit five-year highs in the city.
According to a new data breakdown, people in their early 30s are the city's worst offenders, with men more prolific than women.
Now, business owners are using new technology and strategic shop layouts to deter thieves.
Figures released by police to the Rotorua Daily Post under the Official Information Act show retail premises were the main target for Rotorua shoplifters with 636 thieves caught in 2019 alone, the highest number in five years.
However, from January to August this year, the number of shoplifters was already 573 - the second-highest number in the same five-year time period. This was despite a nationwide lockdown between March and April, forcing most shops to close until alert level 2 in May.
Service station thefts in the city also reached a five-year high in 2019.
Items valued under $500 were the most common to be stolen. However, thefts between $500 and $1000 were becoming more prevalent.
The figures also revealed that this year to August, thefts by men were over-represented compared to women. In a breakdown of ages, people aged between 30 and 34 represented the biggest proportion of theft offending.
Rotorua councillor and Springfield Springfield Superette owner Raj Kumar said shoplifting within the retail community had been "rife" post-lockdown with more people "loitering" than ever before.
He said the problem was particularly bad in the central city but was also getting worse on the outskirts.
Lighters, batteries and chocolate were often being taken as they were close to the counter, or people were grabbing things like cigarettes when the cashier placed them on the counter and "doing a runner", he said.
It had become so bad Kumar said he sometimes refrained from putting items down on the counter until the person had paid for them.
"You can't slip your guard for a second. It's the principle of it, we have to act or they will continuously take advantage of us.
"It's really upsetting. It leaves my staff feeling threatened and scared."
A fellow dairy owner told Kumar they had caught a man on CCTV who had been stealing two energy drinks a day for over a month by putting them down his pants and deterring staff, he said.
Retail owners across town had set up a network among themselves to let each other know within minutes if a shoplifter had targeted their store and what to look out for, he said.
He said many shoplifters worked in threes, two inside and a driver in the car. They would work out the "vulnerable stores" in terms of the number of staff in-store and the layout when choosing where to target.
Kumar had adapted the layout of his store to prevent thefts, including keeping many goods behind the counter and putting wine and beer in a secluded spot in easy view.
He said he believed good CCTV cameras had made all the difference in deterrence.
Store manager at Challenge Petrol Station on Malfroy Rd Darvinder Singh said about two or three shoplifters came in every week taking things like chocolate and drinks that they could slip into their pockets.
He said they picked on the "blind spots" that were difficult to see from the counter or when the store employees were busy and distracted.
The station had one regular shoplifter who they consistently caught on CCTV but were never able to catch him in the act. He said one of their employees recently confronted him and the offender got physical.
"They are all well-trained but it is still hard on our staff."
Watchdog Security chief executive Brett Wilson said shoplifting in the Bay of Plenty was an ongoing problem that was only going to get worse as the economic impact of Covid continued to bite.
He said the Christmas months were always the busiest time of year for thieves as young offenders were off school and there was "pressure" on families.
"When things get tough, more people steal."
With shops being busier and shopkeepers distracted, he said it opened up "opportunities" for thieves.
However, there was new "facial recognition" CCTV technology being trialled by chain stores that could change the game of shoplifting, he said.
The cameras could load an image of a repeat offender and alert security staff when that person was on the premises so they could be stopped from coming in, he said.
However, this could cause "displacement" and mean smaller businesses could become more targeted.
Wilson said a large number of businesses were getting more serious about their security, meaning "most people who steal don't get away with it".
Antoinette Laird, head of corporate affairs at Foodstuffs NZ, which owns New World and Pak'n Save branches nationwide said shoplifting, in general, was an "ever-present problem" for retailers.
She said their stores had robust strategies to combat the problem, including security tagging high-risk or targeted products, putting less stock on shelves, plain-clothed staff, increased CCTV, theft reporting and trespass orders.
"Shoplifting is a crime and stores go to great lengths to prevent it. Unfortunately, this is a cost to the store and inevitably to customers, making it a lose-lose situation for everyone."
Acting director of the New Zealand Police's evidence-based policing centre Simon Williams said Rotorua had one full-time community constable based in the CBD, who was "proactive in arresting and prosecuting shoplifters".
They were available to many retailers and the Rotorua Lakes Council by phone, allowing a wider coverage over all of the city, he said.
Police and the council held weekly Community Partners Intel meetings where "shoplifting trends and active offenders are a permanent agenda item", he said.
A Countdown spokeswoman said theft was a reality in retail from time to time and they had a number of security measures in place to detect and prevent shoplifting.
These included CCTV, security tags on certain items, supervisors at check-outs and security guards at a number of stores.