Why Pay Retail?


Daily scene in the Louvre, Samuel D. Ehrhart, 1911

by Jenny Diski

The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting,
Rachel Shteir,
Penguin Books, 272 pp.

In 1980, Lady Isobel Barnett was found guilty of stealing a can of tuna and a carton of cream and fined about £75. Barnett was a very public figure. For a decade or more, from the early nineteen-fifties, she had been a regular on the English version of “What’s My Line?” and on BBC Radio’s “Question Time.” Often assumed to be an aristocrat (actually, her title came from her husband, who was the mayor of Leicester), she was a quintessential lady — fine-featured, well dressed, and always with sensible, moderate opinions about the world and its doings. She embodied British deceny, uprightness, and charm.

By the time of the conviction, Barnett was a widow in her sixties, no longer a media star, and evidently depressed. Still, she couldn’t possibly have been short of the money to pay for the tuna and cream. And it was not a spur-of-the-moment crime: she had a cloth bag pinned to the inside of her coat. She tried telling the court that she kept a flashlight there to protect herself against muggers. Columnists in the newspapers suggested a range of explanations for why middle-aged women stole things they didn’t need. Perhaps it was sexual (“I got an orgasm every time I slipped something into my handbag”) or else a cry for help (“No woman of her intelligence steals so clumsily unless she wants to get caught”).

At first, the public enjoyed the scandal of fallen respectability, as the public always does. But, four days after her conviction, Barnett was found dead at her home, electrocuted in her bath. The coroner’s verdict was suicide. Suddenly the public mood swung toward remorse and anger. The shopkeeper who turned her in was sent abusive letters blaming him for the tragedy. The volatility of this reaction—the speed with which Barnett’s shame was transmuted to outrage against a shopkeeper who had been the victim of theft—suggests something special and a little mysterious in our attitude toward shoplifting. Those who invade and steal from private spaces and persons—pickpockets, muggers, and burglars—are popularly regarded with opprobrium. Shoplifters, who operate furtively in a more public venue, attract a scandalized mixture of humor, and embarrassed pity—more like the reaction to a sex scandal than to a serious crime.

When Winona Ryder was convicted of shoplifting from Saks, in 2001, it was an opportunity for general hilarity. With sly amoral humor, Marc Jacobs used Ryder in a series of ads after her conviction, the implication being that his clothes were good enough to tempt the wealthiest, most famous customer. Saks received a lot of publicity about the quality of thieves it attracted, while, way down-market, a mall in Pompano Beach, Florida, showed a still from the Saks surveillance tape with the caption “Winona Knows. Why Pay Retail?” Behind all the jokes was a hint of complicity.

Rachel Shteir, in her cultural history of shoplifting, “The Steal” (Penguin Press; $25.95), makes the point that, in crime as in everything else, who you are has always mattered. Two hundred years ago, the consequences of the act of stealing from shops varied enormously depending on the social status of the perpetrator. In 1800, Jane Austen’s aunt, Leigh Perrot, was accused of stealing a card of white lace from a milliner’s in Bath. She was wealthy and well connected. In her defense, she explained to the court, “Placed in a situation the most eligible that any woman could desire, with supplies so ample that I was left rich after every wish was gratified; blessed in the affections of the most generous man as a husband, what could induce me to commit such a crime?” The jury was convinced of the absurdity of the charge and acquitted her in fifteen minutes. Unnecessary theft was unfathomable; who would run the risk of stealing items that they had more than enough money to pay for?

The poor, on the other hand, having very good reason to steal life’s necessities, were regarded as simply culpable, In England, the Shoplifting Act of 1699 mandated the death penalty for stealing goods worth as little as five shillings. (The sentence was sometimes commuted to deportation, which, given conditions on convict ships, was almost a death sentence.) It wasn’t until after the act was repealed, in 1832, that the phrase “might as well hang for a sheep as a lamb” became a cliché rather than a life choice.

The first attempt to explain why rich people might steal things they didn’t need came in 1816, when a Swiss psychologist, André Matthey, invented the word “klepmania.” He defined the condition as a “secret impulse” so strong that “the penchant to steal subjugates the will.” The new disease allowed apparently irrational and illegal behavior to be acknowledged in public while releasing those diagnosed from responsibility for their actions. When the wealthy stole, they could be deemed mad—actually, a little neurotic—rather than bad. This not only suited the store owners, who didn’t want to alienate rich clientele or their social circle, but also benefitted the classier shoplifters who preferred to see their doctors instead of going to prison. “The rich have kleptomania, while the poor are taken down with larceny,” a New York City store executive said in 1878.

Shoplifting’s crucial historical moment occurred in the mid-nineteenth century, when the owners and designers of the new department stores created them as great machines for the simultaneous circulation of goods, women, and money. The industrial revolution and empires took care of producing the goods; the women moved around the store in an induced trance of consumer desire; and the end product was a torrent of money, recirculated to enhance the efficacy of the machine. In 1902, when H. Gordon Selfridge opened his department store in London, with its open-access display of goods, he was denounced by London magistrates for seeming to encourage shoplifting.

Émile Zola’s novel The Ladies’ Paradise written in 1860, takes as its subject the arrival of the great consumer leviathans, and the subsequent decline of small family-owned shops that had supplied local needs. It is a remarkable novel of the growth of capitalism as both grand spectacle and irresistible instigator of desire. Zola’s repeated descriptions of the extravagant displays of the ever-expanding Ladies’ Paradise are so sumptuous and—with their dearth of periods—breathtaking that they wind up the reader, as the imagined shopper, to a near-pathological excitement. Crazed by the excess, the mass of women who make up the consumers appear as a swirling stream of fragmented parts:

Heads were half cut off from sight by piles of ribbons . . . on all sides the mirrors made the departments recede further into the distance, reflecting the displays together with patches of the public—faces in reverse, bits of shoulders and arms. . . . Great gilded chandeliers hung from the ceiling; an awning of rugs, embroidered silks, and materials worked with gold was hanging down, draping the balustrades with brilliant banners; from one end to the other there were flights of lace, quivering muslin, triumphal wreathes of silk, apotheoses of half-dressed dummies.

The Ladies’ Paradise is modelled on one of the world’s first department stores, the Bon Marché, in Paris, whose proprietors, the Boucicauts, discovered the great capitalistic trick not merely of supplying the needs of their customers but of creating needs and desires that hadn’t existed before. The customer bought more because more was on show, open displays having replaced drawers concealed behind counters. And the deliberately illogical layout of the store required the shopper to crisscross many departments in order to get to the one that sold the items on her list. Department stores provided cafés where people could meet and relax, and lounges with armchairs and desks where ladies could write their letters during their day out without ever leaving. It was an early form of advertising, with the captive consumer actually walking through the dream landscape of the advertisement—a virtual reality that could become more real with every purchase. People were shown how to want what they didn’t need, but this also resulted in their wanting what they couldn’t have, or couldn’t afford or couldn’t justify buying. Such emporiums of seduction ratcheted up temptation for payer and non-payer alike. The invention of the department store was the invention of a new relationship to luxury goods. Contact was unmediated; you could feel it, try it on—in effect, pretend ownership. How tempting to take the pretence one stage further! When the blurring of the boundary between owning and not owning worked, it resulted in commerce on an unprecedented scale; when it didn’t, it resulted in shoplifting.

Floorwalkers were employed to help keep theft under control. They watched shoppers who raised their suspicions, and when great ladies were caught, as the Comtesse de Boves, in “The Ladies’ Paradise,” is caught, they were threatened with humiliation:

The salesgirls searched the Countess, even taking off her dress to inspect her bosom and hips. Apart from the Alençon flounces, twelve metres at a thousand francs a metre, which were hidden in the depths of a sleeve, they found a handkerchief, a fan and a scarf hidden squashed and warm in her bosom, making a total of about fourteen thousand francs’ worth of lace. Ravaged by a furious, irresistible urge, Madame de Boves had been stealing like this for a year.

The Countess is required by the store manager to sign a paper that admits and details her theft. It is to be kept, with all the other signed papers from ladies of standing, in the office desk until such time as she proves that she has donated two thousand francs to the poor. Then the letter will be returned to her. If she refuses the offer, the police will be summoned. Despite bluster and protest, Madame de Boves signs.

In The Ladies’ Paradise the store owner, Mouret, is a committed philanderer and there is a clear parallel between his control of his customers and his control of his many mistresses:

Mouret’s sole passion was the conquest of Woman. He wanted her to be queen in his shop; he had built this temple for her to hold her at his mercy. His tactics were to intoxicate her with amorous attentions, to trade on her desires, and to exploit her excitement.

To a friend, Vallagnosc, he explains that there are three kinds of store thieves: the women who are professional thieves; the female kleptomaniacs (“a new kind of neurosis”); and, finally, pregnant women.

“So that’s why the women here have such an odd look in their eye!” Vallagnosc murmured. “I’ve been watching them, with their greedy, guilty looks, like mad creatures.”

The sense that shoplifting is connected to neurosis—and, especially, female neurosis—is an integral part of the special status it holds among crimes of theft. Though a simple account of kleptomania diminished as a credible diagnosis within a couple of decades of its invention, other psychological justifications took its place. Freud understood compulsive stealing as a manifestation of hysteria, a designation that he and Josef Breuer established in 1895. Although hysteria has gone the way of kleptomania as a medical category, the idea of the distorted or arrested innate drive lives on in pop psychology. These days, a compulsion to take things is increasingly folded into the broader diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive behavior. How it is to be cured depends on the judge and the community budget. When twenty-first-century courts accept a psychological plea, the fastest and cheapest alternatives to imprisonment are cognitive behavior therapy, pharmaceuticals, and twelve-step programs, which are more likely to be favored by financially strained local authorities. Psychoanalytical cures and inpatient rehabilitation retreats are the equivalents for the wealthy.

Kerry Segrave, in “Shoplifting: A Social History”—a study frequently cited by Shteir, and which provides a more coherent and statistically richer overview subject than her own often scattered account—quotes Dr. David Reuben, writing in McCall ’s in 1970, to the effect that most amateur store thieves were married women between the ages of thirty-five and fifty-five. What they had in common, he said, was:

unhappy marriages, obesity, depression. Their sexual relationships with their husbands range from unsatisfactory to nonexistent. In effect, their lives have been drained of all emotional satisfaction. . . . An afternoon roaming through a department store is a substitute for social relationships with other human beings.

In 1878, the Times quoted the superintendent of a department store saying, “Stealing seems to come natural to a great many women.”

These two views of women as thieves could be combined, with the assistance of time-honed free-floating misogyny, into a persistent faux-organic explanation for what was taken to be a quintessentially female crime. When Ella Castle, a wealthy American, was arrested in London on shoplifting charges, in 1896, she was examined by various physicians, with a view to a plea of kleptomania. She was released on their assessment of her condition. A Dr. Grigg testified:

She is intensely neurotic. The condition of things—a disease of the upper portion of the uterus—is a very common accompaniment of various forms of mania in women, such as melancholia, religious mania, nymphomania, and I have seen it in several cases of kleptomania. It is invariably coupled with much mental disturbance. The condition I discovered is quite sufficient to account for any form of mental vagaries which are as well known to affect a certain class of women (neurotic) with disordered menstruation.

When she got home, doctors at the Philadelphia Polyclinic  agreed with the diagnosis.

The ancient belief that the womb wandered about the body causing mental distraction (thus “hysteria”) has transformed here into a mysterious “upper portion of the womb” disease. The main thing is that the wayward and inherently diseased female reproductive system is at the root of irrational and pathological behavior, which is only to be expected from women. Unstable female innards not only determine dangerous sexuality but also threaten to disrupt properly regulated commerce. Women’s internal organs were responsible for them taking what didn’t belong to them and what they didn’t need. Or so men said, who, we can suppose, liked to feel that they themselves had been taken by a gender that they couldn’t quite be sure of controlling.

In a practical sense, it was indeed much easier for women to get away with shoplifting. They were often deployed by professional gangs, who made use of their wide sleeves, their roomy handbags, and their capacious skirts, into which pockets could be sewn. It was even possible to create a false pregnancy storage device, whereby a hollow belly padding contained stolen goods rather than a fetus—a ruse that brought the womb-causing-theft hypothesis full circle.

Nevertheless, explanations of a specifically female propensity to shoplift fly in the face of statistics, which, for decades, have shown the gender division of shoplifters consistently hovering around the fifty-fifty mark. The majority of apprehended shoplifters in the great age of department stores may have been women, but then around ninety per cent of shoppers were women, and women were watched more closely than by store detectives. Similarly, people from ethnic minorities are nowadays often assumed to be most inclined to steal, so they are watched disproportionately. Shteir notes that, in 2005, “Macy’s paid the state attorney general’s office $600,000 in sanctions after an investigation concluded that whereas the percentage of nonwhite shoppers in Macy’s . . . hovers between 10 and 12 percent, 75 percent of people detained for shoplifting were ‘nonwhite.’ ” You are just as likely to be wrongly apprehended for Shopping While Black, it seems, as you are for Driving or Walking While Black.

And yet the neurotic woman shoplifter remains firmly in the public consciousness. Contemporary professionals often diagnose it as belonging to the category of “female appetite diseases”—such as body dysmorphia, anorexia, bulimia, and “compulsive shopping.” Shteir mentions that the feminist psychoanalyst Susie Orbach “attributed her female patients’ shoplifting to consumerism.” But neither Shteir nor Orbach seems able to explain why women should be so much more likely to supply their emotional deficiencies by stealing than men, and neither takes account of the shaky statistical basis of what they are trying to explain.

Many stores now hang up signs saying, “All thieves will be prosecuted,” rejecting the word “shoplifting” and the special status it confers, in an attempt to get across the idea of the invariably criminal nature of taking something that doesn’t belong to you—just like those ads at the beginning of DVDs which explain that watching a pirated film is just as bad as stealing a handbag. I would guess that many people remain unconvinced. No matter how much we are told that shoplifting makes all our lives worse by requiring invasive and expensive surveillance and adding to the price that the “honest” public has to pay for goods, there is, surely, generally less sympathy for the corporate victim than for the individual.

Or so it seems to me, but, then, I come from the generation for whom, in the early nineteen-seventies, shoplifting became a positive virtue within the disaffected counterculture. Abbie Hoffman’s “Steal This Book” contained handy shoplifting hints and was chained down in bookstores. Jerry Rubin, channelling Proudhon’s dictum “Property is theft,” declared in his book “Do It,” “All money represents theft. . . . Shoplifting gets you high. Don’t buy. Steal. If you act like it’s yours no one will ask you to pay for it.” I found this to be true. Running an alternative school with almost no money in the early seventies, I made trips to a large bookstore in London, and piled up reference books and textbooks until the tower nestled under my raised chin. Then I confidently walked out of the shop. Several times. No one ever stopped me. I had no qualms. It was a corporate-owned shop and the books I stole were for the educationally and socially deprived kids I was working with. Even better than acting like it’s yours is righteously believing that it’s yours, or, at any rate, that you are robbing capitalistic hoods to feed the minds of the poor.

I hasten to add that I haven’t taken anything from a shop without paying for it since then. The anticipated embarrassment of the moment of getting caught out for petty theft keeps me honest. Still, I don’t seem to be alone in differentiating between the vast empires of capitalism and small hand-to-mouth concerns. “In the wake of financial frauds perpetrated at the top, such as the prime mortgage bust, which has been justified in the name of necessary risk taking, it’s easy to imagine a shoplifter thinking his crime is irrelevant, or should be,” Shteir writes, adding that she interviewed many shoplifters who said just that.

The stores themselves refer to financial losses from theft as “shrinkage”; these are the figures for general stock losses which are used when preparing accounts, pricing goods, and making public statements. Stores attribute a much greater proportion of shrinkage to shoplifting than to staff theft, management errors, and stocktaking incompetence. But Kerry Segrave’s book marshalls statistical evidence to the contrary. For a most part, shoplifting accounts for only about one-third of shrinkage. According to Segrave, in the late nineteen-eighties “stock shrinkage stubbornly hung in at around the two percent level, as it had for decades. And most of that amount—roughly 66 percent of it—was lost due to causes other than shoplifting.”

It has been suggested that it might be cheaper for large stores to take the shoplifting hit than to spend millions of dollars setting up anti-theft systems. Actually, stores would rather deter shoplifters than catch them. Most of the money they spend on floorwalkers and more modern surveillance methods, such as CCTV and electronic or wireless tagging, is aimed at preventing the crime from happening in the first place. More worrying to stores than losses from theft (which are not only overestimated but insured against) is the chance of being sued for false arrest, a not uncommon occurrence and extremely expensive.

Just as bad for the store and supermarket owner is the fact that overzealous and effective theft detection and prevention creates an atmosphere that is likely to intimidate innocent customers. After all, innocent customers, overconsumers, impulse buyers—us—are the ones targeted by all the sophisticated sales techniques. The stores give us credit cards, and, with the promise of free returns, console us into the belief that if we overspend we can, take unneeded items back, even though we know we probably won’t. Much worse than losses from shoplifting is the possibility of waking the regular shoppers from the dream state that the stores have worked so hard to put them into. The storekeepers know—better than the psychologists—that shoplifting fascinates us because it enacts something we recognize. The shoplifter is the shopper’s ghostly double, the secret sharer in our consumerist greed. Better to let someone who has been beguiled by desire wander out of the shop with an item that they have accidently or even deliberately failed to pay for than, with a wailing alert at the exit and an unseemly public arrest, jar the rest of the contented paying customers out of their reverie.

Piece crossposted with This and That Continued

Piece originally published at The New Yorker, September 2011