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Home > Services > Loss Prevention  > Shoplifting > Why Do People Shoplift?

Why Do People Shoplift?

Why Do People Shoplift?: Motivations, Professional Shoplifting Teams, Amateurs, Opportunists, Impulse Shoplifting, Criminal Lifestyle, Violent. Dangerous

To a Loss Prevention professional with 25 years experience, the question ‘Why do people shoplift?’ is actually humorous.  Suffice to say, the motivations behind shoplifting are as many and varied as the persons who perpetrate the criminal act

Without delving too deeply into psychology, its safe to say that a certain percentage of shoplifters do so for a reason totally unrelated to acquiring the item they are removing, while a portion are full-time professionals who make a good living at it, until they are caught, that is. They can be broken down into two distinct categories:  

Casual / Amateur Shoplifters

Statistics show that most shoplifting is not committed by professionals but instead by otherwise ‘honest’ persons who have done it previously and not been caught.  Many persons actually enter a retail store without any intention of stealing, but once inside consider it and then proceed to commit the act. 

  • Some of these shoplifters are simply ‘opportunists’ and steal because they notice some item attractive to them and quickly decide that concealing it and eventually removing it will be easy.  They perceive little or no risk when contemplating the act.

  • Some shoplifters rationalize their theft by convincing themselves that since the store or business makes a large profit it won’t be hurt by a few minor losses

  • Others may have had a disagreement with a store employee or manager and rationalize that stealing is a way to ‘get even’ with the person. 

  • Many shoplifting incidents occur in the check-out lanes, while customers are waiting to purchase other items.  Ironically, the same marketing philosophy that inspires ‘impulse buying’ also stimulates ‘impulse shoplifting’.

Case in Point:  Many years ago, a woman was detained by a Loss Prevention officer in a retail drug store in Indianapolis, IN for suspicion of shoplifting cosmetics. The Loss Prevention Manager, coincidentally, was in the store at the time performing a check-list, and this became a perfect opportunity to observe his employee respond to the incident. 

The suspect was a woman in her mid-forties, well dressed, wearing a full-length leather coat.  She was also well spoken, once she had been escorted inside the interview room.  Immediately upon entering the room, the woman opened her expensive designer purse and removed several cosmetic items that she had recently concealed there. 

She did not appear to be nervous or panicky as many suspects are at the time of apprehension.  Instead, the woman acted rather indignantly and quickly demanded to know how much the items were worth. The LP officer estimated the total value at about $35.00 and the woman reached into her purse and produced a billfold containing an estimated $700.00 - $800.00.  She found a fifty dollar bill and attempted to hand it to the LP officer.  

Correctly, the officer did not accept the cash from the suspect.  Company policy dictated that anyone apprehended in the act of shoplifting was to be prosecuted.  If the officer accepted the cash, it could very well have been construed later as an acceptance of payment for the items. 

In certain situations, due to the wording of the applicable statutes, accepting payment for the item(s) may negate the criminal act.  If a suspect achieved that position, the store could find itself in jeopardy of committing ‘false arrest’.

The suspect in this case was not offering payment to avoid criminal prosecution.  In fact, she eventually asked if she was going to be arrested, and if so, wanted to know what would happen to her car.  It was determined she was driving a new Cadillac. 

Once the woman was informed that the police were being contacted and the store was pressing charges, she finally made a comment that might have been a clue to her motivation for attempting to steal items she could have paid for twenty times over. 

The woman looked at the LP officer and stated “Maybe now that SOB husband of mine will finally pay some attention to me!”

Professional Shoplifters

A significant percentage of all shoplifting is conducted by professionals, often working in pairs or larger teams.  The professionals target items that have significant resale value on the ‘street’.  Stolen product is frequently resold at ‘flea markets’, or in other informal ways.  Most professionals target specific items, or are instructed about what to go after by an organizer or ‘fence’. 

Retail stores that fail to protect their products adequately are frequent victims of professionals and can become known as ‘easy targets’, which in turn draws more shoplifters.  Professional shoplifters are typically long-time criminals and many are dangerous.  A percentage will have prior convictions and could be desperate to avoid going back to prison. 

Extreme caution should be used before attempting to apprehend one of these "career criminals".

Finally, there are a significant percentage of shoplifters that have adopted the criminal act as part of their everyday lifestyle.  These people are typically homeless, or deeply entrenched in poverty.  They may also be hard-core alcoholics or drug abusers, unemployed and/or recently released from prison or jail. 

Many of these people have been in and out of the criminal justice system repeatedly throughout their lives.  Some are not overly concerned about being caught, arrested or incarcerated so attempts at deterring them are not very successful.  Like the professionals, these people can become violent and dangerous and should be approached with extreme caution.

Deterring The Shoplifter

Interviews conducted with convicted thieves reveal much about how to deter shoplifters from causing losses in your store.  It is imperative to establish an environment in the store and among your employees that is not casual, but alert and aware.

While shoplifting will never be completely eliminated, but it can be deterred and decreased with appropriate effort and professional loss prevention know-how. For information about bringing this know-how to your company, call 317-363-8312, send email to or submit the short form below:

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