Are Amateur Shoplifters Just Plain Crooks, or Are They Sick?

It’s been studied more than you think.

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Many of us in retail loss prevention probably think of most shoplifters as plain petty crooks. We rarely give much thought as to why a given individual shoplifts. Yes, we get ORC. That’s a business. And there are probably isolated cases where a person really does shoplift out of true need, although I was unable to find any reliable statistics on that subject. But what about the housewife or business professional or teenager who is caught shoplifting? Why do they do it?

There actually has been a tremendous amount of research, over time, attempting to answer that question. Mary Owen Cameron, a crime researcher in the 1960s, concluded that there were two simple categories of shoplifters: boosters and snitches. She estimated that boosters comprised about 10 percent of all shoplifters and stole for financial gain. The rest, snitches, were viewed as pilferers and were rarely true criminals.

Later, Terrence Shulman, a reformed shoplifter turned lawyer, broke down shoplifters into seven distinct categories, some psychologically based, some not:

  • The addictive-compulsive personality who steals in response to emotional distress
  • The pro, stealing for financial gain
  • Those in true need
  • The thrill seekers
  • The drug addicts
  • The mentally impaired
  • And, finally, the kleptomaniac

Kleptomania, the “the not my fault” excuse, was first described in 1816 as “a unique madness characterized by the tendency to steal without motive and necessity.” But is it truly a legitimate psychological illness? That issue has been widely contested, both within psychology and the criminal justice system.

Current psychiatric studies classify kleptomania within the category of disruptive impulse-control and conduct disorders. There are many theories as to what causes it, ranging from neurochemical imbalance to unfulfilled sexuality. Some have even gone so far as to blame “irresistible store displays and fragrances” for in-store theft. The American Psychiatric Association estimates that true kleptomaniacs only account for 5 percent of all shoplifters, although some professionals believe it is more prevalent than originally thought. But, in any case, kleptomania is apparently behind few shoplifting incidents.

So what motivates the rest? Hundreds of theories exist as to what motivates the amateur shoplifter, both in terms of psychological and non-psychological factors. A study of all those theories would be exhausting. One good resource to learn more about modern-day shoplifting is the archive of articles on LPM’s Shoplifting and Organized Retail Crime page. Another good option is the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention (NASP), which offers a website containing great background and statistics. The NASP site even features a glossary of 67 studies dealing with the psychological aspects of shoplifting. It is interesting reading for any retail loss prevention professional.

So, are amateur shoplifters just plain crooks? Probably not. There is a lot more to it than that.

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