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Shoplifting woes go beyond Winona Ryder

Weak economy and holiday frenzy mean more shoplifting. But much of the pilfering is not linked to poverty.

By Kris AxtmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 6, 2002


Walk into I.W. Marks Jewelers and you know you're being watched.

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Several off-duty police officers roam the cavernous store, and more than 20 surveillance cameras leer down at you. The merchandise is under lock and key, and the bustling staff is trained to show one piece at a time. It's costly - but well worth it, says owner I.W. Marks, who's only lost one bracelet in the past decade.

"They can feel the heat when they come in here," he says. "There's easier pickin's if you're looking for jewelry."

Making sure inventory doesn't walk out the door unpaid for is a daunting task for store owners like Mr. Marks. American retailers lose $25 million a day to shoplifting, and the problem has been growing. This season, the combination of an economic downturn and the holiday shopping rush makes stores especially vulnerable.

But the issue is in the news for a much more basic reason: star power.

Today, actress Winona Ryder is set to be sentenced for trying to sneak more than $5,500 of designer merchandise out of a Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills - an incident captured by security cameras and aired repeatedly on cable news shows. Security experts say her case is, in some ways, typical: Shoplifters are often driven less by economic need than emotional impulse.

"Winona Ryder highlights the problem and the Christmas season highlights the problem, but this is an ongoing, every day problem," says Chuck Sennewald, a security consultant and author of "Shoplifters vs. Retailers: The Rights of Both."

A group that defies categorization

Indeed, it's estimated that shoplifters strike at least 1 million times a day - and each time one is caught, 35 to 50 are not.

Stealing is often a reaction to emotional conflict - hence the notion of kleptomania, a theft impulse not grounded in material need. Experts compare the thrill some people get from shoplifting to other risky pursuits - the rush from gambling, drugs, or skydiving, for instance.

And bizarre as Ms. Ryder's case may seem, she's in good company: Movie critic Rex Reed; Muhammad Ali's daughter, Hana Yasmeen; and tennis great Jennifer Capriati, have all been arrested for theft. Even Jane Austen's aunt was tried for filching lace in the spring of 1800.

Though more than half of those arrested are under 25, shoplifters come from all walks of life and every economic bracket. And the majority of them do not enter stores intending to steal. They act on impulse.

A sour economy, however, can deepen the challenge retailers face.

Losses rose over 21 percent from 2000 to 2001, according to the National Retail Federation. "With the economy taking bigger and bigger hits this year, there are more people out of work, more poor people with deeper levels of desperation," says Chris McGoey, a Los Angeles security consultant. "The old pros will still be out there ... but the biggest increase in shoplifting will be these new people."