Sticky Fingers, Hidden Hams: A Shoplifting History

The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting, by Rachel Shteir
The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting
By Rachel Shteir
Hardcover, 272 pages
Penguin Press
List Price: $25.95
Read An Excerpt

It was the tiniest of crimes, but it wasn't innocent. I knew exactly what I was doing when I stuffed two Bonne Bell Lipsmacker glosses (Dr. Pepper and Orange Soda flavors, to be exact) into my jean pockets at our local Osco Drug. At 11 years old, I had allowance and the money to buy them, but there was something electric about breezing out of the store, straight past the security sensors. It sent a charge through me. Of course, it also sent waves of guilt and nausea, and, short of a pack of gum or two over the years, that was the last time I shoplifted. I still think about doing it — in a moment when, for example, I try on a dress with its tag missing — but I just don't have the nerve.

According to Rachel Shteir's The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting, 27 million Americans do have the nerve, and they follow through with this compulsion on a regular basis. Nearly 10 percent of all U.S citizens have tried shoplifting — that's more than the percentage who have tried cocaine or who are considered clinically depressed. And that figure reflects only those who have admitted to the behavior. How many more pocketed lip gloss in their teens and never came clean?

Shoplifting falls into the category of activities we all think about but never discuss, making it perfect fodder for a serious literary inquiry. It's not easy to casually mull your desire to stuff a country ham under your shirt, but it's an impulse worth understanding. Enter The Steal, a book that attempts to synthesize all the information we have about petty theft, from shoplifting laws in Victorian England to the high-profile crimes of the present day. Since the start of the Great Recession, retail losses due to shoplifting have risen 8.8 percent. The "crime tax," or the $500 every American family loses to theft-related price inflation, is higher in the United States than any other country. The shoplifting of a single $5 heirloom tomato from Whole Foods requires sales of $166 worth of other groceries in order for the store to absorb the loss, a reality that affects prices for all shoppers. As Shteir argues, shoplifting isn't a cute crime that kids and old ladies commit; it's a national epidemic and one that deserves more serious attention.

Rachel Shteir is the author of Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show and Gypsy: the Art of the Tease. i i

Rachel Shteir is the author of Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show and Gypsy: the Art of the Tease. Marion Ettlinger/ hide caption

itoggle caption Marion Ettlinger/
Rachel Shteir is the author of Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show and Gypsy: the Art of the Tease.

Rachel Shteir is the author of Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show and Gypsy: the Art of the Tease.

Marion Ettlinger/

Shteir admits that she only became interested in the subject after following the Winona Ryder trial, and she devotes a long chapter of the book to Ryder's case. (Refresher for those not involved in the "Free Winona" movement: in 2001, the actress stole thousands of dollars worth of clothing from a Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills and, two years later, was ordered to do 480 hours of community service as punishment). Shteir's take on celebrity thieves — she also recounts the mind-boggling Claude Allen case, a story Shteir broke on Slate in 2006 — is compelling, but not as interesting as her exploration of the reasons why everyday folks steal, and why they are treated so much more harshly for it than the rich and famous. Because of the three-strikes law, shoplifters in California can be put away for life — unless they happen to be Lindsay Lohan.

With such overtly serious consequences at stake, why can't people stop stealing? The question drives Shteir's most intriguing chapters, those delving into the psychoses of theft, from Freudian theories that link kleptomania and sexual repression to current support groups that address issues of compulsion and shame. Shoplifting, Shteir finds, has no direct correlation to need; it's not the Jean Valjeans of the world who are stealing the most bread. It has more to do with desire and control than hunger, and all that that word implies. People with an income of $70,000 or more are 30 percent more likely to shoplift than those earning less.

Shteir's study often reads like an academic exercise (see the numbing chapter on the history of security tags), but her subject is tantalizing enough that you'll not to want to put the book down — especially if you're inclined to lift it.

Excerpt: 'The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting'

The Steal, by Rachel Shteir
The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting
By Rachel Shteir
Hardcover, 272 pages
Penguin Press
List Price: $25.95

It is 4:19 p.m. on December 12, 2001. In the socks and hose area on the first floor of this posh department store, a slight, dark-haired woman wearing a beige three-quarter coat with a tab collar, a black skirt, and boots is struggling under the weight of her shopping bags. Her hair is swept back in a loose ponytail. She has sharp features, and in the creases of her deep-set eyes, you can make out shadows that look like her eyelashes. She is carrying many bags. There is a bulky, dark garment bag, either navy blue or black, which looks like it is stuffed with clothing, and a red, rectangular shopping bag. The woman is also carrying a tote bag and two purses, a white one and a turquoise one. Her thin face might register trouble — fear or guilt or sadness — it is difficult to tell because the surveillance video does not have good resolution.

The backdrop is more clearly visible: She is walking among mirrored pillars and display cases, crystal chandeliers, and caramel-colored wood paneling. All around are socks and stockings made of silk, cashmere, and fine wool. This is not the kind of store that caters to basic needs.

Indeed, in 1938, the architect designed this store to resemble a movie star's home. The first black-and-white photos show sinuously curved walls, elegant Regency furniture, and subdued lighting. There is a sense of spaciousness in these photos. This store was also one of the first ones in the United States to be divided into individual boutiques so that customers would feel as though they had just stumbled out of bed, surrounded by even more fabulous clothes than the ones hanging in their closets. Each boutique conjured a specific destination: Swimwear looked like a tropical resort.

Perhaps it is the harsh color or the low-quality image of the surveillance video, or the metal fixtures or the number of products piled on the shelves, but the store today is cold and uninviting, crowded, devoid of its original elegance. Three handbags the size of small dogs crouch on a wooden end table. The woman is between the hat boutique and the hose boutique of the accessories department when the amount of stuff she is carrying overpowers her. She drops something and squats on the floor to pick it up. She begins messing about in the garment bag and the shopping bag. After a few minutes of shuffling (there is a digital clock in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen and you can see time passing), she crams one or two pairs of socks and some hair bands into the crown of a hat, which she plops on top of the clothing and bags. She hoists herself off the floor and wanders back to the hat section. From a wooden shelf, she takes a floppy black hat and sets it on her head. The tag hangs in front of her ear. She takes off that hat and tries one whose brim hides more of her face.

The woman moves past the cosmetics counters to the up escalator. On the second floor, the hat, the socks, and the headbands are no longer visible. A little while later, a camera picks her up again on the third floor at the Gucci boutique. She is still wearing the second hat, but you cannot see its price tag. She peels a white, strappy dress and some other items from their hangers and piles them on top of her bags. She visits Marc Jacobs, Yves Saint Laurent, Jil Sander, and Chanel and chooses clothing from these boutiques. It is 5:19. She brushes up against a rack of Chanel coats. A camera lingers on her back as she sets foot on the down escalator. Two naked alabaster mannequins recede behind her as she adjusts the garment bag over her shoulder.

The woman is now heading toward the exit. A camera zooms in. She cuts through the shoe department. She glides to the plate-glass doors. Another camera zooms in, this time on her back. Another picks her up from the front and another from her side. She passes a cash register. Her reflection looms in the glass doors as she walks toward them, and just before she pushes past the shoes, she tosses the garment bag once more over her shoulder. She is outside.

Like windup toys set in motion by the department-store Oz, two security guards — a stocky man and a woman in a long, dark skirt — walk stiffly after the woman into the parking lot. You can just make out a confrontation in the shadows. A third guard joins the group. The woman tilts her head, listening. She doesn't resist. It is not as if anyone is a criminal here. When she comes back inside the store, she is flanked by two of the guards. The trio walks back down the marble aisle. The guards have divvied up her bags. There is no tension among them. They appear to be exchanging pleasantries as they stroll to the down escalator. They vanish, their destination the holding room in the basement, where the woman will be interviewed, and where she will be turned over to the police. The screen goes fuzzy. It's 5:37 p.m. in Saks Fifth Avenue, Beverly Hills. Winona Ryder is about to join that notorious category — the celebrity shoplifter.

I watched the videos tracking Ryder in a conference room behind the Beverly Hills courthouse in the summer of 2007. But I first became fascinated by the movie star four years earlier, after I read excerpts from the Court TV transcripts of her trial and studied the few clips of surveillance camera footage posted on the Internet. Along with millions of Americans, I wondered why a Hollywood star would shoplift.

At first I resisted writing about the subject but soon came to realize that there was more to my fascination than prurience or schadenfreude. I am 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: Is it a serious crime worthy of criminal prosecution, or what André Gide would call an acte gratuit — an impulsive, unpredictable act, childish, but deserving of forgiveness? Is it a disease or a symbol of greed? How has our response to shoplifting changed over time? Who are the outliers and who are the scapegoats? What does it mean that more and more white-collar shoplifters are caught committing the crime? How is shoplifting connected to the economy and to consumption? Do shoplifters grow up to rob banks and embezzle multinationals?

I wrote this book because, unlike gambling, which has a history, a medicine, and a literature, shoplifting remains unwritten. I met shoplifters by placing ads on Craigslist and by joining listservs for those suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Some shoplifters I literally met at dinner parties or while interviewing people at Starbucks. Psychiatrists and mental health counselors asked their patients if they would talk to me. A handful of probation and police officers, security personnel, and not-for-profit groups serving shoplifters helped, as did a few scholars. Of the shoplifters in this book, a surprising number of them agreed to talk freely, although many did not want to use their names. But not everyone. "This ends here," a lawyer screamed several times before she hung up on me, even though the story of how she resold the household appliances she shoplifted from a big-box store had gone viral and she had been disbarred. At first when this sort of thing happened — and it happened a lot — I felt ashamed, as though I had stumbled onto an episode of Candid Camera. A challenge of this book was to explain, in an era of diminishing privacy, the superheated responses to the crime. Another was to write about shoplifting without collapsing the subject into a "he did it" tabloid headline.

I also looked to the history of the crime, beginning in sixteenthcentury London, as urbanization and consumerism made the city into Europe's busiest mercantile capital. In this era, anyone who shoplifted an item worth more than five shillings could be hanged. Shoplifting reappeared in a new guise after the Industrial Revolution in Paris — a cynosure of the alluring retail palace. Treating the style-crazed lifters who frequented the city's new department stores, psychiatrists made the first diagnoses of kleptomania. Although shoplifting emerged in America as early as colonial times, the crime became a symbol here in the 1970s, when the yippies politicized shoplifting into "liberating" and Abbie Hoffman wrote Steal This Book, turning the crime into an anti establishment act. In response, modern antishoplifting technologies were developed, as were modern methods of studying shoplifters. The number of shoplifters skyrocketed. Instances of racial profiling of shoplifters began to be recorded.

Today we see all three interpretations of shoplifting — crime, disease, protest. Increased prison sentences, shame punishments, and over-thetop surveillance techniques have all been employed to curb the crime. Alcoholics Anonymous–inspired shoplifting rehabilitation programs have cropped up all over the country. A new, more ironic international generation of political shoplifters has come into view. More savvy professional shoplifters steal greater quantities and use violence more frequently.

One of this book's projects is to bust myths and preconceived ideas about who is shoplifting now and why it is done. Another is to overturn common wisdom about what is being shoplifted, surveying so-called hot products — the everyday household items and luxury goods most frequently stolen. Besides tracing the various narratives the crime has produced, this book also examines the complex and often contradictory things shoplifting stands for.

Shoplifting today is understudied, but the best analyses show that the crime is everywhere. According to the 2008 Department of Justice annual survey, the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), over a million shoplifting offenses were committed. As one expert noted, the dollar amount lost to shoplifting is almost more than "the losses suffered by all individual victims of property crimes combined." (In 2008, around 800,000 people were arrested for charges involving marijuana.)

But even the UCR cannot present a full picture of the extent of shoplifting. Critics say that the survey undercounts shoplifting more than other crimes because it is so easy to miss: Video cameras do not always catch the shoplifter. Stores do not always keep good records. Because contributing data to the UCR is voluntary, because many police departments lump all theft crimes together or focus on thefts of large amounts of money or violent robberies, the UCR documents only a partial account of shoplifting. Many states don't have a specific crime called shoplifting on the books. Some stores use euphemisms, calling shoplifting "external theft," to contrast it with "internal theft" (employees stealing), or "customer theft"; others just lump all stealing together.

Despite its shortcomings, the UCR offers one of the more complete pictures of shoplifting. It tells us not only which periods in history have seen shoplifting spikes — more than 150 percent between 1960 and 1970 — but that shoplifting sometimes ebbs and flows independent of trends in crime overall. Between 2000 and 2004, even as other property crime including pickpocketing and bicycle theft dropped, shoplifting grew 11.7 percent. The number of people shoplifting also climbed slightly between 2004 and 2008. Year after year, the shoplifting rates of many American cities show substantial upticks: In 2008, shoplifting rose 13.2 percent in Cape Coral, Florida; 18.7 percent in Long Beach, California; 40.6 percent in L.A.; 9.9 percent in San Francisco; and 27.3 percent in Las Vegas. In 2009, shoplifting rose almost 8 percent.

According to the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention (NASP), the number of American shoplifters is 27 million, or 9 percent of the total population. But a massive study of 40,093 Americans — the 2001 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC) — found that 10 percent had a "lifetime prevalence" for it and 11 percent had shoplifted. Ten percent is higher than the percentage of American teenagers who have tried cocaine or used methamphetamines. Ten percent is often cited as the number of Americans estimated to be suffering from depression.

And shoplifting may be even more common. A NASP report estimated that store security catches a person shoplifting one in forty-eight times and informs the police of the incident one in fifty times.

If one obstacle to seeing shoplifting as an epidemic is the dearth of good numbers about the subject, another is the media, which trivialize the crime. News stories about shoplifting usually blame its rise on simple economic downturns and its fall on increased security measures. A 2008 USA Today story, "More Consumers, Workers Shoplift as the Economy Slows," like many such stories, relied heavily on the retail industry's assertions: "Retail experts agree that they've seen an increase in shoplifting." The story quotes a National Retail Council study saying that 74 percent of retailers "believed" shoplifting was rising. Retailers "felt" that the economy was forcing people to steal.

What's new about shoplifting today is that it has become a cultural phenomenon — a silent epidemic, driven by pretty much everything, in our era. Some scholars connect it to traditional families' disintegration, the American love of shopping, the downshifting of the middle class, global capitalism, immigration, the replacement of independent stores with big chains, and the lessening of faith's hold on conduct. Shoplifting gets tangled up in American cycles of spending and saving, and boom and bust, and enacts the tension between the rage to consume conspicuously and the intention to live thriftily. The most recent suspects include the Great Recession, the increasing economic divide between rich and poor, and an ineffectual response to the shamelessness of white-collar fraudsters: the shoplifter as the poor man's Bernard Madoff.

Yet many shoplifters see themselves as escape artists, stealing out of inscrutable cravings and unexamined desires. Having lost their old sol - aces, people shoplift as an anodyne against grief or to avenge themselves against uncontrollable forces or as an act of social aggression, to hurl themselves away from their identities as almost-have-nots. Whatever form shop - lifting takes, it is as difficult to stamp out as oil spills or alcoholism.

Shoplifting is further misunderstood because the line between crime and disease has blurred. Although most estimates put the number of kleptomaniacs among shoplifters at between 0 and 8 percent, some experts believe that the disease is far more prevalent. Others contend that so-called shoplifting addiction has replaced kleptomania altogether.

In fact, what we don't know about shoplifting does hurt us. Shoplifting continues to dent retailers' profits. In 2009, the University of Florida National Retail Security Survey (NRSS), the most reliable survey measuring American shrink (goods lost to theft and error), totaled shoplifting for that year at $11.69 billion annually, or about 35 percent of all shrink. According to Consumer Reports, the shoplifting "crime tax" — the extra amount that families spend on household products each year when stores raise prices due to loss from the theft — is $450. Stores measure shoplifting — indeed, all shrink — as a percentage of profits, and if that percentage balloons much above 2 percent (the industry average for that year was 1.44 percent), it can lead to layoffs or even to bankruptcy. Profit margins can be thin: Supermarkets operate on margins between 1 and 5 percent, which means that the theft of one $5 heirloom tomato from Whole Foods can require sales of up to $500 to break even.

Richard Hollinger, the criminologist who directs the NRSS, believes that we significantly underestimate shoplifting and its impact. Scholars from other disciplines concur. In 2004, Timothy Jones, a professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, found that shrink in convenience stores represented 24 percent of the profits. According to the 2009 Global Retail Theft Barometer, the only international survey of the crime, "There has been a dramatic rise in customer shoplifting related to the recession . . ." in America, and stopping shrink costs Americans more per household than it does any other country. America's multibillion-dollar private security industry — whose bread and butter is store detectives — has been growing at about 5 percent a year.

Just as experts can't agree on why people shoplift, they can't agree on how to stop it. There are behavioral schools of thought. Others put their faith in psychoanalysis, pharmaceuticals, or voodoo. Some, like a judge we will meet in Tennessee, believe in shame. Stores stockpile surveillance and antitheft devices, ensuring that going to the mall will soon resemble enduring TSA procedures at the airport. Many theft prevention techniques recall the repertoire of Buster Keaton, like the one requiring shoppers to leave a shoe at the register. Not everything is vaudeville, though. Chasing shoplifters, store detectives — some of whom have no more than a few days of training — have killed them.

In hyperconsumerist America, where shopping is part of the lifeblood of the economy and the culture, shoplifting takes many shapes and represents many things, some of which cancel each other out. It sits on one side of the struggle over a key aspect of the American identity — in the tension between "getting something for nothing" and "working hard to achieve the American Dream." Shoplifting, like gambling, offers immediate gratification, an apparently effortless (though illegal) way to get ahead. In boom times, much shoplifting, like much shopping, is aspirational. Encouraged to covet what the superrich possess, those who can't afford, go a step further and steal. Yet shoplifting can also be cast as a desperate theft that the little guy commits to rail against big corruption. In the wake of financial frauds perpetrated at the top, such as the prime mortgage bust, which has been justified in the name of necessary risk taking, it is easy to imagine a shoplifter thinking his crime is irrelevant, or should be. In fact, while working on this book, I heard many shoplifters say exactly that. Finally, in our tough economic decade, the crime is also regarded as proof of the failure of the so-called New Thrift — by this depressing logic, frugality alone cannot counter the recession's woes: Americans must shoplift to survive.

Defying easy categorizing, the shoplifting going on — committed by blacks and whites, immigrants and native-borns, men and women, young and old, rich and poor, religious people and nonbelievers — is unsettling, funny, and sad. But the different sentences meted out to rich and poor and black and white reveals the tenacity of prejudice.

Even in our loquacious age, shoplifting produces squirming. Stores dislike talking about it. Retail security experts are reticent about their techniques for various reasons, including "giving the secrets to bad guys," although most secrets can be gleaned from the Internet. One magazine that had assigned me a story on luxury shoplifting decided in the end that publishing it would alienate advertisers. An Orthodox rabbi declined to talk about what shoplifting, if any, existed in his congregation, since doing so, he reckoned, would be "bad for the Jews." Shoplifters were unreliable narrators and "badly brought up," I was told. Philosophers explained to me that the crime was not evil and was therefore not worthy of study. A doctor claimed to be "fearful" that the public would "misunderstand" his research to "cure" kleptomania. But the wisest psychiatrists and psychologists that I encountered understood that any "cure" for shoplifting would require refashioning both social arrangements and the human psyche.

Shoplifting has been a sin, a crime, a confession of sexual repression, a howl of grief, a political yelp, a sign of depression, a badge of identity, and a back door to the American Dream. The act mirrors our collective identity, reflects our shifting moral code, and demonstrates the power that consumption holds over our psyches. The techniques shoplifters use may change; how stores catch the crime and how the law punishes it may change. But shoplifting, whether we find it creepy, or sinister, or even exhilarating, will always ripple through our culture to torment and attract us. Inside stores, these thefts appear when we least expect it.

Excerpted from The Steal by Rachel Shteir. Copyright 2011 by Rachel Shteir. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Press.

Books Featured In This Story

The Steal
The Steal

A Cultural History of Shoplifting

by Rachel Shteir

Hardcover, 256 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
The Steal
Subtitle
A Cultural History of Shoplifting
Author
Rachel Shteir

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.