Considering it's one of the most widespread crimes, it's weird how no one talks about shoplifting. The National Association for Shoplifting Prevention reports that there are 27 million shoplifters in the U.S. today. That's 1 in 11 Americans with sticky fingers — ahem, possibly even some people reading this article right now. And, while it makes sense that a shoplifter may not open a dinner party conversation with "So, you'll never guess what I purloined today," there's an equal amount of secrecy on the retail side of the equation.
Although $35 million-worth of merchandise is estimated to disappear from store shelves each day, retailers are notoriously tight-lipped about their specific losses, shoplifting policies, and the types of loss prevention they employ. Which makes sense — after all, to tell people where the security cameras are located would be tantamount to inviting in boosters for a 100% off sale.
So, to get to the bottom of the biggest unspoken crime in fashion, we talked to the former manager of a large, youth-oriented clothing chain. To protect the store's privacy, we can't mention her name or the store she worked for, but trust us, we got an earful on everything else. Read on for the lowdown on who shoplifts, how they do it, how they hide it (or don't), and why a 17-year-old retail employee might find herself chasing a shoplifter down the street over a pair of hot pants.
So, how long did you work at this clothing store?
"I worked there for three years, so for my senior year of high school and first two years of college."
And, you were made a manager in your first year, at 17? It seems like you rose through the ranks pretty quickly.
"Very quickly. All you have to do to get promoted is become friends with the manager. So, yeah, I just became friends. We bonded over Vincent Gallo. I was mature for my age, and I was into the right things. I had a fake ID, so I'd go out with the other managers, and then they promoted me about a month later."
You don't think you were promoted based on, say, your stellar cash-wrap skills?
"It might have been that, too. I was really into the job. I was obsessed with [the brand], I was 17, and I thought I was cool. It was my first job. You start out as a sales associate, and then you become a cashier. It's much easier to be a cashier because you just stand there. But, being an associate is hard because you have to be on your feet and put clothes back. Edging is the worst. They make you do this thing called finger spacing, where each hanger is a finger space away from the next."
Oops — sorry for all the times I rifled through the hangers.
"It's actually torture. But, then you do the fitting rooms, and you help people with their clothes. If they see that you're into the clothes and you wear them all, then they promote you."
So, when you started the job, were you given any training about shoplifters?
"Yes. When I first started there, we had a theft-prevention guy. He was a strange, strange guy, always spreading gossip about all the female employees. He was this massive guy who tried really hard to be tough. He was just a cliché security-looking guy — you could see him working for Britney Spears one day. He was very intimidating and very mean. He had his whole crew of theft-prevention guys. He was their boss. And, he was also the boss of all the back-stock employees."
And, what exactly did he do?
"It was his job to walk around the sales floor and pretend to be a shopper, and while doing that, he would be catching people. But, then, I think the fact that he was so crazy led him to try to get us to all be mad at each other. It got in the way, so they fired him. Then, they left it to us to be the theft prevention."
That's crazy, because the staff is so young and not trained for that!
"Totally. We were like, 'Oh, we're not equipped for this. We're scared.' We didn't get additional training; they just told us that the rule was that you can't accuse anybody of stealing until they step outside of the store. So, as soon as they have one foot out of the store, you can be like, 'Hey, you stole.' But, if they're still in the store and they have stuff in their bag, they're not stealing."
So, you were left on your own after that.
"Yes, and you always had to be aware of it. The store uses [theft-detecting] magnet security tags now, but they didn't when I worked there. So, it became sort of a target — people knew we were easy to steal from."
So, thieves know which stores to hit, and it becomes a thing.
"It was a thing! They especially told us to keep an eye out for tags behind dressing-room mirrors — that was the big trick."
So, shoplifters would cut the tags off clothes and stuff them behind the mirrors?
"All the time. The first time I caught someone, she was this regular, average, mid-30s woman. It was someone you would never suspect because usually people who steal are teenagers. I had been working really hard to sell her a bunch of clothes, and she seemed really into everything I showed her. Then, suddenly she leaves the store without buying, and I was so bummed because I didn't get the sale. But, I remembered every piece that I was trying to sell her, and this one pair of shorts was missing. I was like, 'Oh, that's weird. I wonder where they went.' Then, I looked behind the mirror, and there were tons of tags back there! So, I ran out of the store, down the street after her, and I was like, 'Hey! Why'd you steal? You have to get back here! That's not right!' And, she got scared, so she came back, and the police came. We called them. They had to take a photo. We had a whole wall. We called it the wall of shame."
Did you have to photograph everybody you caught stealing?
"Yeah. Every single store has one of these walls."
What's the purpose of the wall of shame? Is it so employees can make sure shoplifters don't come back in the store?
"Well, none of those people would ever come back. Basically, we would laugh at them. All those pictures are so funny because everyone looks so guilty."
I'm curious about the fact that you ran down the street after this woman. Don't stores train their employees not to do that because you could be attacked and it's a major liability?
"We were told that. But, back then, we'd do it anyway."
Is it because the theft somehow felt personal to you, because you'd spent time with this customer?
"Yeah. That and the clothes, which we loved. We just wanted [upper management] to be happy. They would come and visit the stores and knew us all by name and face. They'd call me on my cell phone at all hours of the night. It was really weird, but it was the most exciting thing that I thought could happen as a teenage girl. So, you really believe in it. It's not just a job."
Were you ever scared for your safety when you confronted somebody?
"There were instances when these bum-looking guys would come in with huge garbage bags. And, they knew we were scared. So, right in front of us, they would just take piles of clothes and put them in garbage bags very, very casually."
What do you think they did with those clothes?
"Probably sold them in Chinatown or something. I don't think they cared about the clothes. I think they were doing it in multiple stores. They probably went to Macy's and did the same thing."
Do you think that most people who stole were stealing clothes for their own personal use?
"Yeah, definitely that was the case with teenagers. A lot of the things that went missing were things that we didn't really care about or weren't expensive. They weren't that damaging to the profits of the store. Mostly, it was really flamboyant things, like leggings or T-shirts, which are pretty cheap for us to make. It wasn't, like, the beautiful knits or jeans or anything."
That's weird that people wouldn't steal the expensive stuff. I mean, it's not like they're paying for it.
"Yeah, but I think the people that were stealing didn't have an eye for the expensive stuff. I think they were young and just wanted the trendy leggings and didn't want to pay $50 for them."
Another thing I'm really interested in is what's on the thief's shopping list. Did the items that were most frequently stolen change from season to season?
"No. It was always the same: packaged T-shirts, leggings, underwear. Small things that you could roll up and put in your bag."
When you did get your training on shoplifters, were you ever told implicitly or explicitly to profile certain people?
"Yeah. They were like, 'Okay, so young, black kids, they're going to steal'."
Did you think that was fair?
"We caught all different types of people stealing. Young, black kids, but also young girls with a suburban vibe, yoga moms. We took the same measures against everyone because I didn't want to profile anyone. You just look behind the mirror for those tags no matter who it is — that really was the best way to catch someone."
Did you ever get a crazy explanation for why someone had an unpaid item in their bag?
"Some people are smart! The law actually says that a salesperson can't open your bag for you if you don't want to. So, people would say, 'I have personal things in my bag, and you can't see them.' Some people would just say, 'You can't look through my bag. Absolutely not.'"
So, in that case, what can you do?
"You say, 'Okay.' And, then, they can leave. Most people don't know that."
Wow. So, there's really nothing you can do?
"Yeah. I mean, my theory on stealing is that if they catch you for something small, like a $20 T-shirt, the reason why they go through the effort of calling the police and going through it all in front of all of these people is so that the person who is stealing tells all of their friends, 'Guys, I was caught.' The word spreads that this is real. There's a self-consciousness where they're scared, and they don't want to try it again."
Did your store have a dollar amount where if someone stole less than X amount of merchandise, you wouldn't pursue legal action?
"I think it was $50. If the merch was less than $50, we would say, 'Okay. Give us back our stuff, and don't do it again.' If it was more, then it would be a problem."
If it was more than $50, you'd call the cops every single time?
And, people would actually get arrested and taken in?
"Yeah. They would get taken away in handcuffs."
Do you know what happened to those people after? I'd imagine they received fairly light, community-service-type sentences if they hadn't made a career of stealing.
"Yeah, I think that's probably what it was. They probably got booked for an hour and [were] then told, 'Okay, go, but don't do it again'."
How did you feel about your role in that? Did you ever feel bad, or did you think of it as protecting the store?
"I completely did. I would be mad at the people who stole. I would be like, 'Why are they doing that?' Don't they see how hard we work? Don't they see that? These clothes are worth the money. These clothes are beautiful. They should be paying for them! [Laughs.]"
You laugh because you don't feel that way anymore?
"Well, no, not anymore. But, I'm not going to go around stealing them."
"Toward the very, very end of my working there they put cameras in. A lot of people started to quit over that, and I think it was just because of the idea that we were being watched. The cameras were not used to watch shoppers. They were used to watch us, because people had started getting fired for internal theft."
Did a shoplifter that you confronted or apprehended ever come back and sue the store? I've heard cases where accused shoplifters sue the store for unlawful detainment or public humiliation.
"No. I don't think anyone ever would. It's so expensive to sue a large company. They just kind of take their rap and leave."
So, now that you don't work there anymore, do you still shop at the store?
"I actually just bought a Groupon. How sad is that?"
Brand loyal to the last.
"Well, it was a great deal. I got two. I bought some jeans."
Do you ever miss working there?
"Not at all! My new job is much more glamorous than retail. [Laughs.]"
Illustrated by Emily Kowzan