OAKLAND (KPIX) — It’s one of the most popular workout clothing brands on the market and an expensive one as well. Lululemon leggings can run you as much as $150 dollars a pair.
What if you could buy them for half price?
That’s what Kristi discovered. She’s a huge fan of Lululemon and is always hunting for deals. She routinely finds brand new items on Ebay for 20 percent off.
But that doesn’t come close to what she recently discovered at the Laney College flea market in Oakland: Lululemon leggings, with the tags on, looking perfectly real, selling for $50 to $60 dollars.
“I was quite shocked, to see, particularly one seller, she had tables full of all sizes, 0,2,4,6,8,10,12; she had all the new styles that are in the stores,” said Kristi, who preferred to use her first name only.
We went back to check and, sure enough; there was the stall with a large collection of current styles. So we bought some. The owner of the stand told us she’s a regular at the flea market, selling Lululemon almost exclusively every Sunday for the past four years.
They sure looked real, but we wanted to confirm it. So we asked Chris Johnson, a counterfeit expert, to examine the items we purchased at the flea market. He showed us how he looks for telltale signs, like a little round label hidden inside the pocket of all Lululemon leggings.
“It will have the physical size of what it should be, but adjacent to it and built into it is the product number,” said Johnson.
You can compare that product number to the number on the price tag. If they don’t match Johnson says it’s almost certainly counterfeit. But in our case, “They compare and they match. It is what it appears to be,” said Johnson.
His conclusion: “The three Lululemon leggings that you sent to us are all authentic. They’re currently on sale in the Lululemon stores and they have not been discounted,” said Johnson.
As far as ending up at the flea market, he had a good idea. “Lululemon does not sell through discount. They keep a very tight control over their chain of distribution,” said Johnson. “So for it to show up at a swap meet, my informed guess would be it would be stolen.”
Brazen grab-and-run thefts at Lululemon stores have been taking place across the Bay Area. The Santa Rosa Lululemon store was robbed three times in a row in just the last four months.
“These thefts are brazen and bold,” said Karin Flood with the Union Square Business Improvement District. “It’s not just only opportunistic, you know, people walking in and stealing one or two items. But people are coming in and filling orders.”
Flood says retail margins right now are thin and the thefts are hitting many retailers’ bottom line. “Not to mention the morale in the stores,” said Flood. “Sometimes the officers who are there guarding the front door are as much to protect the individuals in the store as for the items walking out the store.”
These thefts are not random; they are highly organized. The state launched three task forces last year that work with local retailers and law enforcement to connect the dots.
“We’ve connected cases, all over the state, up and down the West Coast and across the United States,” said California Highway Patrol Lt. Kevin Domby, who oversees a new multi-agency organized retail crime task force based in San Francisco.
“There’s planning that goes into when to steal, what to steal, where to steal, and then what to do with what’s stolen,” said Domby.
The task force has already busted several major operations. Operation Shattered Glass led to the arrest of eight people and the seizure of $2.5 million worth of cash and laptops from a Peninsula fencing ring. Operation Wrecking Ball busted a huge San Francisco crime ring, and Operation Focus Lens in December recovered $2 million in stolen property, most of it apparel, including Lululemon clothing.
It’s possible some of the apparel might have been headed to flea markets. The investigation is still ongoing, and making that connection is not an easy task.
”It takes a skilled investigator conducting a careful, skilled investigation to determine whether or not something is actually stolen. And then to determine if the person that possesses it actually had any knowledge that it was stolen or participated in its theft,” said Domby. “With regards to flea markets, there could be vendors there that are actually victims that may have purchased items that they believe were legitimate items.”
Back at the Laney flea market the owner of the Lululemon stand tried to slip away when we showed up with a camera. When we caught up with her she told us it wasn’t her business. A few weeks later we went back to the flea market. Her stand was gone.
We did try to reach out to Lululemon for comment, but we never heard back. We did a tally and found at least six Lululemon stores that have been hit by grab-and-run thefts. In several of the cases, suspects have been arrested.
They are known by law enforcement as boosters, who then sell to fencers. The fencing operations are mostly local according to law enforcement, working often out of public storage facilities. The boosters, however, travel all over California and the entire U.S.