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Nearly one in 10 people have shoplifted. Many consider themselves addicts in the grip of a disease who need treatment and understanding. But society can’t decide whether to treat shoplifting as a guilty secret or a serious felony. Shoplifting is a burden shared by everyone – retailers inflate the prices of products to cover their shoplifting debts. Author Rachel Shteir takes us into the murky world of the five-fingered discount and explores what is behind the compulsion to steal. Do the penalties befit the crime, and why is it still on the rise despite centuries of effort to rein it in?
- Rachel Shteir Author of "Striptease" and "Gypsy."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. Shoplifting has reached almost epidemic proportions. Over a million shoplifting offences are committed each year in the U.S. alone. But some of its perpetrators argue it's not a crime, it's a disease. To explain the history and contradictions of shoplifting here in the studio Rachel Shteir, she's an associate professor at The Theatre School at DePaul University. She's author of a new book, it's titled "The Steal."
MS. DIANE REHMDo join us 800-433-8850, send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org, join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to you, it's good to have you here.
MS. RACHEL SHTEIRThank you very much for having me.
REHMYou subtitled this book "A Cultural History of Shoplifting." Has the culture of shoplifting changed over the years?
SHTEIRYes, definitely. That was one of the things that drew me to the topic, these different forms that shoplifting takes through the ages from when we first see it in Shakespeare's day, the beginning of modern consumption, the beginning of luxury products in stores in London, the beginning of people wanting those products and not having enough money to buy them, but seeing other people on the street wearing them and seeing people in their houses having them. That is the beginning of shoplifting in London.
SHTEIRThen we go to the 19th century kleptomania. It becomes a disease with the advent of Freud and his disciples in the beginning of modern psychology and the idea of the unconscious and these things propelling us over which we have no control, these urges driving us. And then jumping forward to the 1960s America, we also have the idea of Abbie Hoffman, "Steal This Book," and shoplifting is being part of the revolution against the man. The idea of it being okay to steal from a store, you're not hurting another individual, rather you're taking something back for the people, is an extremely powerful idea that has a lot of truck today.
SHTEIRAnd then today, what are our ideas about shoplifting? We see shoplifting as an addiction. Many people believe that it's an addiction. We also see a big topic among loss prevention personnel, stores and law enforcement people is the rise of professional shoplifting gangs. These are gangs of two, three, more people who sweep through the store, grab the stuff and sell it on eBay. Then it's cost retail, that particular dimension of shoplifting, these professionals cost retailers quite a bit of money. Those gangs are responsible for the biggest volume in dollars lost because they steal much more and so on. Anyway, you see just kind of from the survey...
SHTEIR...yeah, why, yeah.
REHMIt really, really has history with legs and here's some -- a message already posted on Facebook, "Do I understand that this is being treated as a psychological problem in this economy? Families and individuals are under tremendous pressure."
SHTEIRYes. The writer makes a good point, gets kind of to the heart of one of the debates. Is this a psychological issue or is it driven by economics? I guess today, if you're going to talk about today, I would say both. It's driven by both. Shoplifting has risen in the recession, there's no doubt about that, however, having said that, the things that people tend to shoplift are not loaves of bread a la Jean Valjean.
SHTEIRThe things people shoplift are either, generally speaking, because, of course, people shoplift everything, so everything we buy people shoplift, but some of the most commonly shoplifted items are items that you would find in your local Rite Aid or CVS, like Rogaine, Oil of Olay, Red Bull energy drinks. Even when we go to the grocery store and we talk about what are the most commonly shoplifted items at the grocery store? We're really talking about steak, we're not talking about ground chuck.
SHTEIRSo I maintain yes, I think there is a psychological dimension and there is an economic dimension. I think part of the thing about the book that was interesting to me is why do we always have to separate the psychological from the economic when talking about this issue?
REHMYou know, I wondered too about the celebrity aspect of shoplifting and how that has focused on what could be the psychological aspect, since we assume celebrities have the money to buy whatever they want to buy. If so, why are they shoplifting?
SHTEIRYeah, I mean, I think there are many different reasons why a celebrity might shoplift. I am not a medical doctor, of course, I am a writer, so I am speculating here based on my research, but what I would say is celebrities shoplift for many of the reasons that other people shoplift because they feel somehow prohibited from something. I would say that generally speaking, shoplifting, it's not a one-on-one relationship.
SHTEIRWhat I mean by that is someone shoplifts because they feel somehow that something has been denied or they feel somehow like they have been wronged. It might have nothing to do with anything in the store at all. Do you understand what I'm saying? I'm not justifying that, I'm simply saying from talking to a lot of people, this is the -- you know, one of the things that I have come to understand about it.
REHMNow, listen to this message posted on Facebook by Linda. She says, "I work at a shoe store while attending school full-time. It's one thing to see someone swipe a pair of work shoes, but quite another when they walk out with high fashion heels. I find it disgusting that someone will walk out with $500 worth of goods while those of us working are making $10 an hour."
SHTEIRYeah, I mean, I think this speaks to exactly what I was describing a minute ago whereby people are drawn to those high-end, luxury items. The work boots, they don't -- you know, who cares about the work boots. They want the designer branded heels.
REHMAnd they're not taking into account who might be suffering.
REHMWho is suffering, all of us?
SHTEIRWell, yes. There's a statistic about that that I quote in the book, which is that shoplifting costs American families at least $400 a year. It's like a crime tax. That's a pretty widely accepted statistic. I can tell you, however, from talking with a lot of shoplifters, because shoplifting is done from a store, I think often, that statistic does not make a big impact. It's abstract.
REHMIt's a store, it's not you.
REHMIt's not me.
REHMIt's something that they want or something they feel they must have.
REHMAnd they're not thinking about the consequences to any one other person, but since it's been with us for such a long time, you wonder about how it has figured its way into novels and you mention Jean Valjean and "Les Miserables" and you wonder to what extent it was earlier something that people did because they needed it badly, but now it's become really quite a tradition...
REHM...in this country.
SHTEIRYes. I mean, though even when you go back to some of these novels from the 18th century, like "Moll Flanders," reading "Moll Flanders," she shoplifts and she shoplifted at a time in England when shoplifting was a hanging crime. You could get hanged for anything more than five shillings or you might be transported to Botany Bay, was another possibility.
SHTEIRBut in "Moll Flanders," and in many of these early fictional treatments of shoplifters, shoplifters are not really -- there's a kind of ambiguous treatment of them. They're kind of rogues, you know, in a kind of attractive way. They're really not demonized as criminals. I mean...
REHMExcept that you talk about one individual who was caught shoplifting three times, went to jail for the third time and what did that mean?
SHTEIRYou mean today?
SHTEIRToday you mean under the three strikes...
SHTEIR...in California. Yes. Well, that's right, absolutely. I mean, that's something that is going on, where in states that have three strikes, if one of the strikes can be a minor theft offense and you can get or you could get put away for 25.
SHTEIRIf one of the strikes was shoplifting, yes, yes.
REHMAnd the book we're talking about is titled "The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting" by Rachel Shteir. Short break, we'll be right back.
REHMWelcome back. If you've just joined us, we're talking about something I don't think we've ever talked about on this show before, shoplifting. We're talking with Rachel Shteir. She's written a new book called "The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting." She's the author of the award-winning "Striptease: The Untold Story of the Girlie Show" and "Gypsy: The Art of the Tease." You can join us, 800-433-8850, send your email to email@example.com and join us on Facebook and send us your tweets.
REHMHere's an email from Margaret in Ann Arbor who says, "Merchandise is arranged to be enticing whether people have money or not. Most extreme are retailers who, though unmerciful to shoplifters, advertising using a theft motif, e.g. the big steal or criminally good deals and in the past, steal it." What do you think of that?
SHTEIRI mean, she's absolutely right to say that. First of all, yes, of course, retailers want you in their store to buy things. Of course, they do not want you to steal things, but they are -- there is a science to enticing you. And they also, of course, use the word a steal to advertise.
REHMHow much impact does shoplifting have on sales margins?
SHTEIRThat varies from year to year. I mean, I can talk about it really in terms of the losses to stores in billions of dollars. So in 2010, the most recent statistic is that stores in America lost $12 billion.
REHMTwelve billion through shoplifting.
REHMBut you also write that oddly enough, bad economic times don't seem to put a spike on shoplifting.
SHTEIRThey sometimes do, but not enough is known about the relationship between the overall economy...
REHMOh, I see.
SHTEIR...and why people are shoplifting. That's what I would say about that.
REHMHaving written this book, do you think that there is any merit to the notion that shoplifting is a psychological disorder?
REHMFor how many of those or what percentage of those who shoplift?
SHTEIRThe numbers that I have read about that say that up to, I believe, 10 percent of all shoplifters are kleptomaniacs. And I believe the statistics for how much kleptomaniacs cost stores that I have read are $500 million a year.
REHMSo kleptomania, which really drives an individual to shoplift despite the risk of being caught, is something that is ongoing and pervasive.
SHTEIRYes. I would say so, yes. It's -- its shape has changed since the 19th century. In the 19th century, the Freudians believed that it arose out of female sexual repression. We no longer believe that today. Mostly now it's considered an impulse control disorder and there's a variety of treatments that have been tested for it.
REHMAnd they probably use drugs along the way to help control...
REHMHow much do retailers have to set aside, money for guards, for people to infiltrate their stores so they can watch -- plainclothes people watching customers?
SHTEIRYes. You're asking me how much do stores spend on...
REHMHave to -- sure.
SHTEIR...security per year.
SHTEIRIt's in the billions, I can tell you that much, yes.
REHMAgain, in the billions.
SHTEIRIt's a growth industry.
REHMSo if the inability to pay, a la these celebrities, is not the fundamental motive for shoplifting, is it simply, I want that and I don't want to pay for it?
SHTEIRI think that's a good deal of it. I think it can be any number -- you know, we could go down -- it can be entitlement. It can be, I don't want to pay for it. It can be an anxiety impulse control disorder. It can be a sense of, I have been wronged and now I am going to do a wrong. You know, there's a number of different things that can make someone shoplift.
REHMAnd what about children? Is it they who begin early and then continue or -- you have on the cover a beautifully dressed woman in a hat and gloves and earrings. Doesn't look like a kid who needs anything to me.
SHTEIRYes. Actually, so I think one of the things that's interesting about shoplifting is that we have an idea that it's primarily done by women and children. That is not the case according to the most recent research. The most recent research actually shows that middle-aged men are the primary shoplifters. Children, of course, do shoplift.
SHTEIRShop -- any parent, you know, probably many parents can tell you stories of that, but many researchers will tell you that children shoplifting does not necessarily mean anything, particularly if they're in the early stages. It can just be a developmental thing of the kid trying to figure out, you know, who am I and what is this? It's not -- it doesn't mean they're going to grow up to be a burglar or jewel thief.
REHMUnless it's habitual.
SHTEIRYes, unless it's habitual.
REHM'Cause have you ever -- did you ever experience the desire to shoplift as a child?
REHMSo did I in the dime store.
SHTEIRThe dime store, exactly. The dime stores are gone now.
REHMThe dime stores are gone, but my conscience and the feeling always that my mother knew exactly everything I was doing, whether she was present or not, prevented me from taking that little whatever it was. What stopped you?
SHTEIRWell, I was -- I did shoplift as a child.
REHMOh, you did.
SHTEIRYes, yes. My mother didn't always prevent me from doing it. Yes. I shoplifted some gum from a dime store.
REHMAnd did your mother know that you shoplifted?
SHTEIRI don't think -- I don't think my -- I think my mother will know now that we're on the radio (laugh).
REHMShe will know now, dear mom. Okay. We've got lots of callers. I want to open the phones here. First to Cincinnati, Ohio, Bernard's on the line. Good morning to you.
BERNARDGood morning. I wanted to ask the question, why is it that shoplifting has a lesser punishment than somebody who walks into the bank and also demanding money? What are the (unintelligible) on that, 'cause I think they are both stealing?
SHTEIRYes. The question is about why does shoplifting have a lesser punishment than robbing a bank? Yeah, the -- I mean, it's an excellent question. The punishment for shoplifting varies from state to state and it has to do with what is the dollar amount you've shoplifted and how many times you've done it previously and whether you're in a gang or not and whether you have shoplifting paraphernalia or not. I'm not really answering your question 'cause I think you're making a good observation. It often is punished very little.
REHMWhat about stealing something from someone's home that you go to visit?
SHTEIRA -- you mean as a...
REHMDo you regard that as a kind of shoplifting?
SHTEIRYou mean as a burglary or let's say you're over at their house for dinner and you...
REHMYou're there to their house for dinner.
SHTEIRYeah, you slip something in your...
REHMYeah, you're a guest.
SHTEIRI don't talk about that at all in the book. I mean, I really limit the book to stores, but that is certainly, it's in the same spectrum, I would say, if you're at...
REHMThe spectrum of behavior.
SHTEIRYes, yes, yes. If you're at someone's house, your friend's house, and you slip their salt shaker in your pocket, for example.
REHMIt sounds as though you're saying that many people who are shoplifters don't see themselves as doing anything wrong.
SHTEIRYes. I would say that's -- I think that's often the case.
REHMThey just regard it as a kind of entitlement.
SHTEIRI think -- entitlement. I think they -- yeah, they -- I would -- I would feel more comfortable saying they feel that somewhere they have been wronged and they are taking to make the adjustment to compensate. I guess I would say it's a kind of compensatory behavior.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Southern, Ill. Good morning, Jay, you're on the air.
JAYHey, I used to shoplift when I was young and got caught when I was 16 and was basically told, if you do it again, you're going to turn 17 in three days and you'll be an adult. And that scared me bad enough to stop me, but my observation is, you keep talking about why do people steal steak instead of hamburger trying to feed a family. Well, a pound of meat goes the same distance no matter what kind of pound it is. And you're going to get in the same amount of trouble if you're stealing steak or beef.
JAYI mean, everywhere you're talking about degrees of it. A punishment -- the punishment's a dollar amount, so you're not going to walk into Walmart and steal $6,000 worth of stuff. And likewise, the Rogaine. If you have a child with you and you're shopping for your baby powder and your shampoo and your soap for the family, well, it's a lot easier to pay for those and they're a lot less suspicious of looking for a Rogaine in your pocket if you do it that way. That could explain why people steal high-end. Do they factor that into their observations or surveys or whatever at all?
SHTEIRI'm not sure I understand the question. You're ask...
JAYIt's more of an observation, I'm sorry.
JAYI'm just saying...
JAY...if you're going to steal, why steal, you know, the cheap hamburger value pound when a pound of steak is the same size, basically. And if it's flat, it's going to be easier to hide in your pants.
REHMYeah, the same danger...
SHTEIRI see, more...
SHTEIRYou're getting -- I mean, I would say the phrase something -- getting something for nothing comes to my mind from this question. Yes, you're stealing something that's a bigger value for the risk. Sure, I agree with that, yeah.
REHMRachel Shteir and her new book is titled "The Steal," and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." To Angela in Broward County, Fla. Good morning, you're on the air.
ANGELAGood morning. How are you guys?
ANGELAWell, this is -- this is not funny, but I'm just laughing to hear all the stories. And if I know that somebody was going to write a book, I would sit down with her a long time ago. I've been in the business -- retail business now on the huge corporations for the last five, seven years and I keep saying that this is created by corporations themselves.
ANGELAIt's an inside job, I can say that. They have the thing of hiring people for part-timers for seasonal and they don't care much to go backgrounds. So when you have people that are really into the type of things, the high-end designers, jewelry, perfumes, high shoes, you know, clothing, whatever, you know, they have the groups -- they have groups that specialize on robbing the stores and disturbing the (word?) in getting everything out of there.
ANGELABut putting someone of them inside of the store, that person is getting paid, not only by the store, but also by the people who are stealing. Every time that someone come and they steal something from the store, that person is looking other way around. (unintelligible)...
REHMAngela, Angela, let me ask you, have you had personal experience with this?
ANGELAOh, yes. We have a lot of personal experience in this, you know. And I keep saying it and every time that I stop someone, you know, who is stealing, the first thing is they don't ask -- the corporate say so, you cannot tell them, give me the thing that you have it in your bag. You know, you have to say, customer service, customer service.
ANGELAYou know, what else can I help you, you know. Maybe you can get a bag that goes well with the pair of shoes that you might like, you know. Maybe that you have inside of your bag or you're wearing already. You know, things like this. But if that person wants to say, oh, that associate's harassing me, harassing me is a big word the corporations doesn't want to hear it.
SHTEIRYeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, I mean, you bring up an excellent point, which I talk about in the second half of the book, which is, what is stores response been to shoplifting? And, you know, you're certainly right to say that stores have this difficulty. They want to provide customer service to their customers, obviously, but on the other hand, they want to prevent people from shoplifting from them. And it's sometimes an uneasy balance.
SHTEIRAnd, you know, I agree with you. I don't know what the solution is. What I do know is that I have seen in my research since the '70s, there has been more and more and more security and I don't think it's really having a pronounced effect, a profound effect, in stopping...
REHMYou know, that's interesting because, of course, more and more stores, whether they're low-end, high-end, put these tags on pieces of clothing or, you know, you try on a pair of shoes and I guess if the sales person turns away, you might walk out with that pair of shoes. But on the other hand, getting out of the store with all these mirrors around, with all these both plainclothes security and clothed security, I mean, you're saying it's not working.
SHTEIRIt's sometimes working. It's only as good as the people who are working it, for one thing. In terms of the cameras, for example, there have been studies shown that sometimes CCTV camera, which is what's in the stores, actually increases crime.
SHTEIRWell, there are two things. One is that it gets more reported 'cause, of course, shoplifting is hugely underreported, so CCTV, just seeing what's going on inside the store, and then sometimes, it's true that CCTV might deter somebody in that particular store, but they'll just go to the next store. I mean, if they're determined to shoplift. So it can have a moving along effect.
REHMRachel Shteir and her new book is titled "The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting." We'll take a short break here. When we come back, more of your calls and comments.
REHMWelcome back. Rachel Shteir is with me. She has a new book out, a cultural history of shoplifting and it's titled basically, "The Steal." If you'd like to join us, 800-433-8850. Here's an email from Antonia, "Is there any correlation between compulsive gamblers and shoplifters?"
SHTEIRDefinitely. Yes, absolutely. Those are both considered to be, by some medical researchers, behavioral addictions. In other words, substance addictions are alcohol and drug addiction, but gambling and shoplifting are considered to be addictions that create or result in behavior.
REHMSo where did you come down? Did you come down on the side of prosecuting shoplifters or treating shoplifters?
SHTEIROh, well, I think that people who are compulsive shoplifters need help. I don't think that they should necessarily be thrown in with the general population in prisons. Sometimes they really -- there were many people I spoke to who really are compelled to shoplift.
REHMBut you're not talking about the gangs of people...
REHM...who move in.
SHTEIRNo, although I will tell you something about the gangs of people. I interviewed a number of the individuals in those gangs and what I can say is that when they talked about shoplifting and what it was like, what it felt like, it was not all that different from the way people who are compulsive shoplifters talked about it. In other words, yes, those gangs are shoplifting for profit, they're making money, they're selling their stuff on eBay.
REHMBut they're feeling the rush.
SHTEIRBut they feel the rush in the store. They said to me things like, it's better than heroin. You know, it's -- the thrill is more exciting than drugs. They talked about their techniques, you know, which people who were (word?)...
SHTEIROh, okay. Such as, you know, I mean, some of them use those booster bags and booster coats, which are bags and coats lined with foil or other materials that disarm the sensor tags from going off. You know, others put shields on the cameras or the mirrors, you know, they -- so they block them. I mean, there's many, many different ways of doing it.
REHMHere's a tweet from a listener who says, "Walmart makes billions in profits every year. I don't shoplift, but I can see how someone can justify the act." Big corporations, no sympathy from the individual watching someone else shoplift?
SHTEIRYes. I mean, I write about that in the book, both in the Abbie Hoffman chapter and then in the chapter on what I call the ethical shoplifters, the people who are doing what the tweeter describes. I think there definitely is a feeling that the little guy is not getting it -- not getting enough, that they're being denied, that they're being prohibited and this is the little guy's way to somehow even the stakes.
SHTEIRBy stealing, you know. I'm not justifying it, I'm just describing, yep.
REHMI understand. So here's Linda in Medina, Ohio. Good morning, Linda.
LINDAHi, Diane, thanks for taking my call.
LINDAI listen to you both hours every single day. I just love it.
LINDAOh, but I was going to tell you (laugh), this is so silly. When I was like 12 or 13, my girlfriends and I -- I was raised in Columbus, Ohio and I went to Catholic schools all my life and my girlfriends -- I would run -- we'd take our bikes and we'd go up to the Five and Dime and I would take a little bit of money, I had a little allowance, and I would go there to get some candy or something.
LINDAAnd then I would see them stealing lip gloss or fingernail polish or something and I would just put my stuff on the counter and run out of the store 'cause I was so afraid of getting caught and I didn't steal anything, but I'd run out of the store so they started making fun of me and they started calling me goody two shoes (laugh).
LINDABut I couldn't -- I just couldn't risk it. My mother would know, the nuns would know...
LINDA...the priest (unintelligible).
REHMOf course they would know.
LINDAI'd have to go to confession.
LINDAI would never do that. I saved all my big sins for confession later in life, but it was really, really funny 'cause they really did make fun of me. They were stealing like little nail polish and little lip gloss...
REHMYeah. I think that's a great story, Linda, and I'm sure a lot of our listeners feel as you do, that somebody was looking over their shoulder. Let's go to Ann in Silver Spring, Md. Good morning, you're on the air.
ANNHi, thanks for taking my call.
ANNI wanted to say when you mentioned the tags for security, I have bought so many things that when I got home, I discovered they had left the tags on them (unintelligible)...
ANN...work anyway. But what I was calling to say is that I'm 50 years old and I never did the little shoplifting thing when my friends did when I was a kid, but since I have gone from being a home-owning, well-paid professional to the last four years looking for a job and at this point, I'm on food stamps, still looking for a job, I have been shoplifting high-end face cream, samples, though. I don't take the -- I don't actually take the things in the boxes, I only take the samples, but these are things I wouldn't pay $50 for when I had the money because it's -- why would I pay $50 for eye cream?
ANNBut just in, you know, the last year or so, I will be going to actually by a mascara and I'll see these fancy French whatevers and I will slip the sample into my pocket and it is, as you said, this feeling of, you know, I've done everything I was supposed to do. I went to graduate school and, you know, at least my face should look good, even if I haven't been able to buy an item of clothing in two years.
ANNAnd it's weird because I don't condone shoplifting and, you know, I knew people who shoplifted when I was growing up and I was appalled by it, but for some reason, I keep thinking, well, the samples, you know, they get it free anyway...
ANN...what (word?). But at the same time, it's like, you know, come on now. You're walking into a store and risking this and I've been doing it, you know...
REHMBut Ann, you know, I'm not sure, considering, as you've already said, that these things, I presume, are on the counter, they are samples, perhaps they're inviting you to take those samples?
ANNWell, they are, but at the same time, they have to replace -- I mean, you know, they only get -- I've worked in retail...
ANN...when I was growing up and they certainly only get a certain number of samples. I mean, these are full-size things, I'm not talking about the little package samples that they give you.
REHMYeah. Well, maybe that's a little different. I'm just not sure about that. It sort of reminds Marsha, who has emailed us, "What about the people who graze in the produce section of the grocery store?"
REHMYou -- you know, you see people sort of picking up a bunch, not one grape, but a bunch of grapes and eating those before he or she gets out of the store. Isn't that the same thing?
SHTEIRI mean, I have heard stories of stores detaining people for grazing, that is called grazing.
REHMWhere, in New York?
SHTEIRI'm trying to think.
REHM'Cause I've never, ever seen that happen in here in the Washington area.
SHTEIRYou've never seen that. I'm trying to think, where have I read about -- I've definitely read about incidences of it in news clippings and so -- and while I was doing my research. On the other hand, it's a sort of gray area, it strikes me as a gray area, right? I mean, it's...
REHMWell, one can argue if you want to see how good the grapes are, you taste a grape.
REHMYou don't take a bunch of grapes, which is why many stores have now come to wrap those grapes in packages. Let's go to the other side of this discussion and to Chris who's in Quincy, Mass. Good morning to you. Hey, Chris, are you there? Well, Chris must have changed his mind because he works in security...
REHM...at a clothing story concerned with the image of the store so they don't stop shoplifters...
REHM...and take it as a tax write-off.
REHMSo you and I are paying for that.
REHMI wonder how many store there are like that?
SHTEIRI don't know about that, but there are certainly stores that discourage their customer service or sales people from detaining shoplifters.
REHMWell, what are they there for?
SHTEIRWell, they're there to help the customers, right? I mean, I think the earlier caller, who talked about the possible lawsuits that might ensue. If somebody gets hurt, if a shoplifter gets hurt in the store, that can then deflect -- boomerang back to the store.
REHMBoy. Let's go to Syracuse, N.Y. Good morning, Debbie.
DEBBIEYes, hi. Good morning. Great show.
DEBBIEBack years ago when I was in college, I worked as a store detective for a local low-end department store and the standards we had for being allowed to stop a shoplifter were very high.
DEBBIEWe had to actually see the person physically conceal the merchandise. If they just had it in their hand, walked around a corner and then didn't have it, we couldn't stop them.
DEBBIEWe had to physically see them, you know, conceal it and then attempt to leave the store.
DEBBIEAnd so we -- actually, we caught more kids. We caught more teenagers 'cause their body language gave them away (laugh). But the professionals, they knew how to -- you know, there's a look that a shoplifter gets.
DEBBIEThey get a look and that's who we would follow.
SHTEIRWhat was that look?
DEBBIENervousness, looking around, you know, standing in a, you know, a rack of CDs and they kinda look around real suspiciously.
DEBBIEAnd then that's when you know they're getting ready to shove it down their pants or jacket.
SHTEIRTheir pants, mm-hmm, mm-hmm, the shifty eyes, you're saying.
DEBBIEIt's the eyes...
DEBBIE... (unintelligible) body language.
SHTEIRThe body language.
DEBBIEAnd I see that look today when I'm in stores and I say, oh, oh, that person's getting ready to go (unintelligible).
REHMInteresting, interesting. How long did you do that kind of work, Debbie?
DEBBIEI did that for a couple of years. And as a matter of fact, when I left, I -- my last bust was an 80-year-old man who stole a bottle of aspirin.
DEBBIEAnd he started crying when I detained him.
SHTEIROh, my God.
DEBBIEAnd I said I can do this -- I can't do this anymore.
DEBBIEAnd now I'm an artist (laugh).
REHMThanks for sharing with us, Debbie. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Ann Arbor, Mich. Hi, Stephanie.
STEPHANIEHi. I know a lot of grocery stores and other department stores are doing the self-checkouts now. I was just wondering if there was any effect on the maybe increase or decrease theft through the self-checkouts?
SHTEIRThat is an excellent question and I haven't read any statistics on that, but I anecdotally, I hear that there is an increase and one reason that I've heard is that customers get very frustrated at the self-checkout, you know, when something doesn't scan or something like that and then they just put it in their bag and be done with it and I have heard also that some stores are considering discontinuing self-checkout for that reason, yeah.
REHMHuh, interesting. Our local CVS has that kind of self-checkout, as does the local Super Giant. Let's go to Andy in Prince George's County, Md. Good morning, you're on the air. Andy, are you there? Let's try that again.
REHMAre you there, sir? Go right ahead.
ANDYYes. You know, I'm struck -- just sort of a follow up, I'm struck by the issue of the psychology of deterrence. A large Big Box retail store that I occasionally patronize has staff that work the one exit and they had their Sharpie pen in hand and they check every single receipt...
ANDY...against shopping carts leaving the building. Anyway, it just seems so completely theatrical and formulaic and they barely pretend to be paying any real attention and I wondered about that, about that -- the placebo value of security and I have a short follow up after I get a comment from your -- from your guest.
SHTEIRYes. There is a placebo value to security, the thing Diane has spoken of about somebody watching you, just that sense.
REHMMy own mother (laugh).
SHTEIRHer mother, exactly. Who could better watch anybody than their mother? So that is why, actually, there are greeters in stores. One of their function is to deter shoplifters.
REHMBut, you know, Andy spoke about what's in the basket going out, but it's not all in the basket.
SHTEIRIt's not all in the basket, but I -- Andy, I don't know about, you know, the particular stores you're talking about, but I would say that that thing of Big Box stores checking people's receipts, that is in direct response to shoplifting. I mean, that didn't exist, say, I don't know, 10 years ago.
REHMOne last question for you, Rachel, and whether racial profiling has been used an awful lot.
SHTEIRYes, it has been. I talk about it in the book and I think it also speaks to something that the earlier caller was saying about how she used behavior to discover when someone was shoplifting, as opposed to any particular idea of race, gender, age or whatever. Most criminologists agree that the way to tell if someone is shoplifting is through these series of behavioral tells, not through any race, gender, age, anything.
SHTEIRSo those things have -- certainly profiling has been used in the past. The industry is trying to certainly downplay and phase it out.
REHMSo you've had big stores, even, you know, the biggest department stores, being really accused...
SHTEIRYes, absolutely, yes.
REHM...of racial profiling.
SHTEIRYes, shopping while black, everybody knows that phrase and then, yeah.
REHMWell, I hope your book helps people to understand that that's really changed a lot. Rachel Shteir, her new book is "The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting." Her last name, by the way, is spelled S-H-T-E-I-R. Thanks for being here.
SHTEIRThank you for having me, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks for listening, all, I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth, Sarah Ashworth, Lisa Dunn and Nikki Jecks. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Katy June-Friesen answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information.
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