Exactly What Is a Shoplifter and How Much Do You Know?

Industry veterans may find it odd to ask 'What is a shoplifter?' after years of experience. But it's always good to revisit the fundamentals.

What Is A Shoplifter, people who steal, retail store theft

When asked “What is a shoplifter?”, most readers of the LPM Insider probably have a pretty good idea of how to respond. I do too, but it’s interesting what you learn (or re-learn) when you actually do some research on the subject. If you look up the definition of shoplifting, you will find different variations in wording. Some reference larceny, some concealment, and others talk about intent. But the basic definition boils down to this: shoplifting is the “theft of merchandise from a store or place of business.”

The terms “shoplifting” or “shoplifter” are not usually defined by law. The crime of shoplifting generally falls under the legal classification of larceny and can be a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the dollar amount stolen. State by state, larceny laws vary greatly.

For the average person, shoplifting is sometimes confused with burglary or robbery. However, all three are different. Burglary refers to unlawful entry into a building with the intent to commit a crime, especially theft. If a burglar is successful, they will not come in contact with another person. Robbery, on the other hand, is the taking of something (usually money or merchandise) using force or fear. Other forms of retail theft, such as price switching and refund or credit card fraud, are not usually lumped into the shoplifting category. Experts believe shoplifting is common because it is a relatively unskilled crime with low entry barriers that can be fitted into a normal lifestyle.

The crime of shoplifting is as old as shopping itself. The first documented cases of shoplifting took place in 16th-century London and involved groups of men called “lifters” (early ORC?). In 1591, a pamphlet entitled The Second Part of Cony-Catching described how three men conspired to shoplift clothes from London merchants. Over time, London merchants began to display goods in ways meant to attract shoppers, thus making it even easier for shoplifting to occur. Interestingly, during this period in England, female shoplifters were called Amazons.

In 1699, the English Parliament passed the Shoplifting Act, which called for petty theft to be punished by hanging.

In the 19th century, shoplifting was thought to be primarily a female activity, often attributed to kleptomania. Much later, in the 1960s, shoplifting was even described as a political act. Activist Jerry Rubin wrote, “All money represents theft…shoplifting gets you high. Don’t buy. Steal.”

Some of the early misconceptions around shoplifting have evaporated by now. But current observations and statistics (some compiled by NASP – The National Association for Shoplifting Prevention) show that it is still a major problem in the United States today:

  • Data from 1980 suggests that males are equally or more likely to shoplift than females.
  • There are approximately 27 million shoplifters (1 in 11 people) in the United States today
  • More than 10 million people have been caught shoplifting in the past five years.
  • There is no profile of the “typical shoplifter.”
  • Approximately 25 percent of shoplifters are kids.
  • Fifty-five percent of shoplifters say they started shoplifting in their teens.
  • Shoplifting, in general, is not a premeditated crime. Approximately 73 percent of shoplifters don’t plan to steal in advance.
  • Eighty-nine percent of kids say they know other kids who shoplift. Sixty-six percent say they hang out with those kids.
  • Shoplifters say they are caught on an average of once in every 48 times they steal. They are turned over to the police 50 percent of the time.
  • Only 3 percent of shoplifters are thought to be “professionals.” But these so-called professionals are responsible for at least 10 percent of all shoplifting dollar losses. (I think some retailers’ ORC specialists would argue these numbers are too low).
  • Fifty-seven percent of adults and 33 percent of juvenile shoplifters say it is hard for them to stop shoplifting even after getting caught.
  • Habitual shoplifters steal an average of 1.6 times per week.

Regarding shoplifter apprehensions in today’s retail world, some things are changing and some things remain the same. In general, most retailers engaged in loss prevention apprehensions still adhere to some version of the age-old “Five Steps”:

1. Observe the person approach and select the merchandise.
2. Observe the person conceal the merchandise. (This is to show intent. An exception is made when a person simply grabs merchandise and walks out of the store).
3. Maintain constant and uninterrupted surveillance of the person after concealment (this is to guard against “dumping”).
4. Watch the person pass all points of sale without making any attempt to pay.
5. Observe the person leave the store.

The use of modern camera surveillance in shoplifting detection and apprehension has changed techniques somewhat. But two common adages still make as much sense today as ever:

  • If you didn’t see it, it didn’t happen.
  • When in doubt, let ‘em out.

And here is another interesting fact that I noted in a recent LP Magazine article (“Fifteen Years of Loss Prevention“) covering its first 15 years: although it’s a huge component of the retail loss prevention profession, feature articles specifically devoted to the fundamentals of shoplifting (and answering the question “What is a shoplifter?”) have appeared only four times in the magazine’s history. So, here’s at least one more look.

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