Five Myths
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Five myths about shoplifting

“I enjoy stealing,” explains singer Perry Farrell in “Been Caught Stealing,” Jane’s Addiction’s 1990 ode to shoplifting. “It’s just as simple as that.” But unfortunately for businesses and thieves, little about shoplifting is simple. Is it a crime committed out of desperation, or a disease? How do retailers try to stop it — and how much do they lose? Let’s take a closer look at some misconceptions about the five-finger discount.

Five Myths

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1. Shoplifting began with the rise of the modern shopping mall.

Shoplifting is at least as old as Shakespeare. In 1591, the Bard’s contemporary, playwright Robert Greene, wrote a pamphlet offering advice for shoplifters, including the recommendation that they be “attired in the form of a civil country gentleman.” This peek into the underworld reflected changes in how goods were sold: As the population of London exploded, small shops — milliners, farriers and bakers — devoted to selling one product replaced large, open-air markets where many products were sold together. And the rise of shops meant the birth of shoplifting. People pinched household goods, silver and especially clothes; according to historian J.M. Beattie, in 18th-century London, stealing clothing accounted for 27 percent of theft.

Britons did not look kindly on this crime. Another pamphlet, “The Great Grievance of Traders and Shopkeepers,” written in 1698, noted the “notorious increase” in shoplifting in the second half of the 17th century and demanded more stringent punishment. In 1699, the Shoplifting Act made stealing more than five shillings’ worth of merchandise from a shop a hanging offense.

2. Shoplifting is committed out of need.

People don’t shoplift what they need. They shoplift what they want.

According to the National Retail Federation, the most-shoplifted items in the United States include chewing gum, Advil, the weight-loss drug Alli, cellphones, Claritin, Rogaine, Red Bull energy drinks, Dyson vacuums, Bumble and Bumble hair products, Cover Girl cosmetics, Crest Whitestrips, and deodorant. And Britain’s Global Retail Theft Barometer (GRTB) found that the most-shoplifted items from department stores in 2010 were perfume and face cream. This makes the average shoplifter look less like Jean Valjean — who, in Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel “Les Miserables,” stole a loaf of bread to feed his starving family — and more like an over-caffeinated, pain-pill-popping neat freak obsessed with his or hair, teeth and skin.

A 2008 Columbia University study of more than 40,000 Americans showed that it’s not the least among us doing the most thieving. “Shoplifting . . . was more common among those with higher education and income, suggesting that financial considerations are unlikely to be the main motivator,” the researchers concluded.

3. Most shoplifters are women and teenagers.

Wilhelm Stekel, a disciple of Sigmund Freud, thought that kleptomania was a result of female sexual frustration. In a 1911 essay, “The Sexual Root of Kleptomania,” he wrote of women gravitating toward objects that did not belong to them. According to historian Elaine Abelson, the rise of the department store — a space dominated by women — in the 19th centuryfurthered the idea of shoplifting as crime committed by middle-class Victorian ladies.

More recently, celebrity shoplifters such as Winona Ryder and Lindsay Lohan seem to confirm that shoplifting is a woman’s crime, but overshadow statistical reality. The GRTB found in 2005 that, in Britain, men in prison for shoplifting outnumbered women by more than three to one. Though it’s difficult to pin down comparable figures for the United States, the Columbia University study also found that men shoplifted more than women.

In the 20th century, kids and hippies joined women as suspected shoplifters. A shoplifting scare in Tacoma, Wash., in 1951 impelled the local school district to send warning letters to parents who might be harboring sticky-fingered tweens. Vietnam protester Abbie Hoffman’s 1971 manual for dissidents, “Steal This Book,” which included advice on shoplifting, furthered the image of flower power devotees as thieves ready to destroy America.

Yet, in 2004, University of Florida researchers found that middle-aged adults shoplift more than children: The results showed that those between 35 and 54 shoplift more than any other age group.

4. Stores can stop shoplifters.

Since the 1970s, retailers have used cameras, security guards, sensor tags, shopping carts with wheels that lock when pushed out of parking lots and chips that track products from the factory into your home. But shoplifters — whether working in teams to bolt out the door with luxury items, searching for discarded receipts to steal matching merchandise, sneaking wares into aluminum-lined “booster bags” that deactivate sensors or smuggling high-ticket items into packaging for lower-priced items — keep stealing.

And shoplifting is on the rise. According to the National Retail Security Survey, shoplifting cost retailers $12.1 billion in 2010, up from $11.7 billion in 2009 and from $10 billion in 2002. Meanwhile, spending on anti-shoplifting efforts is up. According to the GRTB, stores around the world spent $26.8 billion to stop the five-finger discount in 2010, a 9.7 percent increase from 2009. Though Best Buy and Home Depot already have receipt checks at the exits, stealing is unlikely to stop. If shoplifters have the will, they will definitely find a way.

5. Shoplifters can always stop themselves.

In my research, I interviewed about 100 shoplifters. Many talked about the crime as though it were an illness. “I have been good but am struggling with it every day,” one said. “It is an addiction like everything else.”

Today, kleptomania is considered an impulse-control disorder or an addiction. In 1997, Marcus Goldman, one of the few physicians who has studied the disease, estimated that it affects six in 1,000 people— though, according to the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual, less than 5 percent of self-identified shoplifters have kleptomania. Meanwhile, the Columbia researchers concluded that “a lifetime history of shoplifting was common.”

If shoplifting, like alcoholism or ADHD, is a disease, the cure has yet to be found. Talk therapy, according to a 2004 study of patients with kleptomania, does not help people stop stealing. Pharmaceuticals such as Lexapro, which reduces depression and anxiety, have not been shown to affect shoplifters. Naltrexone, a drug used to treat alcoholism, seems to suppress the urge to steal in some people, but a study completed in 2009 by researchers at the University of Minnesota included only 25 patients.

Statistics on recidivism are mostly produced by organizations selling services to stop shoplifting. Theft Talk, a counseling business in Portland, Ore., claims that the recidivism rate of people who take its courses is only 14 percent — an eight-houronline class is $70.

“I know it’s a crime, but the courts need to focus on more of the problem and not throw us into jail,” a shoplifter told me. “If you don’t hurt someone, why go to jail when we need help?”

It’s a question that won’t elicit much sympathy from businesses that lose billions to shoplifters — their answer will be to call security.

Rachel Shteir is author of “The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting.”

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