Five-Finger Discount


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Shoplifting rates are soaring, at least among the grabby progeny of New York state mayors and former mayors. On the last day of July, Byron W. Brown Jr., the 19-year-old son of Buffalo mayor Byron W. Brown, was nabbed stealing $58 worth of clothing and iPod accessories from a bargain apparel store. Four days later, Caroline Giuliani, the 20-year-old daughter of New York city ex-mayor Rudy Giuliani, got popped trying to lift $100 worth of lip gloss, lipstick, and other cosmetics from a Sephora on the Upper East Side.

Once you start paying attention to the latest shoplifting news, it quickly seems as if America is in the throes of an egalitarian epidemic, afflicting the sleepy, the forgetful, the disorganized, the formerly beautiful, and the insufficiently inconspicuous alike. Amongst the greater population, however, shoplifting is suffering from a slight recession. According to the National Retail Security Survey, a joint project of the National Retail Federation and the University of Florida, retailers lost $12.7 billion to shoplifters in 2008 and only $11.7 billion in 2009. That’s an 8% plummet in a single year.

On the one hand, this downward trend makes perfect sense. The economy’s improving. And retail security’s no joke. Between locked display cases, electronic security tags, closed camera TV systems, roving floor attendants, uniformed guards, and exit inspections, we protect our $79 digital cameras more vigilantly than we protect our national borders. Even more than all that, though, shoplifting just seems kind of obsolete, not very Crime 2.0. Why waste gas money going to the mall when it’s much easier, and much safer, to steal music and movies via BitTorrent? These days, security guards will strangle you to death over a tube of toothpaste or a pair of diapers – imagine what they’ll do to you if they catch you trying to boost the new Kick-Ass DVD. And why risk ten years in slammer for an $80 New York strip steak when grocery stores are constantly giving away free samples? On trash days, every city block is dotted with perfectly usable TVs, desk chairs, microwave ovens. The clearance racks at Target are filled with virtually free chinos and polo shirts. Granted, none of this helps eBay power-sellers looking to amass high-ticket stockpiles of new-with-tags iPods and cashmere hoodies. For the casual shoplifter, though, surely the spillover from the age of material abundance is enough to satisfy that occasional something-for-nothing urge.

On the other hand, only $11.7 billion a year in shoplifting? That’s it? After all, this isn’t just the age of material abundance. It’s also the age of massive entitlement and instant gratification. In this environment, shoplifting’s like speeding, a finable offense if you get caught, sure, but immoral, unethical? Hey, it’s not like smoking in public or something….it’s just shoplifting. So if you want it, Best Buy’s not going to miss that Sony Walkman 16GB MP3 player. It’s got hundreds of them, with newer models on the way. Plus the markups are ridiculous. And the wages that they pay their employees are insulting. And look at that line at the register! If they seriously didn’t want people to steal from them, they’d hire more cashiers.

The National Association for Shoplifting Prevention (NASP) estimates that there are 27 million shoplifters in the U.S. Currently, the total U.S. population is 310 million, but of those 310 million, approximately 21.7 million are under the age of five. So rule them out, except perhaps as camoflauge and projectiles. That leaves 288 million — if the NASP estimate is accurate, every time you go into a department store, roughly 1 out of 11 of your fellow shoppers are stuffing their purses and backpacks and sweatpants like Winona Ryder at a celebrity gifting suite.

To put this state of affairs into perspective, 27 million people is more than the combined total population of Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, Alaska, South Dakota, Delaware, Montana, Rhode Island, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Maine, Idaho, Nebraska, West Virginia, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Kansas, and Arkansas. It’s depressing to think that so many are so ready to compromise their integrity for a handful of cosmetics. Or so crazy they just can’t help themselves. Or so broke that, really, there was no other way for them to protect themselves from the sun’s harmful rays. Any way you slice it, it’s a statistic that suggests a civilization in decline.

And yet there’s hope there too, because shoplifting is a relatively civil act, at least as far as criminal behavior goes. Shoplifters aren’t looking to physically harm anyone. They’d prefer not to even violate anyone’s personal space. They choose commercial venues in which to perpetrate crimes, and they typically go about their business quietly, unobtrusively. On occasion, they can even inspire. In Germany, a shoplifter with no arms waltzed out of a store with a 24-inch TV strapped to his chest! Your wallet’s probably safe when he’s around, but keep an eye on everything else. In Utah, a woman was caught shoplifting six times at four different stores in two days. After a cop came to her house and cited her, she immediately went out and shoplifted again – even Kobe Bryant doesn’t display that kind of confidence when he’s missed six in a row! (She got caught again.) In Canada, a job-seeker shoplifted a sharp new outfit to impress potential employers with. A day later, she put it on, brazenly returned to the store that she stole it from, and asked for an interview. After speaking with the manager, she stuck around to further siphon the establishment’s inventory. If, on her resume, she describes herself as “accurate” and “accountable,” no one would dispute it –the resume she left behind is what the police used to find her.

In 18th century England, shoplifters were routinely executed for stealing merchandise valued at no more than 5 shillings. Even ten-year-olds were penalized with death. In 21st century America, we’re both incredibly lenient and surprisingly punitive. If you get caught shoplifting at the A&N Food Market in Flushing, Queens, the New York Times reported in June, your ID is seized, you’re forced to pose for a portrait with the item(s) you’re accused of stealing, and you may have to pay the market a $400 fine if you don’t want the store to turn you over to the police. Another market in the area threatens repeat offenders with a fine of $2000.

These powers aren’t just limited to New York grocers though. Most states recognize a common law “shopkeeper’s privilege” or have adopted more formalized “merchant’s statutes”that allow retailers to detain shoplifting suspects, take mugshots of them, and ban them from their stores, all without judge or jury. In addition, “civil recovery” laws in all 50 states allow merchants to essentially impose fines on shoplifters. If a retailer in California accuses you of stealing, for example, it can demand that you pay a $50 to $500 penalty, even if you’re never arrested or charged with a crime. Big retailers like Walmart tend to be especially aggressive about pursuing such actions. It runs famously tight margins, and with so many people ripping it off, it’s got to try to make a profit somehow. • 13 August 2010