The surprising psychology of shoplifting

McAlpin reviews books regularly for, The Washington Post, Barnes & Noble Review and other publications.

The Steal

A Cultural History

of Shoplifting

Rachel Shteir

Penguin Press: 258 pp., $25.95


Is shoplifting a disease, or a compulsion? Is the “five-finger discount” a form of protest, or is it -- whether motivated by need or greed -- a crime? These are some of the questions Rachel Shteir addresses in “The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting,” her attention-grabbing, extremely well-researched study of this dismayingly ubiquitous scourge of retailers.

Shteir lures us with lively examples in the way a well-stocked hardware store attracts “sticky-fingered” gadget-lovers. She hooks us from the get-go with her description of a low-resolution surveillance video of a “slight, dark-haired woman ... struggling under the weight of her shopping bags” as she wanders through a posh department store. Over the course of more than an hour, the fashionably dressed young woman picks up chic designer outfits and accessories, adding them to her already precarious pile. Then she heads for the exit without stopping at a cash register.

The store turns out to be Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, and the woman is Winona Ryder --apprehended by security guards as a newly minted member of “that notorious category -- the celebrity shoplifter.”


Her case, discussed in a later chapter focusing on high-profile shoplifters, was notable in part for going to trial on felony charges of grand theft and vandalism -- because Ryder was unwilling to accept a plea bargain.

The author of “Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show,” Shteir confesses that she is “inveterately curious about the boundaries cultures establish: the lines we draw between civilization and barbarism, madness and sanity, the appropriate and the inappropriate. We live by these boundaries. And yet the line we draw for shoplifting is murky.”

‘Silent epidemic’

Shteir offers a meaty introduction stuffed with statistics. In economic terms, shoplifting is no joke. In 2009, American retail businesses lost $11.69 billion dollars to shrinkage from shoplifting. Much of this is from “boosted” merchandise -- stolen to resell. To compensate, stores raise prices to cover their losses, which Consumer Reports says results in what amounts to a “crime tax” of $450 per family annually. According to the National Assn. for Shoplifting Prevention, the number of American shoplifters is 27 million, or 9% of the population -- and that’s a conservative estimate, because so much shoplifting goes unreported.

In other words, shoplifting is a burgeoning problem, with more than 1 million offenses committed in 2008. Shoplifting increased 150% between 1960 and 1970, and between 2000 and 2004, increased 40.6% in Los Angeles. Not surprisingly, it hiked 8.8% with the advent of the Great Recession.

Shteir goes to great lengths to try to understand this “silent epidemic,” which she says “enacts the tension between the rage to consume conspicuously and the intention to live thriftily.” She delves into history, citing a security expert who quipped that Eve was the first shoplifter. She traces shoplifting’s effect on literature, popular culture, politics and business, citing works as diverse as Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Confessions” and the 1940 romantic comedy “Remember the Night,” starring Barbara Stanwyck.

Longtime crime

One of the many interesting anecdotes in “The Steal” involves Jane Austen’s aunt, Jane Leigh Perrot, who was accused of snitching an extra length of lace along with her purchase at a milliner’s in Bath, England, in 1799. Insisting she had been framed by a shopkeeper looking to blackmail her, her lawyer “delivered what has now become a standard defense for wealthy shoplifters: the absurdity of a woman of Leigh Perrot’s stature shoplifting.” She was acquitted, but Shteir notes that -- like many other cases she considers, including that of Bess Myerson, the onetime Miss America and commissioner of consumer affairs under New York Mayor John Lindsay -- this turned out not to be the defendant’s only tangle with shoplifting.


What to do about this? A large portion of “The Steal” is devoted to the various efforts over the last six centuries to either punish, reform or cure shoplifters. In England, William III’s Shoplifting Act of 1699 defined thefts of more than five shillings as capital crimes. A Tennessee judge gives first offenders a choice between 10 days in jail or four days walking in front of the store they stole from wearing a placard proclaiming their crime.

Technology and security to prevent and detect shoplifting has become a multibillion-dollar industry. This includes the electronic article surveillance (EAS) tags patented in 1966, increasingly omnipresent video surveillance and security guards who all too often succumb to racial profiling, despite the reality “that non-minority shoppers account for most of the criminal activity,” as a Rutgers professor studying racial profiling explains to Shteir.

Despite all this expense, the outlook is grim. The rise of Internet shopping -- and file-sharing -- Shteir shows, has provided another venue for consumers ever eager to “get something for nothing.” In this impressive and somewhat flabbergasting book, Shteir thoroughly explores what she calls “the dark side of conspicuous consumption.”