Why Shoplifters Do it

by Sue Woodman

For some women it's a cheap thrill-a reckless moment when the sales assistant turns away and they suddenly decide to pocket the eye shadow they've been sampling. For others it's a more calculated way of treating themselves to life's little luxuries: "Hey, I deserve this," they say in justification, "and $25 is way too much to charge for moisturizer anyway." For others still, it's an addiction as self-destructive as alcohol or cocaine. "While I was doing it, my heart would beat fast, I'd feel short of breath and my palms would sweat," recalls one compulsive shoplifter. "Then once I knew I'd gotten away with it, I'd feel a rush of relief and pleasure. When that wore off, I'd want to do it again."

According to FBI statistics, shoplifting is among Americas fastest-growing crimes. Last year more than 1 million incidents were reported-a fraction of the total number of cases, most of which go undetected or unreported. Retailers say that a significant percentage of the shoplifters apprehended are repeat offenders. Men and women shoplift in almost equal numbers, but young women between the ages of 22 and 30 are among the most likely offenders, according to the 1993 Retail Theft Trends Report conducted by Loss Prevention Specialists, Inc. of Winter Park, Florida. What they often take are beauty products: cosmetics, fragrances and toiletries.

"Women take these things because they're small, easily concealable and very desirable items with a high personal value. They're things they'd love to have but may not be able to afford," says Read Hayes, CPP, a security consultant with Loss Prevention Specialists. One young woman shoplifter believes that for many offenders taking beauty products is a rite of passage. "A lot of women start with lipsticks and work their way up to more expensive items," she says.

Kathy Morgan,* 32, of New Jersey was 13 years old when she started stealing, spurred on by peers whom she wanted to impress. Although she stopped for many years, the impulse suddenly returned when she was 25 and had given up her full-time career to stay home with her new baby.

"I stole moisturizers, foundation, nail polish, lip· stick," says Kathy. "You know how you buy a shade of lipstick, wear it for a while, then decide you don't like it. Well, that never mattered to me because I'd just steal another one."

Kathy's shoplifting reached the point where she was doing it several times a week. "It was when I had my second child and started taking both of them with me on these 'shopping' trips that I knew I was out of control," she says.

Why do women like Kathy do it? "Many young women today who shoplift are raised with a sense of entitlement," explains New York psychologist Lean Klungness, Ph.D., a published authority on stealing. "They're used to having nice things and they aren't prepared to go through the struggles that the previous generation did to get them."

For some women it's a way of trading up without paying for it. "I can wear better brand-name beauty products that I might not otherwise be able to afford," says one shoplifter. ''And that gives me more self-confidence. I get more compliments, more people saying, 'Mmm, you smell good. Is that Giorgio?' "

Often, though, shoplifters can readily afford what they take. Most of the merchandise stolen last year cost between $6 and $25. What they're after, says Robert Berger, M.D., director of forensic psychiatry at New York's Bellevue Hospital Center, is the illicit thrill of the act.

"For these people anxiety is interpreted as positive excitement and, as with gambling, the thrill is in the period of uncertainty, not the prize," Berger says. "Often the object has no significance. It's the act that brings gratification."

Some women shoplift to make up for something that's missing in their lives. "It represents a substitute for losses they may have had-divorce, illness, a bad financial situation," explains Peter Berlin, I the executive director of Shoplifters Anonymous, a national nonprofit organization. For others it's a way of battling the blues. "Shoplifting produces a strong high and can temporarily relieve depression," says Berlin.

Dr. Klungness points out that for many women, shoplifting can also be a way of venting anger against a faceless institution that deserves to be ripped off because it charges too much and won't miss the items anyway.

But of course the stores do miss them. Last year retailers lost a whopping $9 billion worth of merchandise through shoplifting, and beauty products are always among the top three categories of items stolen in all the stores that stock them (the other two are general merchandise, such as batteries and film, and analgesics). The loss-prevention industry is hard at work inventing increasingly sophisticated theft deterrents, from hidden cameras and alarm systems to chains and tags that spray ink over the merchandise if they are removed by force. While experts agree that these measures help, they also admit that deterrents can be bad for business, especially for "impulse" buying, which is how many beauty products are bought. To guard against the recent increase in perfume thefts, for example, retailers often lock their fragrances in glass display cases, thus making it hard for customers to sample scents and buy -; one on the spot. Similarly, many cosmetics that were once displayed prominently on the shop floor to encourage customers to try them are now kept behind the counter.

The final retaliation against shoplifters is, of course, to prosecute them. And in many states the recent introduction of civil recovery laws is designed to help offset security costs by providing retailers with quick compensation through a civil action rather than going through the lengthy process of pressing charges through the overloaded criminal courts. Many stores praise this speedier route, but Berlin believes that in the long run it may prove to be a false economy if it is used in lieu of criminal prosecution.

"The stores are pleased because they recover their losses faster, but I think it perpetuates the problem because many shoplifters aren't afraid of a civil suit," says Berlin.

5 Beauty Products Stolen Most Often

The top five, from the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, which represents 30,000 major chain pharmacies: