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Why Do Shoplifters Steal...

And Why Do So Many Continue To Steal

Even Atter Getting Caught?

by Peter Berlin

Reprinted from the National Report on Shoplifting, 1996c, published by Shoplifters Alternative, a non-profit organization and division of Shoplifters Anonymous, Inc., Jericho, NY, 1-800-848-9595.


Is it need, or is it greed...or is itsomething entirely different that tempts approximately 23 million people to steal from retail stores each year. Except for the drug addicts and hardened professionals who steal for resale and profit as a business, most shoplifters are decent people who are otherwise law abiding citizens. The vast majority of adult offenders have no idea about how or why they become a thief, or why they continue to shoplift, even after getting caught.

Retailers, police, prosecutors and judges see thousands of apprehended shoplifters who don't fit the profile of a typical criminal. For example, they don't use shoplifting paraphernalia, they don't use drugs, they carry proper identification, they have no prior criminal record (except perhaps for shoplifting), they don'tassociate with known criminals, they don't steal for resale, they usually have the money to pay for the item(s) they stole, they frequently have a job and a family, they steal things they don't really need and often don't use, they know what they did was wrong and frequently feel ashamed and remorseful. Their overall lifestyle is not that of a typical thief or criminal.

Retailers, law enforcement and the courts process these people through the criminal justice system, as they should, but with little understanding of why they committed the offense and what kind of treatment is appropriate to help reduce recidivism. Presented below is a brief explanation of why these people steal and what needs to be done to help reduce the problem.

In simple and concise terms:..... TO GET SOMETHING FOR NOTHING..... But, you must ask yourself, why do they want something for nothing?

While we all like to get things for free and the stores are constantly promoting and placing merchandise on "SALE" to generate excitement about getting a bargain, you and I never cross over the line and steal the item, whereas other people do. Why?

The answer is:..... To most shoplifters, getting something for nothing is like giving themselves a "gift", which in turn gives them a "lift". Many people feel they need a "lift" just to get through the week.....or even the day. A recent study by MasterCard International found that shopping was second only to dining out as the primary way that people reward themselves. Take it one step further and you can see how "shoplifting" the merchandise could increase the reward.

It is important to understand that "getting something for nothing" always represents something more to the shoplifter than the value of the merchandise. For different people, it can represent any of the following things:

 

Several studies have found diagnosed depression to exist in approxi- mately 1/3 of the shoplifters studied. Depression was the most frequently found psychological problem. This helps to explain why so many shoplifters steal from stores on their birthday and around holiday times.

Any way you look at it, shoplifters perceive shoplifting as a form of selfnourishment or as a way to relieve fear or pain in their life. In truth, shoplifting is self-destructive not self-nourishing, but shoplifters often can't see the paradox.

For almost all non-professional shoplifters, stealing from stores is basically a reflection of a person'sability (or inability) to cope with a multitude of situations in his or her life. It's their response to their own personal life situations. While these unhappy life situations may not easily be changed (or may repeat themselves from time to time) shoplifters must learn how to cope with these situations in a way which will not be so harmful to themselves or others. This may not be easy to achieve because approximately 57% of shoplifters caught for the first time have already developed a shoplifting habit, or even an addiction. Many admit that it will be hard for them to stop shoplifting...even after getting caught.

A person's addiction to shoplifting can develop quickly when the excitement generated from "getting away with it" produces a chemical reaction (i.e. adrenalin, etc.) resulting in what shoplifters describe as an incredible "rush" or "high" feeling, which many shoplifters will tell you is the "true reward", rather than the merchandise itself. In addition to feeling good, shoplifters quickly observe that this "high" temporarily eliminates their feelings of anger, frustration, depression or other unhappiness in their life. Realizing how easy it is to get that "high" feeling, they are pulled toward doing it again..."just one more time"...and their addiction begins to develop. Even though most non-professional shoplifters feel guilty, ashamed or remorseful about what they did, and are fearful of getting caught, the pull is too strong for many to resist.

Of course, some people don't see shoplifting as a functional or psychological problem. They say, "What do you mean that a person can't stop shoplifting? Of course they can, they're just greedy". The idea that shoplifting is an addiction (except fora few "kleptomaniacs") is ridiculous, they say. People who shoplift should go to jail and not be coddled or told they have an addiction. This is like telling them it's ok to steal because they really can't help it.

They paradox is that most shoplifters who have developed a habit or addiction believe they should be punished according to the law when caught. What habitual offenders often resent, however, is when they are simply thrown into jail with many hardened career criminals and are never given any help or support to prevent them from repeating the offense.

Shoplifting among juveniles is remarkably similar to adult shoplifting in many ways. However, the primary issues which are related to shoplifting among youth revolve around family pressure, school pressure and peer pressure.

If you were to ask juveniles caught shoplifting, "Why did you do it"? The most frequent reply would be "I don't know". Like adults, the reasons teens shoplifted will vary, but most commonly it is because they wanted nice things, or felt pressuredby friends, or wanted to see if they could get away with it, or were angry, depressed, confused or bored. Sometimes they are just mad at the world and want to strike back.

While teens, like adults, usually know the difference between right and wrong, when their life becomes too stressful they become more vulnerable to temptation, peer pressure and other things that can lead them to shoplift. This is especially true when they feel unworthy, angry, depressed, unattractive or not accepted.

In summary, shoplifting for millions of our citizens, is simply another maladaptive way of coping with stressful life circumstances...ways similar to overeating, drinking, drugs or becoming withdrawn. It is not an issue of good vs. bad people, rich vs. poor people, young vs. old people, or education vs. illiteracy. At any time, or even many times in a persons life, the temptation to "get something for nothing" and reward oneself can easily be present. Although most people believe they could "never" do such a thing, if they do cross over the line, swift and effective action must be taken by both the retailer and the criminal justice system to help these people get back on track. While it is not appropriate for retailers or the criminal justice system to be sympathetic or forgiving after a shoplifting incident, what is appropriate is for retailers, prosecutors and judges to jointly support punitive sanctions along with community based educational rehabilitation programs.

Peter Berlin is the current Executive Director of Shoplifiers Anonymous, Inc. (SA). He is also an international consultant on retail theft, a publisher of newsletters to retailers and the criminal justice system and a former Director of Retail Security. He is located at SA headquarters in Jericho, NY.

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