Shoplifting, also termed retail theft, is a crime involving theft of goods or merchandise from a store. It also consists of altering or removing price labels, and in some jurisdictions, causing undercharging at the register to deprive the retailer the full value of the merchandise. Commonly included in penal code categories of theft offenses (usually termed theft or larceny), its listing joins other theft crimes, such as pick pocketing, purse snatching, theft from coin machines, and theft from motor vehicles. Depending on the dollar value of merchandise appropriated, the type of merchandise, and/or the criminal history of the offender, shoplifting offenses can result in disorderly person charges resolved with a payment of a fine, or misdemeanors, or even felonies carrying long terms of imprisonment. Shoplifting can be a felony in one state and a misdemeanor in another, even when the dollar value of the merchandise is the same. For example, Pennsylvania makes shoplifting a felony when merchandise valued exceeds $2,000, but shoplifting is a felony in New Mexico when merchandise value exceeds $250.
Shoplifting is one of the most common U.S. crimes, with more than 1.5 million shoplifting offenses occurring each year. However, most shoplifting goes undetected. Survey research reveals shoplifting is much more extensive, estimating that between 10 percent and 40 percent of all consumers shoplift. Economic losses from shoplifting affect consumers through increased prices to offset retail losses, well into tens of billions of dollars annually.
People shoplift for psychological, sociological, economic, and even biological reasons, including poor self-esteem, depression and anxiety, impulsivity, vengeance, and personality disorders. Other factors include resentment toward merchants, low self-control, drug abuse, antisocial attitudes and behaviors, economic stress, divorce or separation, and thrill seeking. Kleptomania, a psychiatric disorder, afflicts only a fraction (about 10 percent) of all shoplifters. Its essential feature is the recurrent failure to resist impulses to steal objects not needed for personal use or their monetary value. The kleptomaniac often discards or gives away merchandise rather than using or consuming it. For kleptomaniacs, shoplifting is impulsive and irrational. The kleptomaniac experiences an increasing sense of tension immediately before the act and then pleasure, gratification, or relief of tension during and after the theft. Theft is not committed because of anger, resentment, or vengeance, and not in response to a delusion or hallucination. Rarely is kleptomania used as a diagnosis for shoplifting.
Most shoplifters (about 90 percent) lead conventional lives and engage in shoplifting when opportunities present themselves, for thrill seeking, and in situations of economic distress. Such individuals are nonprofessional or amateur shoplifters, unlike the remaining 10 percent of professional shoplifters who create an occupation or career of shoplifting for financial gain and are usually involved in other criminal behaviors. They may take “orders” and then carefully plan the shoplifting events (the place, time, and target) or steal marketable items in large quantities and return or resell the merchandise for profit. Some professionals are sole competitors while others are engaged in organized group shoplifting.
- Dabney, Dean A., Laura Dugan, Volkan Topalli, and Richard C. Hollinger. 2006. “The Impact of Implicit Stereotyping on Offender Profiling: Unexpected Results from an Observational Study of Shoplifting.” Criminal Justice and Behavior 33(5):646-74.
- Klemke, Lloyd W. 1992. The Sociology of Shoplifting: Boosters and Snitches Today. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Krasnovsky, Therese and Robert C. Lane. 1998. “Shoplifting: A Review of the Literature.” Aggression and Violent Behavior 3:219-35.
- Moore, Richard H. 1984. “Shoplifting in Middle America: Patterns and Motivational Correlates.” International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 28:53-64.