Tis The Season For Shoplifting!

We talked to 11 law-abiding people about their secret stealing habit—what they took, how often, and why they really did it.

By Mary Mann
Illustrations by Danielle Chenette


For most of 2014 I had a Google alert for the word “perfume.” I was interested in the cult of scent, especially the ubiquity of celebrity fragrances. But what I ended up learning most about, via Google’s daily missives full of links to perfume-related news, was shoplifting.

Every day — from Arizona to Saudi Arabia, Paris to Chicago — someone shoplifts perfume. And perfume is just one of many common steals, which include alcohol, clothing, and grooming products — small, not wholly necessary things. The more I read, the more I wanted to read, as if learning about shoplifting was as addictive as some say shoplifting is. As early as 1698, a pamphlet about shoplifting, “The Great Grievance of Traders and Shopkeepers” circulated around Britain, and today 1 in 11 Americans shoplift. “Cheese is the most shoplifted grocery item in the world,” I told a friend. “Except in America, where it’s meat. Weird, right?”

“You know,” she began, paused, and continued cautiously, “I used to shoplift.”

I looked at her, a very normal-looking law-abiding new mom who was eyeing me warily for signs of judgment, then told her something I hadn’t told anyone: “Me, too.”

My mom would never let me shop at Abercrombie because the store art was “soft-core porn,” never mind the prices. As an adult, I cede the point, but in middle school I was a shy band member who’d never so much as made eye contact with a boy. LFO’s “Summer Girls” was on the radio non-stop and I wanted — so badly, so embarrassingly — to be one of those sought-after “girls that wear Abercrombie and Fitch.”

So one day, in the mall with a friend, I went into an Abercrombie fitting room with a tube top and two pairs of pants. I came out with just the pants and a heartbeat louder than the store’s blaring music. The all-day feel of the tube top under my sweater suggested I’d entered a larger, more mystery-filled world — the same way I’d feel after my first kiss years later. But when I took it off that night it was just fabric, reeking of shame-sweat. I never wore it again.

After hearing the shoplifting stories of others — some of whom kindly gave me permission to share what they told me below, with pseudonyms — mine seems standard, even dull. Shoplifting is that common. Retail shoplifting losses are about $33.1 billion annually, and stats suggest any given group will include at least one ’lifter: male and female, rich and poor, all ages and races. According to the National Association for the Prevention of Shoplifting, there is no profile of a typical shoplifter. Still, studies suggest people of color are more likely to be stopped for shoplifting, which might help explain why shoplifters are caught only 1 in 48 times: Many people walk out of stores unquestioned, like I did, because they “look innocent.” Statistically speaking, however, there are no innocents.

If the widespread nature of shoplifting tells us anything, it’s that anybody might contain the kind of neediness I experienced, desperate and irrational. A need for excitement, a need for freedom, a need for purpose. Ideally these needs are met by love or work or adventure, but other times in our reaching we might grasp something much smaller and stupider, as we fumble in the dark — something more like an unworn tube top, the answer to a lyric in a bad ’90s pop song.

“Sometimes you just take things to see if you can take it.”

—Elaine, 30, New York

You know how every town has a shitty mall and a good mall? My friends and I would go to the shitty one. We were in ninth grade, and we could get there by bus. We’d go into the JC Penney dressing room, and I’d just stuff my bag full of stuff. It was definitely an exercise in “Can we do it?” — and, yes, we could. I remember this sparkly plaid skirt; it was so shitty, the bus probably cost more. Sometimes you just take things to see if you can take it. You don’t think of its utility in your life. Afterward, it’s like, I wouldn’t wear this if it was given to me.

I did that occasionally for about a year. I was getting a reputation for being a badass. I smoked; I had a boyfriend. I had a shadow much bigger than myself. Then one summer I was in Montreal with a friend. We went into some random shop, and I put on this jade ring. “I like this,” I said. “It looks good on you,” my friend responded. We left, and I showed her my hand with the ring still on it, but she was not impressed. She was shocked.

I never did it again.

Instead of the scarlet letter, that ring was the jade letter. It just sat in my jewelry box and reminded me to be good. It perfectly represented the banality of what I was doing.

“I enjoyed them more because I’d stolen them.”

—Marvin, 43, United Kingdom

I’m not a hardcore ’lifter but did go through a funny little phase a few years ago. I was in my early 40s, recently divorced, and kind of bored.

The supermarkets had just introduced those self-service checkouts. I was kind of pissed off because the machine kept saying I’d put something in the bagging area when I hadn’t. I think the clerk had been over twice because of this error. The first time he’d properly investigated: looked into my bag and tallied the items in it with the items shown as scanned. It happened again, he had a quick look, then swipe-solved. We exchanged a “bloody computers, eh” raised eyebrow and half smile. I was doing “this is annoying but I know it’s not your fault so I’m not going to make you feel bad about it” non-verbal communication with him.

Then I decided this was a perfect opportunity to start stealing stuff.

It was totally random — one in every four items, I would move over the scanner, but not close enough to actually get scanned, then put it into the bag. The machine would complain, and I’d wait patiently while the clerk swipe-solved. I stole three items: a bag of salad, a chicken curry pasty, and a bottle of ale. Each time, the clerk would get more annoyed with the machine, and my feigned patience would appear to wear a little thinner. Inside, I was filled with excitement — my heart was racing and my breathing was fast, but I kept a lid on it. I walked out feeling like Ocean’s Eleven, with my stolen salad, snack, and bottle of beer. I enjoyed them more because I’d stolen them.

I did it again a few times, in different supermarket chains. I told myself it was in the name of science: the pure spirit of investigation. “Hitting” different checkout systems felt more scientific. I felt I had plausible deniability if I got caught: I’d feign confusion caused by these new-fangled machines. But I was never questioned. Eventually, I stopped doing it. It never had the same excitement… I felt like I wasn’t learning much — that science excuse again.

“I felt good afterward, every time.”

—Lori, 37, California

My family was broke most of the time. So when I was 14, I lifted a pair of sunglasses — black cat-eyes with purple lenses. It was so easy. Then it just kept going.

I lived in New York City during my 20s, and I was working three jobs and paying for school. There were weeks when all I ate were peanut butter sandwiches, so getting something for free, when I didn’t have to figure out whether I could really afford it, was exhilarating. My rationale was that I couldn’t afford the things I wanted, and the big stores I took from wouldn’t miss these few items. I never enjoyed the feeling of being in the store, trying to finagle the clothes or makeup — that wasn’t fun. The thrill was when I was out of the store, and I could look upon my bounty and know it was mine. I felt good afterward, every time.

The only reason I stopped was because I was dating a guy who’s now my husband, and he really didn’t like it. I’m not one to adopt other people’s morals, but I started considering how hard I’d worked to get where I was, and how much my reputation and his would be marred, and how going to jail would just be insane. And I just stopped. I was almost 30.

“I’ve lived an honest life ever since.”

—Sasha, 25, New York

My friend and I stole a Pirates of the Caribbean locket from Claire’s when we were in high school. But then we felt so bad that we came back the next day and left a five-dollar bill on the floor. But then another shopper found it and pocketed it, so the whole thing was a failure. And I’ve lived an honest life ever since.

“Like, who pays for stuff?”

—Miriam, 29, Washington

I never bought anything in high school. At all. I worked at an upscale clothing boutique for a year, and I would steal stuff while working all the time. I was very strategic about it: I would stash things throughout my day, one at a time. Once I got home and realized I’d stolen a thousand dollars’ worth. I remember laying it all out on my bed and feeling so powerful. It was a rush before, during, and after. It’s a way to be like: Fuck the man and all this consumerism and shit. Like, who pays for stuff?

These one pair of jeans I wore every single day for four years until they fell apart. All my lingerie, some clothes—I still wear it all 16 years later, and I’m like, thank God I took this. What’s wrong with me?

Anyway, it all ended pretty suddenly. One of my coworkers warned me that I had to watch out, so I quit working there. Then the next month, I was at the mall with a friend, and we stole a few items from a department store. Shortly after, I dropped a makeup box by accident, and as I bent to get it, the security guards saw the costume jewelry we took. They pulled us into a little room and took all of our stolen merchandise. Except they didn’t realize that I’d also taken this thin white tank top — I’d removed the tags so it just looked like a crumpled-up shirt in my purse. I never wore it.

After that, I pretty much swore off it. But recently, I was with my mom and sister, buying stuff for my sister’s dorm room, and there was this storage cube in our cart. I opened the box to look at it, and there was a bike helmet inside. I asked my mom what it was, and she said, “Shh, leave it.” I was like, “Really? Mom, really?” So maybe it’s in my genes.

“They say you’re as bad as your secrets.”

—Marjorie, 76, New York

It was the ’60s. My friends and I — all in our 20s, early 30s — were talking about shoplifting. I’d started when I was 14, and I found out a couple of them had done it before, too — so we decided to go on a shoplifting spree. We drove out to an upscale suburban mall, went into a store, and separated, saying something like, “In an hour’s time, meet here.” We got as many clothes as we could, put everything into my car, then went to another store and did the same thing. This happened enough times that we began to call ourselves the Purple Gang. Sometimes we’d get $10,000 worth of clothing in three hours. It was a curious and unknown experience — there was fear, but not in a negative way. There was denial, because we thought it was a lark, though we never thought of ourselves as thieves or people stealing. We knew we could get caught, but it didn’t interfere with our obsessive need.

We stopped shoplifting together after a while, but I did it on my own for years. I can’t tell you how strong the desire was: an adrenaline rush and then this orgasmic feeling of getting away with it — coming down in a good way. I knew right from wrong, but it got twisted when it came to this behavior. I took many things as presents, so it was justifiable in some way (to me, anyway). It was an addiction.

My kids know that I used to do it. But they have no idea that I was arrested two years ago. I was 74 years old, and it was Christmastime. I had all my presents but I was passing Bloomingdale’s and went in on an impulse. I saw the sunglasses department, and I know my granddaughter loves Ray Bans, so I grabbed her a pair of Ray Bans. I stuffed that into my purse — my bags were always big enough so the contents could be pushed down. As I was leaving, someone came up to me, and I knew. They took me to a little room and showed me film from a while back of me taking something. I would’ve probably gotten away with it if this was the first time, but the fact that they had this film of me clinched it. I was crying. They called the police.

My husband was surprisingly accepting. I hid it from him for so long — it was my deep, dark secret. They say you’re as bad as your secrets. Now that it’s out, it’s a relief that I don’t do it. Though I still eat anything that’s open at the grocery store. I won’t buy it, but I’ll eat it while I’m shopping. In that small way I haven’t totally licked shoplifting.

“I got so good that I didn’t even think about it.”

—Frank, 32, Massachusetts

I got it from my older sister. When I was a kid, she let me steal a dress with her, then we went and stole shampoo. There were rules to it: Stealing from a person — a wallet or something — that’s pretty dick. Stealing from a store was different.

When I was 15, I went into an army and navy store to pick up a paintball ammunition pouch. There was a tag I didn’t see that set the alarm off, and the owner called the police. They arrested me, took me to a holding cell, took my wallet, and I had to call my mom. Keep in mind this was a $12 item. When the policewoman who arrested me gave me back my wallet, I noticed she’d ripped off my DARE sticker. Like she didn’t deem me worthy of having it on my wallet.

I had to go to court, and I was the only one there with my mom, which was embarrassing, but ultimately good. I’d never heard her talk in such a professional manner. “This is my son. I take full responsibility. I won’t let this happen again.” And the judge responded, “You make a convincing argument. I’ll let him off.”

But I kept shoplifting. God, I stole a lot. I got so good I didn’t even think about it. There was a rush, especially in a close call, but most of the time I’d just do it and forget about it. If you’re quick with the hand and act confident, you’ll get away with it. Bang, boom, that’s just what you do. Basically how every white heterosexual male feels in this country all the time: I already got this. It wasn’t until I started really working and having money that I stopped. I didn’t need to take stuff anymore. It wasn’t cool. Like, you got responsibility now, don’t fuck it up.

“It was free, no one’s the wiser.”

—Mona, 27, Indiana

I had just been asked to junior prom, so my friend Alice and I went shopping. There was this sparkly, cubic zirconia tennis bracelet in the middle of the L.S. Ayres store. I knew my parents wouldn’t buy it for me, but it would look great with my dress. So I opened my purse, and she grabbed it and dropped it in.

It wasn’t the first time for us. Alice would go to Hollister and Abercrombie and put on clothes under what she was wearing, then walk out of the store. The weird part was, her family had money, but still she did it every week. Sometimes I joined, not often. Beforehand I’d get really nervous, but excited, then afterward, I was like, yeah, this was $50, and it was free, no one’s the wiser.

Then we got caught. As we were walking away from L.S. Ayres, two people ran up to us and said, “We need you to come with us.” So we went to this tiny room, and they had everything on video. It was terrifying. I thought I was going to throw up. There’s nothing I want bad enough now to go through that again.

We were banned from L.S. Ayres until we were 18, and they called our parents. I was grounded for a month. Alice didn’t get in trouble. Her parents were in the middle of a divorce. I called my boyfriend afterward and told him what happened. Part of my punishment was that I couldn’t go to prom, and he was so disappointed: “For a tennis bracelet?”

“Why shouldn’t I have this?”

—Julian, 37, United Kingdom

Between the ages of around 7 and 11, I stole ornaments from charity shops, money from my mum, and toys from other children. But the time that stands out the most is probably the first time I stole from a shop, when I took this totally useless toy from the M.A.S.K. franchise: a small, white, egg-shaped robot named T-Bob.

I think one of its main attractions was its size. I remember staring at the toy for a long time, looking at the packaging, mentally unwrapping it. T-Bob was irresistibly attractive, so I grabbed it, clumsily unwrapped it, and shoved it in my sock. I remember walking out, sweaty and nervous, getting closer to the door when a hand came down on my shoulder and a woman’s voice said: “I think you’ve got something that isn’t yours.” Argh! Shame! I was taken upstairs, where a policeman cautioned me and where later my mum, brother, and grandmother met me — shame! They were shocked and I felt terrible.

It’s hard to think about why I shoplifted. I remember feeling an excited sense of entitlement: “Why shouldn’t I have this?” and “Other children have more toys than me,” and anyway look at the shiny plastic packaging and the poor toy suffocating inside — let it go free! When I stole from other children, it was never malicious, I was just indifferent to their hurt and thought the object was irresistible. Whatever that appeal was, it became irrelevant upon ownership. There’s something quite fetishistic in the wanting and getting and the almost hyper-real sensation surrounding the appreciation of the experience, in all its little details.

“I was in the now, and the now was hilarious.”

—Ashley, 30, Vermont

The incident that immediately comes to mind took place in high school. I did it because a) my two girlfriends were also committed and excited to do it, and b) I felt genuinely exhilarated about doing something so totally and obviously bad.

We were in the Borders bookstore in Burlington. It was junior year of high school. We were stoned. We had lied to our parents about what we were up to, and were beyond excited to walk around the city without adults, smoking cigarettes. Upstairs, sitting in those big, comfy chairs, we found some scandalous pictures in a magazine. There was more than one magazine, and the pictures were really sexy. I don’t remember titles or words or prices, just glossy pictures of penises and boobs, and of penises touching vaginas, and fingers inside vaginas. It was awesome. We giggled our faces off for a while, and then someone, I don’t remember who, said, “Let’s take these!”

All I felt was adrenaline. I was in the now, and the now was hilarious. We stuffed the magazines in our winter jackets and hustled down the stairs, giggling, and walked really quickly outside. The buzzer went off and we ran, but no one came after us, which was crazy. We never got caught, but afterward I felt very scared. On the car ride home I did that thing where I picture what my mom would say if she knew. Torturous tactic, but it helped me learn numerous lessons about how to take better care of myself. We giggled at the magazines some more back at Marisa’s, and talked a lot about how what we had done was so “crazy!” and we left them there. If she ever looked at them again I have no idea. But probably. And I definitely thought about wanting a few for myself now and again. I picture her having thrown them out in a random dumpster to avoid her parents finding out.

I’ve definitely shoplifted since. But never with so much giggling. Times I stole later were not funny — like stealing pregnancy tests so I wouldn’t be embarrassed buying them. I don’t do it anymore, though. I can’t. Now I find myself thinking how upset I would be if it was my store. If it’s a big store I don’t so much see it that way, but rather that I’m contributing to a system that is already hugely unfair for so many touched by it, and that feels shitty, too.

“You guys, I got you good.”

—Paul, 28, California

I got a pair of L.L. Bean moccasins when I was a sophomore in high school, and every Christmas since then I’ve taken in the pair I have, saying I’m not satisfied, and exchanged them for a brand-new pair of the exact same moccasins. Every year. Except last year. But now that I’m talking about it I probably will do it this Christmas. I remember one time I sat in the parking lot and put a hole in one slipper with a pen. You don’t have to have a hole in it, but it just makes it easier to get in and get out. To make it less embarrassing.

See, L.L. Bean has this big sign behind the register that says if you’re not happy with an item at any time, you can return it. So all I’m really doing is adhering to the terms of an agreement they made with me. This is their policy. And you know what, at the end of day, I’m not satisfied that these are all worn down after 365 days. I’m aware it’s really stealing, but I don’t have the guts to actually shoplift. So I get that adrenaline rush, but at zero risk. Well, not quite a rush. But satisfaction. In a very small way. I mean, in the sense of being a small man. Like, “You guys, I got you good.”

Anyway, if I want to get a thrill, there are so many other things I can do. Maybe I’ll get physically hurt going skydiving or surfing, but that’s all. I’m not going to get embarrassed or be unable to get a job. When I was younger, I did dumb things. I didn’t need 80 recycle-logo mugs, but still I stole one from the college cafeteria every day. I don’t have a single one of those mugs in my life now. And that’s the thing: At the end of the day, you have a bunch of stuff you don’t need. It’s not about the stuff; it’s about you.

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