Shoplifting​—Who Pays?

IN Japan a store owner caught a young boy stealing and called the police. When the officers arrived, the young boy took off running. The police gave chase. As the boy was crossing a railroad track, he was struck by a train and killed.

Because of the publicity that ensued, some condemned the store owner for calling the police. He closed his business until the furor died down. After he reopened, shoplifters invaded once again. However, memories of his recent ordeal made him fearful of confronting the thieves. His store became known as an easy target. Before long, he had to close his store for good.

Granted, that case was more tragic than most, but it serves to illustrate an important truth. Shoplifting is very costly​—in many ways and to many people. Let us take a closer look at the high price of this crime.

How the Stores Pay

Shoplifting costs the world’s merchants many billions of dollars every year. Some people estimate that the losses in the United States alone exceed $40 billion. How many businesses can afford to lose their share of such a sum? Many stores are overwhelmed. When thieves invade the aisles of a store, the work of a lifetime may be endangered.

“Together with competition, shoplifting is one more thing to worry about. I don’t know how much longer we can stay in business,” says Luke, a store owner in New York City. He cannot afford an electronic security system. Regarding the thieves, he says: “Anybody could be doing it, even my good customers.”

Some believe that Luke’s problem is not serious. “These stores make a lot of money,” they say, “so, what I take makes no difference.” But are retail profits truly so great?

Stores in some places add 30, 40, or 50 percent to the price they pay for an item, but that percentage is not clear profit. The merchant uses the additional revenue to pay operating costs, such as rent, taxes, employee salaries and benefits, building maintenance, equipment repairs, insurance, electricity, water, heating fuel, telephone, and security systems. After expenses, his profit may be 2 or 3 percent. So when someone steals from a store, part of the merchant’s livelihood goes out the door.

What About Petty Theft?

While in a store with his mother, a small boy goes by himself to where the sweets are located. There he opens a package and slides a candy bar into his pocket. Does such small-value shoplifting affect the store?

In its brochure Curtailing Crime​—Inside and Out, the U.S. Small Business Administration says this: “Petty thievery may not seem like a major crime to the casual crook who pockets a ballpoint pen here, a pocket calculator there. But to the small business fighting for survival, it’s murder.” Because profit margins are so small, in order to recoup an annual shoplifting loss of $1,000, a retailer must sell an additional 900 candy bars or 380 cans of soup every day. So the harm to a business is great if many little boys are stealing candy bars. Therein lies the problem.

 Tens of millions of people, young and old, rich and poor, from all races and backgrounds, are stealing from markets and stores. With what result? The U.S. National Crime Prevention Council reports that almost a third of all businesses in the United States are forced to close because of stealing. There is no doubt that businesses in other countries are under the same threat.

The Customer Pays

Prices go up when people steal from stores. Hence, in some areas consumers pay $300 a year in higher prices because of shoplifting. This means that if you earn $60 a day, you work the equivalent of one week each year to pay for what others steal. Can you afford that? To retired people subsisting on a pension or to a single mother struggling to support her family, losing a week’s income in this way can be crushing. The costs do not end there.

An entire neighborhood may suffer when the shop on the corner closes. Shoplifting is reportedly what recently caused a drugstore in a close-knit American community to close its doors. To get their medications, many elderly and infirm residents now have to travel a mile and a half [two and a half km] to another pharmacy. “Try that in a wheelchair,” one official said.

The High Price Parents Pay

Bruce is a man of high moral standards who teaches his children to be honest. One day his daughter was caught stealing. “I was devastated,” he says. “Imagine getting a phone call telling you that your daughter has been caught shoplifting. We spent years raising our daughter to be a good person, and now this. We never thought that she would rebel in this way.”

Bruce was consumed with worries about his daughter and her future. Further, he resigned his position as a volunteer religious teacher. “How could I look at the congregation from the platform? How could I, with a good conscience, instruct them about raising their children? I did not feel right.” His daughter seems to have thought little of how her crime would affect him.

 How the Shoplifters Pay

When store managers caught shoplifters in times past, they often issued a stern warning and let the thief go. Today proprietors frequently have even first-time offenders arrested. The thieves then realize that their crime has serious consequences. A young woman named Natalie found this out for herself.

“The more I stole, the more confident I became,” Natalie said. “I figured even if I got caught, the lawyer and court fees would still cost less than if I had paid for all the killer clothes.” Natalie was wrong.

She was caught stealing a dress, and the police took her away in handcuffs. At the police station, she was fingerprinted and locked in a cell with other criminals. There she spent hours waiting while her parents arranged to bail her out.

Natalie says this to anyone thinking of stealing: “Take my advice, and just buy the stupid dress or jeans.” If you choose to steal, she says, “you’ll regret it for a very long time.”

A criminal record is cause for regret. To their chagrin, convicted shoplifters may find that their offense does not pass into oblivion but shows up to haunt them again and again, like a stain on a dress or a shirt. A shoplifter may have to declare his crime when seeking admittance to a university. He may have difficulties entering a profession, such as medicine, dentistry, or architecture. Companies may think twice about giving him a job. And these problems can arise even though he has paid the penalty imposed by the court and never steals again.

Shoplifting can be costly even if the offender is not convicted. Hector, mentioned earlier in this series, discovered that. “I always got away with it,” he says. “I was never caught stealing.” But he had a bill to pay. He says in reflection: “I think that young people should understand one thing: You reap what you sow. Even if the police never catch you, you will pay.”

Shoplifting is not a victimless crime, and the things that shoplifters steal are not without price. Anyone who actively shoplifts does well to leave that practice completely. But how can a shoplifter find the strength to stop stealing for good? Will this crime ever be eradicated?

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Shoplifting puts businesses out of business

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Everyone pays for shoplifting

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Shoplifting affects your future

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Fingerprints: © Morocco Flowers/Index Stock Imagery