by Peter Berlin

In simple and concise terms... "TO GET SOMETHING FOR NOTHING."

While we all like to get things for free and the stores are constantly promoting and placing merchandise on "SALE" to generate excitement about getting a bargain, most people don't cross over the line and steal the item. But some people do. Why?

The answer is... to most non-professional shoplifters, "getting something for nothing" is like giving themselves a "gift" or "reward," 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 study by MasterCard International found that shopping was second only to dining as the primary way people reward themselves. Take it one step further and you can see how "shoplifting" the merchandise increases the reward.

Getting Something for Nothing

It's important to understand that "getting something for nothing" always represents something more to the shoplifter than the value of the merchandise. For different people it can represent any of the following things:

  • For some, it's a "substitute for loss" because they perceived they were unfairly deprived in some way (i.e., a divorce, a serious illness, death of a loved one, loss of income from a job or investments, or an unexpected expense which can cause people to feel needy). Stealing a bottle of shampoo, for example, can temporarily help to relieve the anxiety about their financial situation and gives them a feeling that they are more in control.

  • For others, it's "justified payback" for all they give to others and how little they get back in return.

  • For some, it's a "relief mechanism" for anxiety, frustration, boredom or depression.

Several studies have found diagnosed depression to exist in approximately 1/3 of the shoplifters studied. Depression was the most frequently found physiological problem. This helps to explain why so many shoplifters steal from stores on their birthday and around holiday times.

Any way you look at it, shoplifters perceive shoplifting as a form of self nourishment or as a way to relieve fear or pain in their life. In truth, shoplifting is self-destructive not self-nourishing, but shoplifters often can’t see the paradox.

For almost all non-professional shoplifters, stealing from stores is basically a reflection of a person's ability (or inability) to cope with a multitude of situations in his or her life. It's a response to their personal life situations. While these unhappy life situations may not easily be changed (or may recur from time to time) shoplifters must learn how to cope with these situations in a way that's not harmful to themselves or others. This may not be easy to achieve, because approximately 27 percent of shoplifters caught for the first time have already developed a shoplifting habit or even an addiction. Many admit that it will be hard for them to stop shoplifting... even after getting caught.


Two Types Of Shoplifters

Professional Shoplifters

These are addicts who steal to buy drugs or hardened criminals who steal for resale and profit as a life-style. These individuals frequently commit other types of crimes and lack any conscience or guilt. To deal with these shoplifters, the approach here is either a drug treatment program or jail.

Non-Professional Shoplifters

These are the people who make up the majority of shoplifters and who steal for a variety of reasons, mostly related to common life situations and their personal ability (or inability) to cope. They include people who are depressed, frustrated, anxious, influenced by peers, thrill seekers or kleptomaniacs.

Non-professional shoplifting is rarely about greed or poverty. It's about individuals struggling with personal conflicts and needs. These individuals know right from wrong, they know there are consequences and they often have the money to pay, but they continue to steal anyway. These people often steal items they don't need and sometimes don't use. They usually have the money to pay for the item, rarely plan their theft in advance and never try to sell the item for profit.

While many non-professional shoplifters steal from stores on a regular basis, they usually have no prior criminal record (except perhaps for shoplifting) and are typically the kind of people who don't commit other types of crimes. Their behavior is less related to criminal intent and more the result of situational, emotional or psychological problems in need of attention.

Psychological profiles and admissions by shoplifters revealed that 1 out of 3 shoplifters are "at risk" of repeating the offense even after getting caught. Research shows that nationwide there are thousands of shoplifters who continually repeat the offense and want to stop...but can't. Their shoplifting has become a habit or even an addiction, and they are too ashamed or afraid to tell anyone, or ask for help. Other shoplifters simply deny they have a problem of any kind.

A person's addiction to shoplifting can develop quickly when the excitement generated from "getting away with it" produces a chemical reaction (i.e. adrenaline, etc.) resulting in what shoplifters describe as an incredible "rush" or "high" feeling, which many shoplifters will tell you is the "true reward," rather than the merchandise itself. In addition to feeling good, shoplifters quickly observe this "high" temporarily eliminates their feelings of anger, frustration, depression or other unhappiness in their life. Realizing how easy it is to get that "high" feeling, they are pulled toward doing it again..."just one more time"...and their addiction begins to develop. Even though most non-professional shoplifters feel guilty, ashamed or remorseful about what they did, and are fearful of getting caught, the pull is too strong for many to resist.

Of course, some people don't see shoplifting as a functional or psychological problem. They say, "What do you mean that a person can't stop shoplifting? Of course they can, they're just greedy". The idea that shoplifting is an addiction, “except for a few kleptomaniacs", is ridiculous, they say. “People who shoplift should go to jail and not be coddled or told they have an addiction.” This is like telling them it's okay to steal because they really can't help it.

The irony is that most shoplifters who have developed a habit or addiction believe they should be punished according to the law when caught. What offenders often resent, however, is when they are simply thrown into jail with hardened career criminals and are not given the help or support they need to help prevent them from repeating the offense.

Juveniles Who Shoplift

Shoplifting among juveniles is remarkably similar to adult shoplifting. However, the primary issues related to shoplifting among youth revolve around family, school and peer pressures.

If you were to ask juveniles caught shoplifting, "Why did you do it"? The most frequent reply would be "I don't know". Like adults, the reasons teens shoplift vary, but most commonly it is because they wanted nice things, felt pressured by friends, wanted to see if they could get away with it, or were angry, depressed, confused or bored. Sometimes they are just mad at the world and want to strike back.

While teens, like adults, usually know the difference between right and wrong, when their life becomes too stressful they become more vulnerable to temptation, peer pressure and other things that can lead them to shoplift. This is especially true when they feel unworthy, angry, depressed, unattractive or not accepted.


In summary, shoplifting for millions of our citizens, is simply another maladaptive way of coping with stressful life circumstances...similar to overeating, drinking, drugs or gambling. It is not an issue of good vs. bad people, rich vs. poor, young vs. old or education vs. illiteracy. At any time, or even many times in a person's life, the temptation to "get something for nothing" and the desire to reward oneself can easily be present. By raising public awareness about the problem and delivering needed programs and services to people who shoplift, communities who engage in prevention efforts will reduce the number of people who become involved and improve the quality of life for all.


Peter Berlin founded the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention (NASP). He also is an international consultant on retail theft, publisher of newsletters for retailers and the criminal justice system and a former Director of Retail Security.


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