As the stores play carols over ther loudspeakers and the clerks are at their busiest, this year's Christmas shopping scene is troubled more than even by a vague, unseen irony.
Vague because no one really knows for sure what shoplifting amounts to, only that it's growing; unseen because only one shoplifter out of perhaps 35 is caught.
Ironic because few people -- whether in the courts, law enforcement, or among shoplifters themselves -- take very seriously what is thought to be the nation's most expensive crime.
But shoplifters, pilfering sock by toothbrush by paperback book, make bank robbery figures look penny ante. The country's storekeepers lost $16 billion to shoplifters last year by the estimate of the Georgia Retail Merchants Association. Meanwhile, bank heists amounted to only $25 million.
Mos shoplifters would blanch at the comparison.
The shoplifter is a thief who usually doesn't commit other crimes and probably doesn't consider himself a criminal. But as prices go up, it becomes more tempting for some adults, and juveniles alike to just walk behind the crowded checkout line without paying.
It gets worse every year. The Federal Bureau of Investigation records a 6.7 percent increase from 1978 to 1979.
The peak shoplifting season is in these few weeks before Christmas. One reason is that shoplifting is easier when the stores are crowded and the staff is busier, as is the case from mid-November through December. Another is that the Christmas season is a time not for buying necessities, but extras --luxuries and gifts outside the regular budget. It seems to be goods that people don't need to buy, or don't want to buy, that they steal.
"Probably 90 percent of shoplifting is done by people who have the money in their pocket to pay for the item," says Jane Highsmith, director fo the Georgia Coalition to Prevent Shoplifting. The US Justice Department has given the coalition funds for a nationwide education program. Even the elderly, she finds , who are squeezed between inflating prices and fixed incomes, don't usually steal out of need, but lift luxuries items they can no longer afford.
Stores are left in a quandary. The crimes are so numerours and each one is so small that to prosecute costs more than it is worth. The courts don't have much time for the petty cases.Yet altogether, the losses -- called "shrinkage" by retail accountants -- are too high to ignore.
Those working to solve the problem are working harder to fend off would-be shoplifters than to try to snare them in the act.
Stores themselves are changing their style. electronic security equipment is growing ever more sophisticated and much more common in the past couple of years. Electronic scanners at store exits that sound off if an item's price tag has not been deactivated by a cashier are becoming big business for the firms that make them.
But the key is visibility. Ten years ago or so, stores were uneasy about having guards on the floor or using visible security equipment, according to Bill Phipps of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts. The scale of the shoplifting problem is beginning to change their tastes.
Filene's Department Store in Massachusetts and the Broadway in southern California are trying on what some are calling the "blazer program." Security guards in blazers with badges make themselves obvious on the store floor, yet they don't looki like police and make customers uncomfortable.
Still the problem is, by some accounts, rooted in the modern concept of the store. "We have a very attractive and sophisticated merchandising setup based on the honor system," says Lawrence Conner, president of a unique program in Pennsylvania, Shoplifters Anonymous, International.
Store goods are usually all on display, and the style is self-service. "It's temptation," he says, and his effort is to educate first offenders to withstand the temptation. "We make honest consumers of them," he says.
Bernard Kodner, a business professor at California State University at Los Angeles, considers firsthand observation by sales clerks the best method to prevent theft. Professional shoplifters, he notes, can get around electronic systems. Of the amateur, Dr. Konder says, "Temptation can lead to stealing, but ultimately it's the morality of the people that makes the difference."