Thursday, October 19th, 2017

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Shoplifting: A Cost/Benefit Analysis

I was fifteen when I was invited to my first Homecoming dance in 1983, and I didn’t have a thing to wear. Nor did I have enough money to purchase a new dress. But what I did have was experience obtaining things I could not afford. As a young adult, I was an active and competent shoplifter. Three days before the dance, I took a bus down El Camino Real to this tiny shop in Belmont where I’d heard other girls found gowns. I took five items into a small fitting room draped open by a shower curtain and hung them on a wrought iron hook. From inside the fitting room I could hear car traffic whizzing by, both predictable and spontaneous at the same time. I managed my theft much the same way. Predictably, I tried each dress on, made my choice based on appearance and portability, checked for security devices and removed tags, wadded the dress into a ball, stuffed in the inside pocket of my winter coat, and then lowered the empty hanger down the bodice of one of the fluffier dresses. That was all planned, always the same. It was the exit that was spontaneous. I never knew whether I’d duck right out, brazenly continue to shop, or even more daringly make a purchase. I invented exit strategies live and on this occasion, I decided to slip out a back door. Royal blue taffeta peeked out the front of my coat as I made my way to a bus stop five blocks down. My heart raced and the whole world looked brighter and sharper. I thought my luck truly complete when my unsuspecting getaway vehicle, the 413 bus headed South, arrived right on time.

According to the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention (NASP), retail shoplifting losses exceed $13 billion each year, which roughly calculates to $35 million per day. Shoplifting is a problem for everyone, driving up prices to help pay for security and loss, and burdening tax-paid law enforcement agencies and courts. It is also a particularly thorny problem to solve. Approximately 97% of all shoplifters are “non-professionals,” which means they do not resell the merchandise and often steal spontaneously. Furthermore, non-professional shoplifters do not conform to a predictable profile or pattern – as many men as women shoplift and personal wealth is often a factor.

According to Cleptomaniacs and Shoplifters Anonymous (CASA), people who steal from stores most often do so in order to express anger, entitlement, or grief. But once done, offenders may also experience an adrenaline rush that many confess is an even greater reward than the merchandise. Between the high and the goods, shoplifting can be addicting.

Addiction has its consequences. Not only does it become compulsive, but punishment for shoplifting ranges from state to state and is based on the offender’s age, criminal history, and the value of merchandise stolen. At minimum, there are fines. At worst, there is jail time. Always, if you’re caught shoplifting, charged and indicted it will end up on a criminal record. It might not be a felony record, which is much more serious and follows people more visibly through their lives, but it’s a record. I was finally caught when I was twenty but all through my teens, shoplifting was about the rush, the possibilities, and seemed to be the only way to hide my “have not” status in a “must have” world.

As with many things, education seems the most suitable answer. NASP offers home study kits, self-help groups, and confidential coaching by telephone. Shoplifting “cures” may include identification of the pressures that may trigger a shoplifting incident. When depressed or frustrated or even simply bored, a shoplifter may feel an urge to give themselves a lift and the experienced shoplifter knows that a trip to the store will do just that. Potential offenders may be able to discover natural sources of similar “highs” by shopping, dining out, or working out.

But until such time that these natural sources are cost-free, those without may continue to steal. If they are anything like me, they will not stop until they are arrested and fined. My shoplifting misdemeanor fine cost three times what I paid for the car I drove at the time, over three thousand dollars. Perhaps more convincingly, being arrested was like having my figurative pants pulled down. In the end, I had to be humiliated before the very society I was attempting to impress.

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