by Peter Berlin
In simple and concise terms... "TO GET SOMETHING
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
- 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
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.
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
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
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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