Something for Nothing

According to the nationwide Police Foundation, shoplifting continues to be a major crime problem in spite of millions of dollars spent on surveillance and enforcement. Over two million shoplifting cases per year are detected but not reported. And of the almost 400,000 shoplifters turned over to the police annually, the vast majority are not arrested, partly because shoplifters are often not tried and sentenced.

So who shoplifts — and why? Shoplifters include a great number of young people, even children. According to Kids Health magazine online, there are basically two types of shoplifters. The first are professional shoplifters who steal expensive items like clothing and jewelry that they can resell easily. The second type are amateur or casual shoplifters who don’t usually go into a store with the intention of stealing. They simply see the opportunity to take something and they do.

For some, it’s the thrill of the chase. It’s like betting that you can (maybe) get away with something and not get caught. If you don’t get nabbed, the thrill is more than just having the merchandise; it’s the satisfaction of getting it for nothing. It’s not all that different from the feeling a gambler experiences when winning.

Kids Health magazine observes, ‘Some people shoplift to see what they can get away with. They may do it to challenge authority or to be nonconformist. Or they may get a rush out of doing something risky’. Others do it to get attention from parents or friends.’

Shoplifting is not kleptomania. Kleptomania is the psychiatric condition of being (seemingly) unable to resist the urge to collect or hoard things. It’s a compulsive problem, kind of like neurotic hand washing. People with this disorder feel compelled to steal things, often things of little or no significant value such as pens, paper clips, tape, small toys, etc. Some may not even be aware that they have committed the theft. Kleptomania is very rare, and most shoplifters are by no means kleptomaniacs.

One thing that shoplifters and kleptomaniacs do have in common is an ‘after the fact’ sense that there was no rational reason to steal. In the case of children and teens, peer pressure is sometimes a factor. However, shoplifting is most often not the result of a need for material things. We hear all the time about rich people, including celebrities, who get caught shoplifting.

Peter Berlin of Shoplifter’s Anonymous describes the motivation for shoplifting, at least in his experience: ‘In simple and concise terms: TO GET SOMETHING FOR NOTHING…. But why do they want something for nothing? To most shoplifters, getting something for nothing is like giving themselves a ‘gift,’ which in turn gives them a ‘lift.’ Many people feel they need a ‘lift’ just to get through the week or even the day. A recent study by MasterCard International found that shopping was second only to dining out as the primary way that people reward themselves.’

Berlin goes on to explain how shoplifting can be a ‘substitute for loss’ after a death or a divorce, or a ‘relief mechanism’ to reduce anxiety, boredom or frustration. Some people drink, some people gamble — others shoplift.

So why do some people place such value on getting something for nothing? Though it’s true that most people don’t steal, I’ll bet that that there are those out there who would shoplift if they could get away with it, as opposed those who wouldn’t, even if they could get away with it. Yes, I’m talking about morality here, but I’m also talking about personal motivation as well.

What makes some people want ‘something for nothing’ enough to steal it? It could have something to do with envy. Some people carry around a pervasive sense of resentment and anger, which can result in a feeling of entitlement and a desire for revenge. It’s a fact of life that some people have more than others. But if you perceive yourself as having less than you want — or less than you feel you’re ‘entitled’ to have — there will inevitably be emotional consequences, including a perfectly twisted rationalization for shoplifting. Peter Berlin attributes this to a feeling of ‘justified payback’ — sort of a misguided sense of personal justification and validation. Obviously, none of this is an excuse for stealing from another person.

I feel for storeowners and employees who must keep an eye on their goods. Being victimized by a thief leads to strong feelings of personal violation and insecurity, as well as anger at the obvious injustice. And we all pay for it when retailers understandably adjust their prices to cover their cost to control thieves. Many shoplifters probably don’t think about that, since their motivation is, by definition, ‘all about them.’ Nobody has the right to burden others with their impulses and issues. Shoplifters place themselves above the standards of civilized society and should not expect anyone to make excuses for them.