Alex Blaze

Shoplifting is Political, or: Kleptomania for the 99%

Filed By Alex Blaze | November 06, 2011 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics
Tags: 99%, class warfare, money, political statements, shoplifting, stealing

I have a friend who steals. More accurately, he's a friend of a friend, security-cameras.jpgand whenever I see him he always has a story or two of things he's recently stolen.

It's little stuff. Usually food. He can definitely afford to buy food, so it's not about need. And I don't think he gets much of a thrill out of stealing, like those suburban housewives Oprah did several shows on in the early-2000's. Usually he just says that it was too expensive and the employees were distracted and can you believe that they charge €3 for six ounces of quinoa salad and €6/kilogram for shallots?

Even though he could afford these things, the justification is usually about the price. There's an element of street justice there - that people are getting robbed on a daily basis by the rich and the powerful, so why isn't someone like him allowed to tip the scales back ever so slightly? If corporate grocery stores hand over 30% of the money we pay for food to rich people who don't need it, why not cut into their profit margins a little?

I could never steal because I know I'd get caught the first time I'd do it. I've never done an illegal drug and I waited until my 21st birthday to have my first alcoholic drink (former Bilerico editor Serena Freewomyn bought me my first drink because she's awesome). I drive at the speed limit when in the US and I always carry my residency card on me in France. I never got to have sex in a state with a sodomy law before they were declared unconstitutional in 2003 and I've never jumped the metro turnstile, even though I have gotten on a bus without a ticket if it was for one or two stops while feeling all badass for stealing public transport.

The last time I told him to stop stealing. Does he really want to end up in front of a judge and have to explain why a middle-aged man with a small, regular income stole a chocolate bar? I get vicariously nervous when he tells me that he steals, I told him, since there are cameras everywhere nowadays and even if an employee isn't standing next to him that doesn't mean that no one is watching.

Here's his secret, according to him: only steal from places with rich customers. He's probably right. The discount grocery store in our neighborhood has cameras everywhere and a security agent at the door. The security always annoys me since it's always a man who's standing around, doing nothing, while two or three women are running the cash registers with a huge line and he never stops acting like a cock to help the hens by opening up another line. It's inefficient and sexist and insulting to the customers, but that's another post for another day.

There's this organic food store that I was in only once looking for unpasteurized milk for cheese-making and didn't end up buying it since it was €3 a liter. That store has no cameras or mirrors and has a few hidden corners, according to my friend.

That was the store that was involved the first time I heard about him stealing, since he was standing at the cash register waiting for a cashier to show up, when he just stuffed what he wanted to buy into his coat, yelled about how terrible customer service is there, and then stormed out.

Ça me fait chier qu'il n'y a jamais quelqu'un ici, bordel! and then he walked out.

This reminds me of a post from a while back on a conservative blog complaining about a woman at Starbucks who purchased coffee and then gave milk from the fixins table to her baby. The comments savaged the mother, going so far as to not-ironically suggest that Starbucks may be forced to close its doors. (Starbucks somehow manages to turn a profit even with some people taking a little more milk than they're supposed to).

The anger there was palpable, even though what was "stolen" was half a cent's worth of milk, nothing compared to the $86 million of tips Starbucks management was found to have stolen from employees. But you don't see the same people getting mad at both crimes.

Stealing is a politicized topic. I'm not the sort of person who would turn anyone in for stealing a handful of mushrooms while I would get mad if someone's employer forced them to hand over half their tip money. I don't know where that would place me in the liberal/conservative spectrum, but in the new political divide between the 99% and the 1%, that puts me squarely with the lower classes.

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Speaking of stealing milk, as someone who had neighbours who were dairy farmers, the price that is paid for milk from small farmers is a disgrace in of itself. Only a very small percentage of money that a customer pays in a store actually went to the farmer. I could look up data and percentages but I'm rather lazy right now. Personally, I would rather get mad at the merchants who underpay small farmers for their milk, then I would at a mother stealing a cup for a child.

Anyways, I can't claim to be that much more badass then you as I am rather a stickler for the rules myself. Once when I was president of an anti-war club in college, I pissed off a couple of members when I changed the location of a protest from a high vehicular traffic intersection that the group had wanted to do it at, to a downtown plaza in order to better comply with city ordinances. As for drugs, this may not be the sort of thing I want to admit in a public forum but I may have once taken a hit off a joint when it was being passed around. I also almost never drink although, I may have taken a few sips of wine at a family Christmas gathering when I was like, maybe 17. Never intentionally stole anything either, but may have inadvertently stolen (or more precisely failed to pay for) a rubber spatula when buying groceries once.
-Jeremy

Wait. If your friend only steals from "big, bad places that overcharge" in some sort of Robin Hood-esque display of revenge and defiance, wouldn't NOT buying their stock accomplish the exact same thing while not breaking any laws?

If the issue here is that they over-charge, so it's okay to steal their stuff to balance out their villainy, why not just buy the chocolate bar/mushrooms at a store that sells them for a decent price and leave the Robber Baron Grocery Stores with their unmet demand for supply?

Ultimately, stealing that chocolate bar/handful of mushrooms gives the thief the pleasure of having the product without paying, short changes the cartoonish villain, and does nothing to support the people they claim are the "good" guys. Seems like a lot of self-justification for simply not wanting to pay for a candy bar, especially since the theft fails to contribute any money to the "good" mom and pop grocery store with fair prices. He could have done a lot more by simply doing his business at the kind of places he claims to support. The only one who benefited from his "stick it to the Sheriff" action was him. "Steal from the rich and tell the poor to keep rockin' it"?

I don't think this works on a logical plane. That wasn't really the point. I know that posting it on the internet means putting something out there to be picked to pieces, but, well, I wrote about this anyway.

Sure, you're right, but that doesn't mean there isn't something here worth noting. And it's not about the price.

On another note, I finished this post yesterday, and this morning he called and told me about how he went to an overpriced chocolate store with a friend and she laughed at him for just taking chocolates and eating them when the clerks were busy with other people. I told him I wouldn't visit him if they put him in a prison where I have to change metros more than once.

Maybe this is just plain kleptomania.

Related, I remember reading once that a large percentage of shoplifting is done by people who work at the stores they steal from. I'd imagine that the frequency of stealing from one's own place of employ is related to how much loyalty one feels to that place of employ.

So, to make the connection to this post clear, perhaps people who steal from places they don't work at because of their lack of loyalty/investment in business's ability to make profit, generally.

I worked in retail security for four years with a major midwest retailer, (before being unceremoniously dumped due to "scary trans restroom issues", natch). Point being...I know exactly what you're talking about. People can justify anything, but the real reasons they steal are almost never the reasons they say they steal.

That said, I'm not one of those people who moralize about shoplifting. Maybe a long time ago I was, but after a few years of seeing it happen day-in and day-out, I realized I wasn't doing some noble job...I was just doing a job that made life really hard on a lot of people who either weren't that different from me or who already had it hard enough (or both). Which was rammed home when I realized just how little the work I did actually mattered or was appreciated.

True fact: Most retailers do, in fact, lose much more to internal fraud than external fraud. By a vast, vast amount. But loss due to non-fraud kinds of "shrink" greatly outweighs both of them by several magnitudes. Behaviors like poor rotation of products with expiration dates, unsupervised disposal of trash, bad inventory control, and accounting mistakes make theft look like a drop in the bucket, and most stores don't spend a dime to try to control those losses.

Another true fact: Store security is a dying breed. The major retailers that use organized security forces are scaling way back, either in favor of outsourcing their security needs, or simply running with a skeleton crew (and in some place, no security at all). Even the miserable salaries of retail employees (I made $32k my last year, and that was after 14 years of continuous service) far exceed the actual return on value any single security officer can usually provide. And while there is realistic value to providing deterrent, it's an unmeasurable quantity that CEOs don't really like to acknowledge. This is just one of the many places we see jobs shrinking in the retail sector; a place like Wal Mart (not my former employer, but similar) can manage their bottom line better on the production side than at the point of sale...once you start making jeans for pennies on the dollar, it no longer makes sense to pay someone $15 an hour to watch them (at least not all the time).

Lest my statements be construed as a tacit endorsement of shoplifting, it should be noted that many stores (even Wal Mart) maintain some security staff, and there are consequences for getting caught. In the US, almost no one is going to go to jail for petty theft unless they have an extensive criminal record, and even then probably not. In Michigan, felony theft requires you to nab merchandise in excess of $1000, and even then you're probably not going to see jail time, unless you also committed another crime in the process (like assault, which happens a lot...I knew the local EMTs and ER doctors pretty well after a while). You can, however, end up with a stiff civil fine, which stores in most states can just issue as desired...usually ten times the value of what you stole, with a max limit of $100 or $200. That's a pretty stiff penalty for snagging a couple candy bars. Of course, this only applies to my experience as a store detective in the US, and even then, laws do vary by state.

Also, one point of clarification:

Trained security at most decent-sized retail establishments can't open extra lanes to help out the cashiers. Despite being an expert on cash control policies and procedures, I would never have been able to run an actual register...it requires training that we were never given. Nor did they want us to have that training, because having the person who's supposed to be protecting your money also handling your money is a conflict of interest. Also, in many places, there are unions to keep in my mind - where I worked, I was a non-union employee while all cashiers were union members - and sometimes the security guards don't even work for the place they're guarding (often true of uniformed security, who are often outsourced from third party agencies).

Oops, that was supposed *fourteen years* in my first sentence. A bit different than four.

A guy I knew in high school was caught shoplifting at WalMart, but that was over a decade ago. He got community service and a fine, no prison.

I guess that makes sense what with the proliferation of self-scan, since those open the door to all sorts of abuses and shoplifting but the value of firing several people might make up for the lost revenue.

Also good point about the unions. When I see the security guy (it's always a guy, at least from what I've seen) standing around while the line gets really long it does make me wonder why they didn't invest in another cashier instead of security. It would at least get people out the store faster giving them less opportunity to steal and make their repeat business increase (I avoid stores notorious for long lines).

Oh well. It just seems like there's more care about shoplifting than is justified by cost/benefit analysis, and it's probably because of the moral dimension.

Yep, that's pretty much right on the money. They're known for a very long time that having a good security structure (people + equipment, which is really really expensive) is more a matter of appearances than actual value added.

Alex, I'll buy you a drink any time. It's been too long.

As for stealing, if I am going to break the law, it's not going to be for theft. I'd rather get arrested for something much more respectable, such as kicking an anti-abortion protester in the nut sack.

"Seems like a lot of self-justification for simply not wanting to pay for a candy bar, especially since the theft fails to contribute any money to the "good" mom and pop grocery store with fair prices."

yep, i have to agree with luminum. if this guy is pissed off about people being ripped off by grocery stores, why doesn't he spend his money in small businesses with fair prices? i mean, not all small businesses rip off their customers.

Interesting change-of-pace article, Alex. A few random thoughts:

Your "friend of a friend" will eventually be caught.

There's something unsettling about a middle-aged man with an income shoplifting chocolates and other non-essential items, apparently just for the hell of it. A political motivation? I dare say not. Nor do I think you think so. I'd say he has issues, wouldn't you?

I look askance at people who claim they've never shoplifted; even more so at those who claim they've never stolen anything. No way that's true.

I remember as a child shoplifting crap items from local stores with my cousins. Just for the hell of it, of course. My mother found stuff in my possession that I couldn't explain having on my meager allowance. She marched me down to one of the stores to make it right with the manager. Probably was very humiliating for her in that small town; made quite an impression on me.

In my hood in Chicago, the overpriced Mexican grocery has a "Wall of Shame." When they catch someone trying to filch something, they snap a Polaroid of the offender, often holding the leche or frijoles or whatever he or she was trying to get a five finger discount on. Then they slap that photo on the wall right next to the entrance as a warning. Some of them look like they've been up there for years, so all your neighbors get the 411, too. Rough justice.

I'm fairly certain he will be caught. It's a big, crowded, closely surveilled city.

It's at the nexus between the political and the psychological. I've never talked politics with him although I think he votes Socialist (it's one of the big parties here so it's not that out there), and that's about it. He's not that political.

I'm trying to think of something I've stolen so you don't look at me askance.... I mention transport above but that doesn't count since there's no element of conversion. Ah, there was supplies at a job I hated a few years ago....

Never managed to steal anything from Bil Browning, tho. If I could turn back time... j/k!

Just a reminder:
Criminal background checks pull up everything.

You think in this economy a shoplifter gets hired over a clean record?
Have fun in municipal court.

The concept of "political shoplifting" articulated in this article is strongly reminiscent of the Los Angeles Riots.

During those riots, progressive commentators gleefully cheered on poor black and Latino rioters with a lot of fine words along the lines of "sticking it to the man" and "striking back against the robber barons". This was complete and total bullshit -- the reality was that the rioters were gleefully wrecking the livelihoods of Asian small business owners while rich white capitalists laughed all the way to the bank.