What Shoplifting Says About Us All

We want to be someone else. This, according to author Rachel Shteir, is why we shoplift.

I say "we," because of the dozens of people with whom I've discussed this topic over the years, only one or two insist they've never shoplifted. The number of reported shoplifters, according to the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention (NASP), make up 9% of the population. I'd argue that closer to 90% of us have, at least once or twice in our lives.

And as Shteir said in The New York Times Sunday, shoplifters often steal because of a vague sense of having been wronged or deprived throughout their lives. "In my observations, a lot of shoplifting seemed like it was an effort to transform into something else. Women shoplift cosmetics, men shoplift power tools. It seems to relate to some idealized view of yourself," Shteir told The New York Times.In her latest book, The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting, Shteir discusses both the financial implications and the zeitgeist of shoplifting -- the how, the how much and the why? According to her book and data from the NASP, U.S. retail businesses lost $11.7 billion to shoplifting (so-called "shrinkage").

Some stores take a prevention-and-prosecution approach, with RFID chips and door alarms and backpack bans and the police on speed-dial, while others just shrug their shoulders and accept it as a cost-of-doing-business. Either way, everyone pays, in the form of higher prices to cover their losses. Consumer Reports calls this a "crime tax" and says it adds up to about $450 per family each year.

I myself can own up now: I went through two very minor but still criminal shoplifting periods when I was a tween. The first was while my large family was living in Montana, where my dad worked for a Baptist mission organization. Like most missionary families, we were terribly poor and living entirely upon the charity of others. I wanted nothing more than to be the sort of person for whom my parents would give me $20 or $30 in canteen money for a week of church camp.

But I got far less than this -- I remember counting my change -- so I, possessed of more than the usual authority thanks to my status as a missionary kid, stole candy bars with abandon. My Christian values were at war with my sense of deprivation; I was terribly guilt-stricken for years afterward, and I vowed to, one day, send the money for my illicit sugar fixes to the church camp (I still haven't, so consider this my public apology).

I was 11 then. A few years later, when my dad had quit the mission and we had moved back to a city, I was in those awkward years where I felt less beautiful and less accomplished than absolutely every other girl in the world. I was not only the eldest in a poor family whose mother had absolutely zero to teach me about fashion and cosmetics, but I was also without any close girlfriends, thanks to moving into a middle school partway through eighth grade (a very bad time to move, parents, for the record).

So I learned how to pocket the things I thought would make me into one of those beautiful, assured, popular girls at school: a variety of candy-colored mascaras, pimple concealer and the like. My criminal streak ended when I got a job and was able to buy the things that I hoped would make me into someone else -- which never worked. (I ended up becoming me, finally, in my early twenties, and "me" doesn't care for makeup at all.)

If Shteir is right -- and just so there's no mistake, the national shoplifting board and retail groups don't believe she is, but as Shteir tells the New York Times, "in those circles, people are quick to dismiss the connections between people and objects" -- maybe what we need is not RFID tags but a more nurturing society, one in which the connection between stuff (and the money to buy it) and social desirability is not marketed so frenetically.

You could take your average women's magazine, with its 1,001 makeup tips, its assortment of photo spreads on the must-have this or the can't-look-right-without that, its helpful advice on dressing for dates and jobs, and use that as an example of how we teach people they're not good enough.

But really, it starts in preschool with the fashion-model dolls and their assortment of cosmetics and sparkly accessories, and the must-have Halloween costumes that have girls looking like princesses and boys looking like super heroes. (And lest you think this seemed age-appropriate, you should know that moms are marketed to in kids' TV shows and movies, too.)

So little children are forming concepts of who the ideal self is, both for kids their age of both genders and for the moms they have and someday hope to be. And trust me, ideal mom has got a lot more makeup and cleaning supplies than I do. Does the content of these TV shows -- with the ever-present rich kid living among us (Suite Life with Zac & Cody,Hannah Montana,Richie Rich) -- contribute to the problem? You bet it does.

So here it is: You, retail industry, are your own worst enemy. Your marketing creates the ever-present sense that we don't have enough, that we have been terribly deprived, that everyone else has it better than us. And media companies aren't helping one bit. So we shoplift -- lots of us, anyway. And we pay a tax for our own mental anguish every time we shop. Ironic, ain't it?
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