Why Do People Steal?

Interviewing active shoplifters is the most interesting part of my job. For an hour, I speak as seldom as I can. Instead, I listen and observe. What they have to say is fascinating. Their actions and mannerisms weave together with their words like a code waiting to be cracked. Why do people steal?

The interview starts with me doing most of the talking. I attempt to make them comfortable and fill them in on what I’d like to know, were I in their position. I speak and watch carefully as they try to decide whether I’m an authority figure or a guy who just wants to shoot the breeze and hear about their craft. Jokes help. Compliments help even more. I make it clear that this isn’t a confessional. They don’t need to apologize to me, or fear me, or even try to impress me. I just want them to relax and talk to me like I’m an old friend.

Once they settle in a bit and are convinced that I’m not a cop, I shift the primary speaking role to them. Ten-second questions and prompts are met with two-minute responses. I try to unravel the true meaning behind their words and actions.

Through hundreds of interviews, a common theme emerges.

It’s Us versus Them

In other words, it’s normal, hardworking, everyday people versus rich, greedy corporations. In fact, I began to realize that the primary function of calming a shoplifter down during the beginning of an interview was convincing the individual that I wasn’t one of “them.” That I wasn’t part of the corporate machine. That I could understand their plight. Here’s an example of this interchange with an active shoplifter we will call Bob.

Mike: Thank you for being here today! We do research on this kind of thing, and your honest feedback is incredibly helpful to me. Could you tell me a bit about your shoplifting experience?

Bob: Um, yeah, I just mostly took things that my family needed…uh, used to—I don’t anymore. Tylenol when the baby had a fever, you know. Just what we needed.

This would usually start with a testing of the water. They would tentatively throw out a comment about the price of what they stole being unfairly high or that they had a family to feed. I’d respond compassionately, then down the rabbit hole of the underground corporate complex resistance we’d go.

Mike: Sure, I can definitely understand that. Tylenol is expensive! I’m not here to judge anyone or to take sides. Tell me more about that experience. How would you go about taking it? What would have stopped you?

Bob: It’s crazy expensive! Uh, I’d just grab it and put it in my pocket, then buy a pack of gum or something and leave.

Mike: Oh, okay, that’s smart. You wanted to avoid suspicion, so you’d buy something. What time of day do you like to shop? Long checkout lines are the worst!

The person started this interview out as an apologetic wrongdoer answering to an authority figure, downplaying the severity of their habit, and claiming they no longer do it. Then after a few minutes, we were just two guys trying our best to get by in the world.

Bob: Yeah, I like going in the afternoon when everyone’s still at work. These stores, man, there’s never any employees around, and they pay them so little that the ones who are around could care less. It’s adding insult to injury, gouging us on prices and making us wait in line to pay them. Like yesterday, I put a pack of condoms in my pocket; there was an associate twenty feet away from me, busy stocking shelves. I didn’t even exist to them. I could have been a normal customer. I could have needed help, you know?

Mike: I can definitely understand where you’re coming from. Do you ever take items for people other than you and your family? Friends maybe? Have you ever sold something after you got it?

Some would take it a step further. Greedy corporations are the real wrongdoers here, right? I stick it to them by taking from them, right? What do you call someone who fights wrongdoing? Who steals from the rich and gives to the poor? Their body language tells the story—from closed and embarrassed, to neutral, to proud, condemning the condemner with vindication.

Bob: Oh, yeah, all the time. My friends, I mean the neighborhood, you know? It’s run down. They can’t afford to pay thirty bucks for laundry detergent. My girlfriend and I opened up a little store in our garage. Detergent, household stuff, things people need every day–we sell it to them at half of whatever the store is charging them. It’s great for both of us. They save fifteen bucks on a $30 bottle of detergent, and we make a little money for our time. I’ll take shopping list orders from some elderly people in the neighborhood. Again, I ask for half of what the store charges. I’m not greedy. These people rely on us to get by.

Mike: I had no idea! What do you think those people would do without you and your girlfriend?

Bob: I mean, they’d go without basic necessities, right?

Why Do People Steal? Robin Hood? Really?

Let’s break down what just happened, aside from Bob illustrating that he isn’t aware of off-brand, inexpensive laundry detergent options. Every decision we make has a decision-making process. I believe we arrived at the end of the interview at a genuinely held belief of how a series of events making up their decision to steal unfolded. The belief goes, as follows, in order of where they believe it appeared in their decision-making process.

Decision Process: “Robin Hood Complex” as Motivation

1. I believe corporations are evil, and I’m going to do something about it.
2. I believe shoplifting is the best way to act on my belief.
3. I might as well take products I need or desire.
4. [theft occurs]

This process specifies a desire to act on a moral principle as the motivation for their act of theft. Anyone who buys this account of events can stop reading now. For the rest of us, here’s our best guess of what is really going on, formulated through our own scientific studies and a review of existing literature.

Decision Process: “Robin Hood Complex” as an Excuse

1. I need or desire this item.
2. I’m unwilling or unable to pay for it OR I simply enjoy the thrill of stealing.
3. [theft occurs]
4. [guilt and cognitive dissonance set in]
5.I feel bad about this. How can I make that feeling go away?
6. [seeks defense mechanism; chooses “Condemn the Condemner/Justify Actions”]
7. I believe corporations are evil, and I’m going to do something about it.

What Can We Do?

It can be frustrating or even comical to watch the mental gymnastics someone will go through in order to avoid negative feelings like guilt. However, it’s important to keep in mind that all of us use defense mechanisms to alleviate negative feelings and resolve cognitive dissonance. If we meet an offender’s mindset with a desire to understand it, instead of frustration, we can harness that knowledge and turn the tables on them.

Below are proposed actions we can take as retailers, followed by an example of what Bob and his band of Merry Men had to say about these interventions throughout multiple interviews. Please note that quotes from Bob are censored, abridged, and otherwise cleaned up to improve the understandability of their primary points.

Action 1: Greet Them at the Door. Employees are innocent, normal people. In the story the offender has fabricated, they’re a righteous person, and righteous people don’t harm the innocent.

Bob: That person recognizes me now. They could pick me out of a lineup. It also makes me feel guilty, like I’m stealing from them. The store put some effort in. When they show effort like that, I reward it by going somewhere else.

Action 2: Focus Signage on Guilt-Based Messages.

Has anyone tried a sign that just says, “Please don’t steal from us”? It won’t work on everyone, but some may feel obliged to reward your courtesy. The Loss Prevention Research Council (LPRC) is currently researching humanizing signage where you talk to the customer directly, joke with them, or even compliment them.

Bob: I know what I’m doing is wrong, and I’m trying to ignore that as I do it. I don’t like anything that reminds me of it. If you make me feel like I’m stealing from a person, I’ll go elsewhere.

Action 3: Show Them the Victims and Consequences of Shoplifting.

When theft is high, prices go up. Shelves don’t get stocked, and items don’t get sold. Stores go out of business. Normal people lose their jobs. This isn’t a victimless crime. Consequence research is ongoing at LPRC.

Bob: I have friends who are cashiers. I guess it affects them when someone steals; I just don’t think of it that way. If I did, it would be harder to do.

Action 4: Avoid Overstocking When Possible.

It’s human nature to feel worse about taking the last slice of pizza than when there’s plenty to go around. Avoid having too much of the same product out, not only because it’s harder to protect but also because it becomes psychologically easier to justify stealing.

Bob: These corporations make billions of dollars. I’m not hurting anybody by taking one or two things. I’m taking one and leaving 99. No harm done.

Action 5: Reach Out in Your Community.

Big retail corporations can do an awful lot of good. Most already are. Advertise what you’re already doing more clearly and strategize ways to touch these individuals’ communities in positive ways. LPRC is conducting two research projects in 2018 on this topic.

Bob: Before their big store opened up, there were three other stores on that site—stores that didn’t pay their employees minimum wage. They provide a service, I guess. I’d have to go across town if they weren’t here. I just don’t usually think of it that way.

Action 6: Make an Effort to Head Off the “It’s Like They’re Asking for It” Excuse.

Things like a messy store and inattentive associates can unwittingly send both good customers as well as offenders the wrong message.

Bob: They just make it so damn easy. It’s like they’re not even trying, like they want you to steal from them. Or they’ve made the decision not to care. I’m not saying that makes it okay. What I’ve done is wrong, and I’ve got to answer for those things when I meet my maker someday, but I would’ve never done it if it weren’t so damn easy. Just do something, anything to show you’re making an effort.

Action 7: Change the Conversation Employees Have Outside of Work.

Telling your friends about how fairly you’re treated at work is generally not a popular topic of conversation. Not only can your employees turn sour and actively assist others in defrauding you, but also their unkind words about how unfairly they’re paid or treated can give members of their social circle just the sense of moral high ground they need to feel okay about stealing from you.

Bob: My friend works as a cashier there. He doesn’t help me take things, but he knows I do it. He thinks it’s funny. I wouldn’t ask him for help. I don’t need it and don’t want him to risk his job. It doesn’t hurt people like him. It just makes the CEO bonus a little smaller each year.

Action 8: Consider the Message You’re Sending When You Lock Something Up.

Retailers have every right to lock items up based on what’s on paper. Its high shrink or above a certain price threshold, so we lock it up. However, it’s important to understand the message you’re sending both customers and offenders when you protect certain items. The average customer isn’t aware of the aftermarket value of things like laundry detergent, razor packs, diapers, or infant formula. They view these items as staples and may find it shocking to see them locked. It could be seen as “overkill” and could fuel the Robin Hood narrative. If you do lock them, consider adding signage with a help line if the customer needs government assistance for staple items.

Bob: They’re locking up baby formula. Catching moms trying to feed their starving babies is how they choose to spend their time? Shouldn’t that kind of stuff be free? Whether or not your baby gets to eat shouldn’t depend on how much money you make. All these guys see are dollar signs. They don’t see people. They don’t care about us.

Robin Hood: A Man of the People

These action items aim at not only disarming an offender’s guilt-reducing narrative but also cutting away at acceptance or support from the general public. When customers think of a shoplifter, they should conjure an image of an affluent organized retail crime group, not one of a starving mother. Affecting the general public’s perception of what an offender’s true motives are is a pivotal step in unweaving the Robin Hood narrative. Let customers know that most offenders aren’t taking necessities in modest quantities for personal use. Let them know that most shoplifters are fueling a less honorable habit than feeding babies.

Retailers are already doing an incredible amount for their communities. They care about their customers and would help them find a meal or a shelter if the customer asked. Our challenge is making that positive impact impossible to miss and ignore. We need to work together to push that narrative. Hard. After all, we’re competing with an age-old tale here.

For nearly 200 video clips of live offender interviews and access to over 300 research reports supporting these insights, please visit the LPRC Knowledge Center at LPresearch.org.

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