The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting

“All money represents theft,” wrote the yippie guru Jerry Rubin. “Shoplifting gets you high. Don’t buy. Steal. If you act like it’s yours, no one will ask you to pay for it.” Like Abbie Hoffman, whose Steal This Book! argued that it was immoral not to steal from the privileged classes in America and who referred to shoplifting as “an act of revolutionary love,” Rubin saw theft as an admirable strike against the status quo—until his own apartment was robbed. “In advocating stealing as a revolutionary act,” he wrote after that, “I guess I didn’t make clear the difference between stealing from General Motors and stealing from me.”

As Rachel Shteir makes clear in The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting, not everyone who steals consumer goods is as high-minded as Rubin and Hoffman. Some people—the so-called boosters—steal for money, intending to resell the items. Others steal because they want something they cannot afford. Many can afford the items they pocket but enjoy them more if they are stolen. Some feel entitled to the objects and feel that they should not have to pay, or crave the sense of achievement derived from having pulled off a successful heist. “How will I satisfy myself?” asks “Jane,” a grandmother and repeat offender, at a shoplifting prevention session. “Cooking for [my husband]? My accomplishment is to shoplift.”

Unfortunately, stories about shoplifters—be they ordinary citizens like Jane, or high-profile personages like Winona Ryder or Claude Allen—are not, on the whole, very interesting. The Steal is more enjoyable when recounting the odd and sometimes absurd ideas that people have held in connection with kleptomania and shoplifting. The Victorian era saw such publications as Henry Allen’s “Prize Essay on Kleptomania, with a View to Determine Whether Kleptomaniacs Should Be Held Disqualified for Employments of Trust and Authority under the Crown,” in which Allen claimed, “The personal appearance of kleptomaniacs is easily recognized…. [Their eyes] are of neutral colour, which frequently changes its predominant tint: green when dejected, red when furious.”

Attempts to stem the rising tide of shoplifting, meanwhile, range from the silly to the sinister. Some retailers have tried subliminal messages:

Department stores across the country piped in sentences like “I am honest. I will not steal. If I do steal I will be caught and sent to jail” through teenybopper lyrics and Muzak. An academic named David Riccio tried to sell his version of a subliminal antishoplifting tool based on sounds. “Which is more impactful—the words ‘a baby is crying’ or ‘a baby crying’?” he asked, adding, à la The Manchurian Candidate, that he aimed to turn a store into “an environment that people are apt to not have an immoral thought in,” by interpolating church bell chimes and choirs.

Other counter-measures involve increasingly sophisticated (and increasingly invasive) surveillance techniques. The latest of these invites ordinary citizens to participate: “After paying a modest subscription fee, couch potatoes anywhere in the European Union can earn up to £1200 a month by catching British shoplifters they see on live CCTV feeds streamed in from stores to their televisions.” There are real concerns here about the right to privacy in the surveillance state, but they have little to do with shoplifting per se. And reading The Steal has an odd effect: the further into the book the reader gets, the less clear it is why its author thought shoplifting was a weighty enough subject to deserve an entire book. (The topic has been neglected by writers, Shteir notes near the beginning of her book—and by the end the reader is likely to add, “and rightly so!”)

Admittedly, shoplifting costs retailers quite a bit of money, and those costs tend to get passed on to consumers. But given the range of problems facing citizens of developed nations in the 21st century, having to pay slightly higher prices for consumer goods seems fairly trivial. And if shoplifting has some sort of broader social, psychological, or metaphorical significance, Shteir fails to make clear what it might be.

As if sensing this, she sometimes resorts to hyperbole to convince us that her subject is worthy of attention after all: “In an era when speaking or writing openly about previously taboo subjects is an entrepreneurial frontier,” she writes, “stealing household trinkets from stores remains too shameful for words. Shoplifting may be the last species of creepy conduct of which that is true.” Really? That shoplifting is more shameful or creepier than, say, indulging in child pornography is highly doubtful. Worse still is the analogy proposed on the book’s final page: “Maybe in the future,” Shteir writes, “stores will make public the details of how they deal with shoplifters just as governments are publishing their secrets. But thus far, no Julian Assange has appeared to reveal the secrets of Bergdorf’s, Loehmann’s, and everything in between.”

A generous reader might conclude that this was intended to be comical, but the analogy comes off as both outlandish and a bit desperate: the comparison of the secrets revealed by WikiLeaks with those guarded by the major retailers serves only to remind the reader of how little is at stake. Like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, Shteir seems to want shoplifting to signify more than it does, to bear more metaphorical weight than it possibly can. Or perhaps she is simply taking a version of Rubin’s advice: if you act like what you are writing about matters, no one will ask you to prove it.