Authored by: Nick Tilley

Handbook on Crime

Print publication date:  February  2010
Online publication date:  February  2010

Print ISBN: 9781843923725
eBook ISBN: 9781843929680
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The Oxford English Dictionary indicates that the term ‘shoplifting’ goes back to 1680. Some people prefer the term ‘shop theft’ on the grounds that shoplifting might seem to trivialise the offence, which is indeed that of theft, although from shops rather than any other target. What distinguishes shoplifting from burglary is that the perpetrator has legitimate access to the premises from which the stolen goods are taken. What distinguishes it from robbery is that no use or threat of violence is involved. What distinguishes it from staff theft is that the person committing the offence is not employed by the shop. In short, shoplifting refers to the crime of theft, where customers (or those posing as customers) steal from retail outlets to which they have legitimate access.

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The Oxford English Dictionary indicates that the term ‘shoplifting’ goes back to 1680. Some people prefer the term ‘shop theft’ on the grounds that shoplifting might seem to trivialise the offence, which is indeed that of theft, although from shops rather than any other target. What distinguishes shoplifting from burglary is that the perpetrator has legitimate access to the premises from which the stolen goods are taken. What distinguishes it from robbery is that no use or threat of violence is involved. What distinguishes it from staff theft is that the person committing the offence is not employed by the shop. In short, shoplifting refers to the crime of theft, where customers (or those posing as customers) steal from retail outlets to which they have legitimate access.

In this chapter the terms ‘shoplifting’, ‘shop theft’ and ‘customer theft’ will be used interchangeably, although shoplifting will generally be preferred on account of its brevity, common usage and long history. Issues of the seriousness, or triviality, of the offence will be considered in due course.

Patterns of shoplifting and their measurement

What can be said with some confidence is that shoplifting is a high-volume offence. It is tricky to determine exactly how much of it there is. Different methods of measurement yield widely varying estimates. Problems of measurement mean that estimates of trends and distributions by victim, target and offender are subject to substantial uncertainty.

An obvious starting point is recorded crime trends. Theft from shops has been returned as a separate offence in England and Wales since 1934, although there are earlier reports of shoplifting as a common offence in London from the eighteenth century and also in Paris, Boston and New York from the nineteenth century (Segrave 2001). Figure 3.1 shows the trends in recorded shop theft since 1934 in England and Wales. It shows that numbers of incidents grew rapidly from the 1950s to the mid-1980s. There was a substantial dip between 1985 and 1989, which was largely an artefact of the informal means then used to deal with shoplifters (Farrington and Burrows 1993), after which numbers of recorded incidents rose rapidly once more, before levelling off from the early 1990s. Since the Second World War the volume of recorded shop theft incidents has grown more quickly than other types of property/acquisitive crime. Figure 3.2 shows the trends in each, indexed to 100 in 1945.

Trends in recorded shop theft England and Wales 1934–2008

Figure 3.1   Trends in recorded shop theft England and Wales 1934–2008

Indexed trends in shop theft and other theft 1945–2008

Figure 3.2   Indexed trends in shop theft and other theft 1945–2008

There are distinct difficulties in using recorded shop thefts as an indicator of the real level of shop theft. Many incidents will not be noticed, and of those noticed many will not be reported to the police. The police may then, of course, not record all incidents reported to them. What is distinctive about shop theft, as compared to other incidents where crime may not be reported or recorded, is the fact that many incidents may not be noticed. The retailer may know that they have suffered ‘shrinkage’, but will generally be unable to distinguish shop thefts from other sources such as theft by shop workers, shortfalls in delivery and wastage.

Commercial victimisation surveys comprise one alternative to recorded crime data for measuring levels of shop theft. These ask a randomly selected sample of businesses about the crimes they have suffered in the previous year. The Commercial Victimisation Survey (CVS) of 2002 found that shops in England and Wales had experienced an average (median) of 25 incidents of shop theft each over the previous 12 months (Shury et al. 2005). Based on the survey findings it was estimated that there were 11,493,000 incidents of shop theft in 2002. To put this in perspective, that figure is close to the BCS estimate for all crime against individuals and households in the same year, which stood at 12,618,000, and more than twice the total for all recordable crime in 2001–2, which stood at 5,525,000 (Nicholas et al. 2007). There were just 306,596 recorded shop thefts in 2001/2, one in 37 of those estimated to have taken place according to the CVS.

Commercial victimisation surveys have their own weaknesses. As already indicated, owners and managers of shops may not know the composition of their shrinkage. They have no way of being sure of the number of shop theft incidents they have suffered. In replying to questions in commercial victimisation surveys they are making estimates which may be systematically skewed in one direction or the other.

One alternative to recorded crime data and survey findings for estimating levels of shop theft is to observe shoppers and count the numbers who engage in shoplifting. This method was adopted by Buckle and Farrington in a painstaking study of a random sample of shoppers in a small British department store in Peterborough. These shoppers were followed and observed by two researchers working together to try to ensure that they did not miss instances of shop theft. Altogether just over 500 shoppers were observed while they were in the store for an average 6.9 minutes. Nine of the 503 shoppers (1.8 per cent) stole at least one item while in the store and none was apprehended. The authors estimate that, given the throughput of customers, over 500 items per week were taken from the store. By comparing the number of recorded crime incidents in the area in which the store was located with the estimate for the store and roughly estimating the proportion of incidents that could be attributed to this one store, Buckle and Farrington concluded that the police record ‘between 1 in 100 and 1 in 1,000 shoplifting incidents’ (Buckle and Farrington 1984: 69). Assuming that these ratios continue to apply, this would mean that the real figures for shop theft in 2001/2 in England and Wales would fall between 30,659,600 and 306,596,000, which comprise respectively 24 and 243 times the total number of crimes covered by the BCS.

Buckle and Farrington’s (1984) intensive study was meticulous in its design and execution. Yet it was, perforce, small-scale. They looked at only one store over a short period (three weeks) in one town and tracked only 500 shoppers. Questions might therefore be asked about its representativeness. However, a later study in Bedford using the same basic methods, although finding differences in the details of the patterns of offending, came to a similar conclusion about the ratio of recorded to actual numbers of shoplifting incidents (Farrington 1999). There appear to be few positive reasons to doubt Buckle and Farrington’s basic findings. All the available evidence indicates that there is an eye-watering volume of shop theft in England and Wales, dwarfing all other crime.

What gets stolen?

Clarke (1999) uses the acronym CRAVED to describe the attributes of goods that tend to be stolen. CRAVED refers to Concealable, Removable, Available, Valuable, Enjoyable and Disposable. Expensive, small, high-demand, consumer goods fit the bill. Clarke quotes an American study (Hayes 1997) of what tends to be taken from various types of shop. Table 3.1 provides some examples.

Table 3.1   Most stolen items by type of store

Types of store

Most stolen items


Cassette tapes, magazines

Department stores

Clothing, shirts, jeans, Hilfiger and Polo items

Discount stores

Clothing, undergarments, CDs

Groceries, supermarkets, convenience stores

Medicines, beauty aids, cigarettes, video cassettes

Drug stores, pharmacies

Medicines, beauty aids, cigarettes, batteries, birth control

Hardware, DIY stores


Source: Clarke (1999), citing Hayes (1997).

In Britain, Walsh (1978) paints a picture of what was stolen in Exeter in 1975. He distinguishes between high risk, medium risk and low risk shops, and what is taken from them, as shown in Table 3.2.

Table 3.2   Types of shop and items shoplifted in Exeter

Level of risk

Shop type

Most stolen items

High (daily shoplifting)

Department stores

Most small items

Food shops

Pre-packaged foodstuffs


Cigars, chocolate bars

Electrical and radio

Cassette tapes


Tools, especially power tools

Motor accessories

Gloves, sunglasses, instruments

Ladies clothing




Medium (intermittent shoplifting)



Wine and spirits

Miniatures of spirits

House furnishers

Display objects


Sundries (not medicines)

Men’s clothing

Ties, trousers

Low (virtually no shoplifting)









Office equipment


Shoe shops



Small items

Source: Walsh (1978: 73).

As part of a project looking at differing means of preventing shoplifting Farrington et al. (1994) explored items stolen from Dixons and Currys stores in 1990. Using a method of ‘repeated, systematic counting of specified items’ they gauge the rate at which products are stolen by shoplifters. The technique involves attaching sticky labels to specified items and removing the labels from those sold at the till. This provides a count of the number sold. The relevant items on the shop floor are also counted at least once a day. The difference between the numbers sold and the change in numbers displayed (and put on display) provides an estimate of the number stolen by shoplifters. Farrington et al. found substantial variation by store and by product type among those for which measurements were made. Ten of the 29 stores included in the study lost at least 10 per cent of the specified items through customer theft. One store lost as much as 35 per cent of items and 36 per cent by value in this way. Across the 15 Dixons stores stolen items accounted for 11 per cent of the audiotapes, 14 per cent of the films and a massive 24 per cent of the headphones that left the stores.

Who shoplifts?

Data on convicted shoplifters are liable to be highly biased. We have seen that rather a small proportion of all offences are noticed and of those noticed only a fraction are reported, dealt with by the police and proceeded with. The subset of incidents that come to official attention will reflect the patterns of suspicion that lead some rather than others to be watched and to some rather than others being processed as criminals when they leave a shop without paying for an item. Notwithstanding the small numbers formally processed in relation to the total number of incidents, shoplifting represents a high proportion of all cases of theft and the handling of stolen goods: almost three in five defendants (58 per cent) proceeded against for theft and handling stolen goods in England and Wales in 2005 were for shoplifting.

Speed and Burrows (2006) examined the Crown Prosecution Service case files relating to 1,563 cases of shoplifting in eight areas in the second half of 2004 and early 2005. Three-quarters of the offenders were male (76 per cent) and a quarter female, in line with Table 3.3 below, although given the sample all were aged 18 or over. The age range went from 18 to 69, with half aged between 18 and 29. Around 90 per cent were white Europeans, and the proportion of White European and non-White European offenders closely matched that of the local communities. Only 10 per cent were employed. Only 2 per cent had an address away from the area in which the offence took place, although a further 8 per cent were of no fixed abode. Each offender had an average of 19 previous convictions. Only 5 per cent had no previous convictions and only 2 per cent neither convictions nor a caution.

Table 3.3   Attributes and shop theft results of major British self-report studies

Researcher and date of study

Sample characteristics

Shoplifting findings

Willcock (1963)

808 M aged 15–21 from England and Wales. Individual interview. 71% response.

6% ever stole from small shop, 3% ever stole from big store. Av. onset 13. Av. offences per offender 4.3 (small shop), 4.0 (big store).

Belson (1967)

1,425 M aged 13–16 from London. Individual interview. 86% response.

70% ever shoplifted. Av. onset 10. Av. offences per offender 9.7. Av. duration 4.2 years.

Mawby (1975)

327 M and 267 F aged 13–15 from one Sheffield school. Group self-completion. 80% response.

56.3% M and 38.6% F shoplifted in past year.

Riley and Shaw (1983)

378 M and 373 F aged 14–15 from England and Wales. Individual interview. 71% response.

2.4% M and 1.3% F stole item worth £1 or more. 12.4% M and 5.9% F stole item worth less than £1.

Anderson et al. (1989)

465 M and 427 F aged 11–15 from four Edinburgh schools. Group self-completion. Response rate not stated.

40% M and 30% F shoplifted in last 9 months.

McQuoid (1990)

149 M and 161 F aged 14–21 from Belfast. Individual interview. 95% response.

21.5 % M and 22.4% F ever shoplifted. Median age of onset 13. Av. offences per offender last year 2.3.

McQuoid (1992–3)

456 M and 427 F aged 14–21 from Belfast. Individual interview. 92% response.

26.8% ever shoplifted. 5.7% M and 3.3% F shoplifted in last year. Av. offences per offender ever 10.2.

Graham and Bowling (1992–3)

738 M and 910 F aged 14–25 from England and Wales. Individual interview. 64% response.

23.9% M and 15.5% F ever shoplifted. 4.5% M and 2.4% F shoplifted in last year.

Flood-Page et al. (1998–9)

4,848 persons aged 12–30 from England and Wales. Computer Interview. 69% response.

2% M and 2% F shoplifted in last year.

Wikström and Butterworth (2006)

2,118 persons aged 14–15 from Peterborough. Self-completion questionnaire. 92% response rate.

11.8% M and 16.1% F shoplifted in last year. Av. offences per offender 3 for boys and 2.6 for girls.

Roe and Ashe (2008)

5,000 persons aged 10–25 from England and Wales. Computer interview. 67% response rate for fresh respondents (799 in all) and 85% (4,554 in all).

2% M and 3% F, and 3% aged 10–17 and 2% aged 18–25 had shoplifted in last year.

Because of the intrinsic weaknesses in data on those caught and processed through the criminal justice system for shoplifting, other sources have been sought. Research findings on the attributes of shoplifters, however, throw up mixed and contradictory results. Buckle and Farrington’s observational studies in Peterborough and Bedford found higher rates for males than females (2.8 per cent as against 1.4 per cent in Peterborough and 2.2 per cent and 0.6 per cent in Bedford), and higher rates for older than younger shoppers in Peterborough (4.9 per cent for those judged to be aged over 55 compared to 1.0 per cent for the rest), but not for Bedford, where the 17–25 year olds were most likely to shoplift (Buckle and Farrington 1984: 67; Farrington 1999: 18). Buckle and Farrington also found that males tended to steal more items than females: 5.3 compared to 1.1 per 10 customer hours in Peterborough with 1.1 compared to 0.4 items in Bedford (Farrington 1999: 18).

A self-report study of 417 shoppers in Northampton by Tonglet found that shop theft tended to be more common among younger people (Tonglet 1998). She found that 14 per cent of under 20 year olds (18 of 130), 8 per cent of 20–29 year olds (7 of 90), but only 1 per cent of those aged 30 or over (2 of 197) admitted to shoplifting in the past year. Her findings did, however, accord with Buckle and Farrington’s in finding a higher rate of shoplifting among males than females (9 per cent compared to 5 per cent over the previous year).

Farrington (2001) helpfully summarised the findings of a number of British self-report studies where questions about shoplifting were asked of young people, as shown in Table 3.3, to which two more recent studies have now been added. The range of responses is bewildering!

Reports from earlier times, which were not based on systematic empirical research, produce different impressions of who had been involved in shop theft. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Segrave (2001) reports recurrent concerns over posh ladies shoplifting in significant numbers from posh shops. Segrave refers, for example, to a newspaper article of 1908 quoting a Leslie Graff, Secretary of the Retail Dry Goods Association of New York City, saying that:

The professional shoplifters don’t bother us much … nor is it the poor people who rob the stores, in most cases. Wives of prominent business men, wives of clergymen, well-to-do supposedly respectable women whose husbands make $5,000 to $15,000 a year are those who prey upon the stores. They don’t need to take the things; they just take them, and when they are detected and brought before proprietors of the store they weep and beg for mercy. They say their husbands will leave them if they find it out, and usually the merchants let it pass. They will not do so in the future. (Segrave 2001: 14, quoting the New York Times, 1908: 3)

While it is clear from systematic research that shoplifters do not reflect the general population or the customers going into shops, equally it would seem that the shoplifters in any shop are partly a function of what is sold and who goes to the shops. The shoplifters in New York presumably reflect the kinds of people going to the stores. Where women are the main shoppers then they are likely to be the main shoplifters too, which explains why women appear to have been the main culprits in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Segrave 2001: 9). Where more men come to shop, more will steal, which goes some way to explaining the patterns that seem more recently to have emerged.

Explanations for shoplifting

Patterns of shop theft

Shoplifting has a very long history, as the origins of the term show. It is not difficult to understand why. Shops bring wanted goods together to market. It is in the interests of consumers to obtain those goods as cheaply as possible. Theft makes them free. Shops provide a concentrated supply of desired goods. Anyone unable to pay for them or whose moral principles are insufficient to dissuade them is liable to steal them if the risks and difficulties of doing so seem sufficiently low. In Brantingham and Brantingham’s terms shops act as ‘crime generators’ and ‘crime attractors’ (Brantingham and Brantingham 1995). They are crime generators in that a proportion of those in shops take the goods they want without paying for them should the opportunity arise. They are crime attractors in that a proportion of those who go to the shops will do so with a view to committing shop theft because of the expected opportunities.

Changes in methods of retailing create changes in patterns of opportunity. Segrave (2001) refers to the growth of department stores with the large numbers of customers milling around, the open display of goods and consequent difficulties for shop assistants to watch what was happening as conditions in the United States in the nineteenth century favouring the growth of wide-scale shop theft. Walsh (1978) describes the mutual adjustments made in the development of retail and the development in shoplifting. He suggests that shop theft was common in medieval fairs, where goods were readily accessible to the thief. Structures then developed as a means of keeping the thief from the goods that might be taken. Eventually the counter emerged as a conventional barrier between the customer and the shopkeeper and his or her wares. This is a style that still operates in jewellers who sell archetypal CRAVED goods.

In the nineteenth century there were efforts to keep members of the ‘lower social orders’, who were believed most likely to steal, out of many shops, which will have affected the population available to steal. Determined shoplifters then had to adopt ruses to obtain access to the goods they wished to steal. Shop theft was a ‘craft’ crime. Walsh (1978) refers to shop theft in jewellers, where the thief would pose as a fussy customer and ask to look at a large number of items which would be put on the counter. At that point they would employ legerdemain, perhaps using an accomplice to provide distraction, to pocket one without being noticed before leaving the shop. ‘T.W.’ in a letter to The Times in 1818 paints a vivid picture:

Some years since a lady came into a silk warehouse in the city with which I was then connected, by making use of the name of a customer as an introduction, and asked to see some silk shawls. Having no suspicion from her appearance and manners that she could be a thief, the young man who served her placed before her a large variety; she gave him much trouble, and finally left without buying. Scarcely had she quitted the warehouse when he missed several shawls of a peculiar pattern, and, being sent after the lady, requested her to return, to which she consented with evidently very suspicious reluctance. One of the principals of the house then charged her with taking these shawls, and, as you may suppose, she affected great surprise and indignation at the imputation. However, the young man being positive to the fact, she was requested to permit herself to be searched in a private room by one of the female servants of the establishment, or otherwise, she was told, she must be placed in the hands of the police. She chose the milder alternative, and after various attempts to conceal the stolen property, by removing it from one side to the other under her clothes during examination, it was found and she no longer denied her guilt. Being asked her name, she gave it without further attempt at evasion, and to our great surprise we found that she was the lady of one of the most eminent and benevolent physicians of the day. (T.W. 1844: 6)

Although F. W. Woolworth operated stores from 1879 in the US selling inexpensive goods on open display (Segrave 2001: 18), it took time for this pattern to become the norm. Walsh (1978) stressed the fundamental changes in retail in Britain following the Second World War, which expanded opportunities for shoplifting and led to rapid increases in it. Shops became larger with fewer staff in relation to the turnover. Self-service became the norm. The counter which once stood between the customer and the goods being purchased has now largely disappeared from almost all types of shop. The specialist butcher, fishmonger and jeweller are, of course, examples of exceptions, but they are relatively uncommon. Large-scale self-service shops, where the customer has direct access to the goods, where he or she is anonymous and where CRAVED goods are on display, provide plentiful temptations and opportunities. In these circumstances it is to be expected that levels of shop theft will rise dramatically. Notwithstanding the weaknesses in the recorded shop theft figures, they do suggest a dramatic rise in shop theft in the postwar years which coincided with changes in the prevailing form of retailing. Moreover, shoplifting no longer depended on craft skills. It became more straightforward to pick items up and leave the shop without paying for some or all of them.


The most obvious explanation for shoplifting is rational choice. Customers in shops try to obtain what they want at least cost and, if no cost is an option, then they will just take them. At the same time suppliers will try to prevent customers from taking goods without payment. Opportunities for shop theft have altered over time, with changes in goods produced, in forms of retail and in those who habitually go shopping. The rates of shoplifting and the attributes of shoplifters have changed accordingly. In posh stores selling luxury goods, which are frequented by posh ladies, for example, posh ladies are the shoplifters. The disincentive to shoplifting, where the opportunity for it arises, is the prospect of a penalty that more than outweighs the potential benefit. Where apparent risks are low and where this is confirmed by very low rates of detection, many people will be tempted to obtain goods by shoplifting rather than by paying for them.

An objection to this account is that although there is an enormous amount of shoplifting many neither pursue opportunities nor take advantage of them as they arise. The rational choice response is a simple one. First, although the chances of being caught from shoplifting on any single occasion are very small, the chance of getting caught at some time, if shoplifting is engaged in routinely over a sustained period, is very high. Even where the costs in terms of formal penalty might be low enough in relation to the utilities from the stolen goods, the costs in terms of reputation are liable to be much higher. Those with relatively little to lose by way of reputation, at least in the eyes of people with whom they most closely identify, will have little disincentive. Those with more to lose have a greater disincentive. Second, estimating costs and benefits separately in relation to each individual point where choices are to be made is complex and difficult. Paralysis would follow if individuals undertook a bespoke calculation of the full range of likely short and long-term positive and negative consequences of all the alternatives that might be open to them before they decided what to do. Much that is done is therefore habitual and this includes paying for goods in shops. For many people being caught shoplifting would be very costly in terms of their reputation. It will therefore be rational for them routinely to pay for goods, even if on any particular occasion the chances of being caught stealing them are very low.

In the nineteenth century, where many female shoplifters appeared to be living in affluent family circumstances, need may have played a part alongside opportunity in stimulating shoplifting. Segrave (2001: 27) points out that though the women involved may have lived well they often lacked disposable discretionary income to spend to satisfy their own wants. Likewise, those who are drug dependent have less to lose by way of reputation, especially if they have previous convictions for shop theft. They also have high short-term wants or needs for income to satisfy their habits. Others are drawn into shop theft at impressionable ages when peer-group pressures, either to obtain lifestyle goods (for example particular types of footwear) or to join in criminal behaviour, are at work. In these cases perceived rewards for shop theft from salient peer group approval are liable to outweigh any distant (apparently unlikely) costs of being caught and brought to book.

McCulloch (1996) summarises the apparent major motivation for 265 shoplifters who were interviewed by the police in Milton Keynes in 1994. Her findings are shown in Table 3.4. This suggests that peer group influences are more important for younger, novice shoplifters, accounting for almost half of those who were under 16 but only one in six of those aged 16 and over. Greed was deemed the main motive in a little under a third, regardless of age. External needs (lack of money and illness) appeared to be more significant for the over 16 year olds, accounting for close to a third of them but less than one in ten of those aged less than 16.

Table 3.4   Motives for shop theft as found among Milton Keynes novices

Under 16 %

16 & over %

Total %

Threat/coercion/peer pressure








No clear motive




Lack of money








Family break-up












Number of individuals




Source: McCulloch (1996: 13).


*  The percentages add to 99 due to rounding

Table 3.5 shows what Speed and Burrows (2006) found to be the main motives for shoplifting as they emerged from an examination of Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) files relating to cases sentenced in 2004. Here the shoplifters will, of course, tend to be more experienced than those included in McCulloch’s study. In Speed and Burrows’ study drugs emerge as the most significant motivating factor for a quarter of the cases, with ‘need’ accounting for just less than 1 in 10. Peer group pressure was the key factor for fewer than one in 25.

Table 3.5   Motives for shoplifting among CPS cases













Don’t know






Number of cases


Source: Speed and Burrows (2006: 27).


*  The percentages add to 99 due to rounding.

Many young people appear to embark on shoplifting as a result of peer group influences but the same pressures are not found among older offenders and in particular among those who become more serious offenders. This impression is reinforced in Schneider’s study of 50 prolific burglars in and around Shrewbury (Schneider 2005). She found that 44 of them also undertook shoplifting. Of these 26 did so on a daily basis and a further eight did so ‘several times a week’. That is, these prolific burglars tended also to be prolific shoplifters. She associates this pattern of offending with drug habits. Shop theft, in particular, yields a reliable income to meet the need for drugs.

Responses to shoplifting

By shops

Early responses of shops, from at least 1878, typically involved the employment of store detectives in an effort to catch offenders (Segrave 2001). There was, however, some reluctance to prosecute for fear of loss of reputation. This continues to be the case. Most shopkeepers have evidently not wanted the adverse publicity that goes with adopting a heavily punitive response. Let us return to the 1844 case described by T.W. which occurred without store detectives but nevertheless illustrates the chronic difficulties faced by shops in dealing with some offenders and also the unfairness of the responses:

… Her husband [remember: the eminent and benevolent physician] being then sent for promptly attended and was much affected by the humiliating situation of his wife. Upon his representation that she must to a certain extent be insane, as she had a handsome income and establishment of her own, which placed her beyond the reach of temptation, we were willing to believe that she was not a responsible agent, and permitted her to drive off in her carriage without further trouble to herself or her worthy, but distressed partner in life … As far as personal feeling and inconvenience are concerned we were right; for, by so doing, we were spared the impudent insinuations of hired advocates as to our character and motives, and the constant fire of newspaper invective, to say nothing of expense and loss of time … But there is another circumstance connected with this case which may have had its influence in favour of non-prosecution, and that is, that in all cases of alleged shoplifting by persons moving in a high sphere of society, no search of the residence takes place, so that the traces of similar depredations which such search might disclose, are not afforded. Not so the poor shoplifter; no sooner is she delivered over to the police, than her person and lodgings are examined, and the result adduced as collateral evidence for or against her. (T.W. 1844: 6)

In determining what to do with shoplifting suspects there have also been fears of litigation for wrongful arrest or of violence against staff from those held against their will. Shopkeepers therefore have often let suspects go. There have been periodic commitments to press for prosecution of all cases, although in practice this has rarely, if ever, been followed through.

There are, indeed, dilemmas for those in shops when faced by shop theft. As much as many might like the idea of enforcement, in practice they also very often sidestep it. One strategy that has sometimes been adopted is that of asking those caught to sign a document admitting the offence as a condition for non-prosecution. This document might then be drawn on in the event of a repeat incident for which the offender is taken to court or as a basis for excluding the individual from the shop. In the latter case, should the individual return, they would be open to prosecution for burglary, which is a much more serious offence attracting higher penalties. Another strategy has been to issue a severe rebuke to offenders in the hope that this will be enough to dissuade them from further offending.

There is much that shopkeepers can do and often have done to try to prevent shoplifting, other than simply trying to detect offenders and hand them over to the criminal justice agencies. The following lists some of the measures routinely taken in many shops, with indications for many of the earliest dates at which records of them were found:

  • admitting only one child at a time;
  • bag checking (1944);
  • closed circuit television (1956);
  • convex mirrors (1957);
  • crackdowns (routine prosecution/heavy penalty) (1930);
  • customer meet and greet practices (1953);
  • designing goods that can be remotely disabled;
  • display of CD/records/cassette tapes cases without the CDs for CRAVED items;
  • display of goods away from entrances and exits;
  • display of single shoes rather than pairs;
  • dye tags on CRAVED clothes;
  • erecting signs to discourage shop theft;
  • exclusion of known shoplifters;
  • hidden peepholes (1967);
  • improved lighting;
  • locked cabinets for CRAVED goods;
  • name and shame (1921; Segrave 2001: 32);
  • one-way mirrors to changing rooms (1967);
  • packaging CRAVED items in ways that make them difficult to conceal (1967);
  • placing CRAVED items (such as tobacco products, razors and instant coffee) behind the counter;
  • providing over-the-counter sales for very high-value items such as watches and jewellery;
  • putting CRAVED items near checkouts;
  • restricting numbers of items taken into changing rooms;
  • routinely asking customers at checkout, ‘Is that all?’;
  • store layout to allow surveillance (1967);
  • tags and alarms for CRAVED goods (1961);
  • tethering CRAVED display items (such as mobile phones);
  • uniformed guards (1925);
  • use of RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification);
  • warning leaflets (1967);
  • warning signs (1930s).

Most of these comprise situational measures of the sort described by Clarke (2008). They are designed to make the offence more difficult (for example, putting high-value goods in locked cabinets), more risky (for example alarming high value goods) or less rewarding (for example, by attaching dye tags). They may also comprise rule reminders at the point of sale (for example, by asking customers, ‘Is that all?’ when they reach the till) or even reductions in provocation (for example, when only one child at a time is admitted to the shop and they are unable to egg one another on).

There is no hard evidence of the outcome effectiveness of many of the measures adopted by shops (Clarke 2002). In some instances, however, it is difficult to believe that they have no effect, for example putting cigarettes out of reach. In others effectiveness is less certain and these have attracted more research attention. CCTV in particular has been subject to some interesting evaluation studies. Gill and Turbin (1999) found that the effects of CCTV and how it worked depended on the circumstances. They conclude, for example, that:

[S]taff attitudes and management with the system [are] far more important than has previously been recognised. A system introduced to a store where staff welcome the CCTV and want to work with it may create the appropriate context for triggering crime-reducing mechanisms. Equally, a store where staff resent the system may trigger different mechanisms, with the potential to increase the losses (by reducing staff vigilance or concern about shop theft). (Gill and Turpin 1999: 194–5)

Paul Ekblom (1986) highlights the shortcomings of the traditional response to shoplifting: the employment of store detectives. He notes the risk of assault against shop staff, the time taken to process suspects within stores (which also takes detectives away from the shop floor where they can try to protect the goods on display), the costs to the public from formally dealing with the offenders and risks of accusation of false arrest. He takes Oxford Street’s HMV store as a case study from which 39 per cent (420 of the 1,074) of arrests for shop theft dealt with by the Marylebone Street Police Station came over a two-month period. HMV employed a large number of store detectives and sold audio cassettes on display in their boxes, which at the time were CRAVED items: ‘light, easily pocketable, attractive to the young for their own use as well as resale, and having a relatively high unit cost’ (Ekblom 1986: 4). Ekblom suggests that use of store detectives is an inefficient method of trying to control shop theft. The four store detectives, he calculates, were likely to catch and process fewer than five of the estimated 200 shop thieves stealing from the shop each day. Through an analysis of the items most at risk (audio and computer cassettes), the locations of the thefts (rock and pop, soul and disco and computer zones of the store) and the modus operandi (slipping the goods into pockets), he suggests a variety of targeted situational measures that will be less costly and more effective in reducing shop theft. These included the design of the goods (for example packaging to prevent pocketing), the layout of the store (for example, realigning stands to improve line of sight), CCTV (targeted at key areas), alarms (triggered at exits of high risk zones where high value CRAVED items would be tagged) and management systems allowing patterns of theft readily to be identified and addressed in informed ways.

Both Gill and Turbin and Ekblom bring out the ways in which the situational measures that may be used by shops to respond to shoplifting require careful thought and sensitive implementation if they are to be effective. They are unable to provide magic bullets whose success can be taken for granted. Farrington et al. (1994) conducted an experiment in the Dixons Group, comparing the relative effectiveness of electronic tagging, uniformed guards and store redesign as means of preventing shoplifting. They concluded that electronic tagging produced sustained falls, store redesign an immediate but fading fall and uniformed guards no effect. Alongside Ekblom (1986), and consistent with Gill and Turbin (1999) and Clarke (2002), they also stress the need for crime analysis to work out crime prevention needs.

In addition to their own individual security measures, retailers have been encouraged to take part in cooperative efforts at reducing their vulnerability. There are many Shop Watch schemes, for example, where retailers work together. These often include ‘Retail Radio Links’ which may or may not also have the local police and CCTV operators as participants. Retail Radio Links involve retailers joining a radio network by means of which they can communicate with one another (and maybe police and CCTV operators) to elicit help where needed in dealing with offenders or to forewarn one another of the presence of suspects to be looked out for (see Wright and Gibson 1995). The effects on levels of shop theft are uncertain.

By the criminal justice system

Formal criminal justice responses to shop theft have varied widely throughout history. When it was deemed a very serious offence capital punishment was an option and some were executed in the eighteenth century, although in practice transportation was more generally the most severe sentence passed. The execution of the impoverished 19 year old, Mary Jones, for shoplifting in 1771 was used as part of the case persistently put by Sir William Meredith to reform the law as it related to capital punishment, though he was unsuccessful at the time. As he put it, ‘This woman was hanged for the comfort and satisfaction of some shopkeepers in Ludgate-street’ (The Times, 26 December 1818: p. 3).

Kleptomania was ‘discovered’ in France as a distinctive condition in 1816, though prior to that ‘mental imbalance’ had evidently been used as a basis for releasing some female shoplifters before that time (Segrave 2001: 20). The ‘diagnosis’ was applied through the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, especially to well-to-do women who stole from shops. It provided a way for them to escape prosecution or the impugnment of their character. It traded on an image of women as weak and incompetent. Menstrual disorders were sometimes invoked as particular causes of shoplifting: ‘ovarian insanity’ was a specific form of kleptomania and these broad concerns lasted till after the Second World War (see Epps 1982: 134–5; Segrave 2001: 25). In the late 1890s, Dr (later Sir) Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a letter to The Times, saying:

Might I implore your powerful intercession on behalf of the unfortunate American lady, Mrs Castle, who was condemned yesterday to three months imprisonment upon a charge of theft? Apart from the evidence of medical experts, it is inconceivable that any woman of her position in her sane senses would steal duplicates and triplicates – four toast racks, if I remember right. Small articles of silver with the hotel mark upon them, so that they could be neither sold nor used, were among the objects she had packed away in her trunk. It can surely not be denied there is at least doubt as to her moral responsibility, and if there is a doubt then the benefit of it should be given to one whose sex and whose position as a visitor amongst us give her a double claim to our consideration. It is to a consulting room not to a cell, that she should be sent. (Conan Doyle 1896: 10)

Attempts to identify some underlying medical and psychological condition that will explain, excuse or provide a basis for treatment of shoplifters have a long history as we saw earlier in the case of kleptomania. They can still be found, at least in popular psychological discourse (for example, Byron 2007).

Presently there is a range of criminal justice responses to customer theft, depending in particular on the amount stolen and the previous criminal career of the offender. Shop theft falls under section 1(1) of the Theft Act 1978, which provides for a maximum penalty of seven years’ imprisonment on indictment and six months’ imprisonment or a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum, or both, summarily, although sentencing guidelines suggest that these maxima will rarely be warranted (Sentencing Advisory Panel 2008). In 2007–8 there were 290,625 reported incidents of shop theft in England and Wales. In relation to these there were 185,840 sanction detections (64 per cent). In 2007, there were 45,146 fixed penalty notices (FPNs) for shoplifting (FPNs of £80 have been available since late 2004 to deal with first-time offenders where the value of goods stolen is less than £200). A total of 67,544 individuals were sent to trial, of whom 62,565 were found guilty. Of those found guilty a third (33 per cent) received community sentences, a quarter were given conditional discharges (24 per cent), about a fifth were sentenced to immediate custody (18 per cent) and one in six were fined (16 per cent). The remainder were spread across a range of other disposals.

The relative effects of different disposals on the overall rates of shop theft or on rates of reoffending among varying subsets of shoplifter are unclear. There are periodic calls for tougher penalties. In July 2008, for example, Anne McIntosh, MP for the Vale of York, attempted to bring in a ten-minute Bill, with the support of the Federation of Small Businesses, ‘to replace FPNs with custodial sentences’ (Hansard, 15 July 2008: col. 125). Likewise a press release from the British Retail Consortium, to coincide with the publication of its annual Retail Crime Survey, states that it ‘believes that a combination of weak penalties and poor enforcement has led to the proliferation of shop crime’ (British Retail Consortium 2006).

For the police shop theft is a time-consuming and frustrating offence, often with repeat offenders. Many have been keen to find more effective responses to offenders. In Milton Keynes in the mid-1990s, for example, a Retail Theft Initiative, which was aimed at first-time offenders, was put in place in an effort to improve responses (McCulloch 1996). The scheme involved interviewing eligible, mostly juvenile offenders about the motive for the offence and then assigning them to appropriate ‘modules’ in the initiative. For most of the offenders this would include an interview with the store manager, who impressed on them the impact that shop theft has on the business, staff and customers. It could also include group guidance on ways of resisting the pressure from peers to steal from shops without losing face. Of the 422 offenders in the experimental period who took part in the scheme 13 per cent reoffended over the two-month to two-year period covered by the evaluation. This compared to 16 per cent for the 50 who dropped out of the scheme, 30 per cent for the 26 given a ‘normal caution’ and 70 per cent for those who were charged, although these comparison groups clearly differ from those who were eligible for the scheme.

Conclusion: does shoplifting matter?

For public policy

Adherents of the strong displacement (or ‘hydraulic’) hypothesis would have it that there is a fixed amount of crime and all that is achieved by blocking opportunities for one crime is that it will be diverted to another. For such folk, shop theft is presumably to be welcomed. If it draws crime from other victims on whom incidents will have a more substantial impact, the more shop theft there is, in particular in large multiple stores, the better. The costs of such shop theft are shared among us all, roughly in proportion to the amount we spend.

The hydraulic theory of crime, though widely held in some circles, has, however, by now been discredited (Hesseling 1994). Research evidence and a small dose of common sense show that it is mistaken. It must be doubted whether anyone really believes that if all routine situational precautions were removed there would be no change in the volume of crime.

Even if the strong hydraulic theory of crime is mistaken, it might still be the case that some shop theft is undertaken by determined offenders who find it a relatively easy offence and would otherwise commit more serious offences. Schneider (2005) argues that one reason for the police to focus on shoplifting by prolific offenders is its association with burglary, an intrinsically more serious offence. Her argument is that shop theft is more readily detected than burglary and that searching the homes of shoplifters who are caught might provide a fruitful way of catching and convicting burglars when stolen goods from burglaries are found. Another view would be that cutting off relatively reliable sources of illegal income among such offenders, who are typically feeding a drug habit, would drive them to more serious offending that would create greater public harms.

For retailers

Proprietors of shops show some ambivalence towards shop theft. If it takes place they tend understandably to be indignant. They call for stronger action by the authorities to deal with it because of its costs to them and ultimately to the honest consumer. Yet collectively they continue to operate retail in ways that facilitate crime and build expected rates of shrinkage, including that from shop theft, into their business models. They have also tended to be reluctant in practice to act as tough as they talk. This is not to say that shopkeepers do not attempt to contain shop theft. They certainly do, as indicated earlier. Their extensive efforts can be seen in the way they run their businesses, and this almost certainly reduces the volume of theft that would otherwise occur. Indeed, if retailers fail to control shoplifting sufficiently well their businesses are put in jeopardy. But the methods of retail to which the public have become accustomed facilitate shoplifting and it is likewise unlikely that many retailers could run their businesses profitably in ways that would eliminate shop theft. And the claims that we all pay for it ring rather hollow.

Shoppers’ rational choices for cheap goods they can see and handle in advance of purchase leads to forms of retail that tend to facilitate shop theft. The small price we all pay for this covers the costs that remain once reasonable retailer efforts, consistent with our shopping preferences, are put in place.

Selected further reading

For an accessible historical account of shoplifting that discusses changing rates, costs, responses and types of people who steal from shops, see Segrave (2001). The focus is mainly on the United States although there are some references to patterns elsewhere also. For a thorough overview of late twentieth-century British research, see Farrington (1999). For recent data on criminal justice responses to shoplifters, see Speed and Burrows (2006). Walsh (1978) may be relatively difficult to get hold of. It is, however, an interesting and very thoughtful account of developments in shoplifting and responses to it. This short and very readable book reports empirical research undertaken at the time it was published. The theoretical discussion anticipates various later developments in situational crime prevention. Clarke (2002) provides a brief but excellent evidence-based guide for those trying to address specific shoplifting problems.


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