While society often imagines the shoplifter as someone stealing food or toiletries out of necessity to survive, often this is not the case. In fact, one study notes that socio-economic status is not an accurate predictor for potential shoplifting.
Many habitual shoplifters report stealing almost twice a week, and shoplifting is often the only crime they will keep committing. Nearly 55 percent of adult shoplifters admit to beginning their criminal careers during their teenage years. It is estimated that one in four shoplifters is a juvenile, and juvenile shoplifting consequences can persist into adulthood.  These statistics suggest that more needs to be done by the retail community to combat youthful offending.
In order to prevent juvenile shoplifting, the first question should be “Why do kids shoplift to begin with?” One might expect that shoplifting would be more common among individuals from lower-income families. On the contrary, shoplifting appears to be most prevalent among the middle class. A study of adult female shoplifters found that the women were more likely to steal luxury items as opposed to things they were able to rationalize purchasing. Likewise, juveniles were found to behave similarly, often targeting luxury goods. If juveniles are not shoplifting out of necessity or survival, then what drives their decisions?
For many, it is the thrill and excitement from the act of shoplifting itself that is so addictive, rather than necessity or desire for a particular item. In fact, drug addicts who also were caught shoplifting will often rate shoplifting just as addicting—if not more so–than their drug of choice. The adrenaline rush from getting away with stealing is what keeps many shoplifters repeating the act. This theory is supported by a Gallup poll that reported “68 percent of juvenile shoplifters felt the ‘kicks’ were more of a motivation than the need for money”.
Juveniles have many different reasons for getting involved with shoplifting. Most kids know another young person who shoplifts, and thus some appear to engage in shoplifting as a result of direct or even indirect peer pressure. There is some evidence to support the peer pressure theory, as one study found juvenile shoplifters are more likely to be apprehended in groups. For others, shoplifting is just a way to act out and rebel from their parents or society.
Given that more than half of adult shoplifters began their theft careers in childhood, sending a strong message to deter repeat offending early on seems important. Generally, teens grow out of delinquency as their brains develop and they gain better impulse control. Interestingly, data collected on both youth and adult shoplifters suggests that the crime is typically an impulsive decision, rather than premeditated. This evidence suggests that shoplifting may be strongly correlated with poor impulse control. Adolescents rarely think about consequences before acting. It is important for young people to understand how a juvenile record can affect their life outcome. Juvenile shoplifting consequences are serious: the more trouble young people get into, the harder it will be for them to receive a high school diploma, attend college or trade school, and get a job. When failure to achieve these goals occurs, criminal offending is far more likely to continue into adulthood.
Empirical evidence from this study of adolescent offenders supports the notion that juvenile delinquency is more likely to result in negative life outcomes in adulthood. Furthermore, “adults who have been officially identified and processed as criminals” struggle to find gainful employment.The evidence merely confirms what many have long suspected, that juvenile delinquency is far more significant than just typical teenage rebellion.
Criminal justice reform has become a hot topic in recent years, as political activists seek to scale back failed policies of the past that have contributed to the severe overcrowding in prisons and the court system. Reducing recidivism is one of the major goals among criminal justice reformers. This has led some state legislatures to pass laws that increase the felony threshold for shoplifting crimes. In theory, this would help first-time young offenders in avoiding prison time and a subsequent felony record, which we know could significantly alter life trajectory. However, in practice, some states have instead seen a rise in organized shoplifting, as career criminals learn to keep thefts under the felony threshold. This allows them to steal continuously, and many will hit multiple retailers in a single day.
Therefor, the question now should be, “What more can we do to prevent juveniles from ever shoplifting in the first place?” According to a 2016 report from the National Retail Federation (NRF), when it comes to dissuading potential shoplifters, awareness materials and visible deterrents appear to be most effective. One possibility might be to focus on increasing juvenile awareness of the long-term effects of criminal convictions. As loss prevention professionals understand, shoplifting impacts the entire community. Everyone absorbs the costs associated with theft as retailers must raise prices, and courts and police become overburdened in prosecuting these criminals. Perhaps by taking a more proactive stance against juvenile shoplifting, we can prevent young people from making potentially life-altering mistakes.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Some information and statistics in this post provided by the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention (NASP) a nonprofit organization that shapes, promotes and supports comprehensive community action in shoplifting prevention efforts…because shoplifting steals from all of us. Contact NASP at 800-848-9595 or visit www.shopliftingprevention.org.
Dena Cox, Anthony D. Cox, and George P. Moschis, “When Consumer Behavior Goes Bad: An Investigation of Adolescent Shoplifting”, Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 17, (September 1990): 157.
“Shoplifting Statistics”: National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, http://www.shopliftingprevention.org/what-we-do/learning-resource-center/statistics/
 Shoplifting Statistics.
 Cox et al., 157.
 Cox et al., 151
 Shoplifting Statistics.
 Julian Tanner, Scott Davies, and Bill O’Grady, “Whatever Happened to Yesterday’s Rebels? Longitudinal Effects of Youth Delinquency on Education and Employment”, Social Problems, Vol. 46, No. 2, 250-74, (1999), 269.
 Tanner et al., 257.
 NRF Retail Survey
This post was originally published in 2017 and was updated January 15, 2018.