Shoplifting, a crime for everyone

Have you stolen something in a store lately?

"Swastika Mukherjee, who is making her Bollywood debut opposite Sushant Singh Rajput in Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, has been accused of shoplifting."

These words appeared on IndianExpress.com on 5 November 2014 and went on to underline the extreme severity of Singapore’s shoplifting laws and, as a consequence, how the celebrity ran the risk of up to ten years in prison for what, in essence, was a spot of pilfering.

As anyone who reads gossip magazines knows, there’s no need to go as far as Singapore to find cases like this one. Countless stars and celebrities have been caught, and embarrassed, in similar circumstances. What makes an actress, especially a successful one, steal from a shop as if she were your run-of-the-mill supermarket shoplifter?

It’s certainly not out of desperation or a backlash of the economic crisis. Shoplifting is at least as old as Shakespeare. In 1591, the playwright Robert Greene wrote a pamphlet offering advice on how to conduct the business, which at the time was just beginning to catch on. 

His suggestion to potential felons was to dress like a country gentleman. Over a century later, The Great Grievance of Traders and Shopkeepers, written in 1698, reported how thieving in English shops had increased significantly in the latter half of the 17th century and called for much harsher forms of punishment for the perpetrators.

Shoplifting became a global phenomenon with the development of modern self- service super and hypermarkets. Beyond the extreme popularity of the crime, studies show people often steal regardless of strict need: they tend to walk off with what they desire rather than with actual necessities. According to a 2008 report produced by Columbia University, shoplifters are more likely to have an advanced level of education and high incomes than to be down-and-out financially, even though there are other studies that show how instances of theft do increase sharply in the face of serious economic downturns.

The fact remains that shoplifting has increased significantly in all countries and markets affected by the financial slump that began in the fall of 2008. It is worth noting that many shopkeepers have reported that, since the onset of the crisis, ‘regular’ paying customers have shifted their attention from high-cost products towards cheaper goods. Shoplifters too have moved over to stealing less expensive items, such as cheaper cuts of meat, home cleaning products, cheeses and hair dye.

The 2013/2014 global report by Global Retail Theft Barometer (GRTB) that looked into shoplifting, employee and supplier fraud, and administrative errors emphasizes that, in 2013, shoplifting and theft by employees has increased or remained the same compared to 2012 in most ‘modern’ countries, with the exceptions of Japan and Argentina, where numbers have actually dropped. Last year, the global cost of retail theft amounted to $180.4 billion (€146.5bn), and meant an overall loss amounting to 1.8% of global retail sales, with Latin America posting the highest rate in this category (2.3%).

Worldwide losses sorted across retail outlet types indicate that discount stores (2.6%), drugstores/department stores (2.2%) and office/stationery stores experienced the greatest losses, undoubtedly because they sell small-sized items that are easier to hide and are often placed in selfservice displays. Retail stores specializing in electronics/household appliances/multimedia products (0.5%) and toy shops (0.6%) had the least losses, perhaps owing to stricter controls. The most frequently stolen items include: electric tools, wine, jewellery, shoes, screws and washers, underwear, razor blades, make-up, skin care products and quality food products. The European section of the GRTB research showed that shoplifting is the main cause of inventory discrepancies in most countries and accounts for 38% ($15.5 billion – €12.6bn) of overall losses, while losses due to theft by employees amount to $8.8 billion (€7.1bn). France has the highest rate of shoplifting in Europe, while Russia has the greatest problems in terms of pilfering by dishonest employees. Approximately 65% of European shoplifters are aged between 18 and 45. There are far fewer shoplifters over the age of 60, and they account for about 7% of shoplifting losses in Europe. Austria has the most over-60 shoplifters, while in Finland teenagers under the age of 18 are responsible for 30% of losses. Italian and Dutch shoplifters are the oldest: the largest shoplifting age group in Italy (34%) and in Holland (31%) are those aged between 30 and 45 years.

According to shop owners, in these countries shoplifters are usually male and it’s in the lead-up to Christmas that the largest percentage of stock disappearances are recorded. In Europe the most often pilfered items include fashion accessories, electric tools, mobile phone accessories, leather jackets, shoes, wine, spirits and cosmetics.

Shoplifters in the United States are younger: 42% are in the 18–30 age bracket and only one-quarter in the 30–45 age range.

Compared to Europe, women steal much more often and less than half of American shoplifters are male.

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