'The Steal' Traces The History And Psychology Of Shoplifters

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Author Rachel Shteir. (Marion Ettlinger)
Author Rachel Shteir. (Marion Ettlinger)

Each year, shoplifters cost American retailers about $12 billion. That cost gets passed onto consumers, increasing the amount we pay for goods by about $400 a year. But what leads someone to shoplift-- Is it poverty, mental illness or the search for a thrill?

In her exhaustive new book, "The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting," author Rachel Shteir traces shoplifting through the ages. In 18th Century England, countless petty thieves went to the gallows.

In colonial America, they favored putting people in the stockades. And in the 21st Century, shoplifting could land you in jail for life, in states where shoplifting is felony.

Shteir also examines the theories behind shoplifting. While many people rob out of necessity, wealthy people might do it because of a mental illness, like kleptomania. But Shteir told Here & Now's Robin Young that in most cases, people steal out of a sense that they've been wronged, and want to get back something.

"Whether that something is a political thing, whether it's an economic thing, whether it has to do with your mother, I think many people shoplift in order to correct some sort of injustice," Shteir said.

Book Excerpt: "The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting"
By Rachel Shteir

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 eye-lashes. 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 cus-
tomers would feel as though they had just stumbled out of bed, sur-
rounded 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 surveil-
lance 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 shop-
ping 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 con-
frontation 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 crimi-
nal 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

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 sur-
veillance 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 shoplift-
ers by placing ads on Craigslist and by joining listservs for those suffer-
ing 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 hap-
pened 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 sixteenth-
century 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 Hoff-
man wrote Steal This Book, turning the crime into an antiestablishment
act. In response, modern antishoplifting technologies were developed, as
were modern methods of studying shoplifters. The number of shoplift-
ers skyrocketed. Instances of racial profiling of shoplifters began to be

Today we see all three interpretations of shoplifting—crime, disease,
protest. Increased prison sentences, shame punishments, and over-the-
top 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 gener-
ation 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 shop-
lifting offenses were committed. As one expert noted, the dollar amount
lost to shoplifting is almost more than “the losses suffered by all indi-
vidual 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 shop-
lifting. 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 depart-
ments 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 “cus-
tomer theft”; others just lump all stealing together.

Despite its shortcomings, the UCR offers one of the more com-
plete pictures of shoplifting. It tells us not only which periods in his-
tory 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 prop-
erty crime including pickpocketing and bicycle theft dropped, shoplift-
ing 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 Condi-
tions (NESARC)—found that 10 percent had a “lifetime prevalence” for
it and 11 percent had shoplifted. Ten percent is higher than the percent-
age of American teenagers who have tried cocaine or used methamphet-
amines. 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 esti-
mated 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 shoplift-
ing.” 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 conspicu-
ously 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 them-
selves 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. Shoplift-
ing continues to dent retailers’ profits. In 2009, the University of Florida
National Retail Security Survey (NRSS), the most reliable survey mea-
suring American shrink (goods lost to theft and error), totaled shoplift-
ing 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 shoplift-
ing 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 sur-
veillance 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 rep-
resents 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 imme-
diate gratification, an apparently effortless (though illegal) way to get
ahead. In boom times, much shoplifting, like much shopping, is aspira-
tional. 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 shoplift-
ers 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 Ortho-
dox 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: A Cultural History of Shoplifting by Rachel Shteir. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) June, 2011.


  • Rachel Shteir, author of "The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting"

This segment aired on July 14, 2011.


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