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To Catch a Whole Gang of Thieves

Retailers aren't just battling sluggish sales in this recession. They're also up against a steady rise in organized theft. Nationwide, the FBI says, the annual tally is up to $30 billion. Now many stores are trying to stem those losses by out-organizing the thieves electronically.

Gangs of shoplifters—who resell their boosted baby formula, jeans, and other goods at pawnshops, on the street, and over the Web—are nothing new on the retail circuit. But 85% of retailers polled in April by the National Retail Federation said they've seen more organized theft over the past three years. With store cutbacks leaving fewer employees to monitor shelves, retailers increasingly are reaching for an electronic weapon: the Law Enforcement Retail Partnership Network, or LERPnet, an interactive database created by the federation. Of the country's biggest retailers, 54, including Walgreens (WAG), Macy's (M), and Wal-Mart (WMT), subscribe to the two-year-old-system, which allows members to share information on what's been stolen—data they once might have considered proprietary—and to post photos and videos of suspects. Fifteen of these retailers, including Barnes & Noble, Home Depot, and Ann Taylor, have joined LERPnet in the past year, paying from $2,500 to $9,000 each. (The price varies with a retailer's size.) As of the end of April, LERPnet had information on more than 40,000 organized thefts, up 80% from a year earlier.

As yet, there are no estimates of the amount of theft the system may have thwarted. But retailers like apparel chain Charlotte Russe (CHIC), which has 487 stores in 45 states, say there's a definite payoff. Since the chain started using LERPnet seven weeks ago, says Anne Sullivan, Charlotte Russe's senior director of asset protection, information gleaned from the database has already helped the chain recover $15,000 worth of goods. The system also alerted a Charlotte Russe outlet to a local gang's modus operandi: keeping employees busy in fitting rooms while a confederate strips shelves of merchandise. "It allows us to be proactive and prevent theft," Sullivan says.

The system's newest feature will fill some holes in its data. By summer, LERPnet will be linked to the FBI's Law Enforcement Online database, which helps city and state police around the country connect the dots between crimes committed both locally and across state lines.

Take a Break, or Else

Pity Japan's workaholic employees. They may be forced to take more time off. To get citizens to dip into their collective $8 trillion in savings and help revive the economy, the government is considering penalizing companies whose workers don't take their annual leave. Like similar rules in the U.S., such accounting reforms would treat vacations as pay and require businesses to hold cash reserves equal to their employees' stashed days. Some 92% of Japanese workers don't use up their vacation time, a recent global survey by travel site Expedia (EXPE) found. On average, they use 7 of an allotted 15 days each year. Prime Minister Taro Aso's administration says the vacation law could spur $121 billion in spending and generate 1.5 million jobs. Critics say it may hurt struggling companies—and fail to loosen up outlays for leisure. Many Japanese "live to work," says Toshihiro Nagahama, senior economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute, "and wouldn't know how to enjoy more vacations.

Hostage to Hard Times in France

As layoffs and plant closings spread across France, one business is booming: advising managers worried about boss-nappings. At 10 companies in France this year—including units of Hewlett-Packard, Caterpillar, 3M, and Sony—executives were detained by workers angry about planned cuts. (All were released unharmed in a day or two.) Paris consultancy Vae Solis Corporate offers seminars in which psychologists and police negotiators teach managers how to ease tense situations and what to do if they are taken hostage. Already the course helped one client defuse a showdown that was “on the verge” of becoming physical, says Managing Director Arnaud Dupui-Castérès. Also giving safety tips: Identité RH, run by Gilles Verrier, a former Unilever executive briefly held hostage in 1997 during talks on the planned closure of a Lipton tea bag factory in LeHavre. Authorities haven’t yet filed any charges in boss-napping cases, perhaps because polls show that up to 45% of French people approve of the tactic.

Welcome to Shareholder Shangri-La

This proxy season, a fair number of shareholder proposals call for companies to reincorporate—in North Dakota. In 2007, encouraged by corporate governance activists, the state passed the Publicly Traded Corporations Act, a law considered friendly to shareholders wanting to propose directors or have a say on executive pay. So far, says, which tracks SEC fillngs, 11 companies—including Southwest Airlines (LUV), Whole Foods (WFMI), and ExxonMobil (XOM)—are fielding North Dakota resolutions. Most big companies prefer Delaware, seen as more management-friendly. But on Apr.16, American Railcar's board voted yes on North Dakota, with one director surely having his say: Activist Carl Icahn, company chairman, owns a controlling stake.

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