Shoplifting woes go beyond Winona Ryder

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

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

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."

It's especially tricky for retailers whose sales are already faltering. In a tough economy, the first instinct is to cut staff - and security guards often top the list. Mr. McGoey says that is the "absolute wrong thing to do in a down economy."

New antitheft technologies

But while retailers may be scaling back on personnel, new tools and technologies are allowing them to get more aggressive in combating the problem. Surveillance cameras, for instance, have become much more sophisticated, with digital images and the ability to monitor several stores from one location. More retailers are installing electronic tags, cables, or hanger locks on high-ticket items. Others are buying cash registers with computers that detect price switching and refund fraud.

But while all of this is important in catching shoplifters, a bigger problem is employee theft - which accounts for a full 70 percent of all "inventory shrinkage."

That makes it important to screen potential employees thoroughly, say experts.

Internal theft is "really where the problem is," says Julius Trimble, a security consultant in Bonaire, Ga. These are people with keys who don't look suspicious if they're carrying boxes out the door - and know their way around the security system.

Back in Houston, Marks says screening employees is critical. He does full background checks, conducts random drug tests, and only hires long-term, full-time employees. "We've only missed once," he says. A decade ago, an employee walked off with about $100,000 in gold wire stock. Though Marks was sure of the culprit, police were never able to prosecute.

While shoplifting laws vary among states, most include fines and jail time. But getting already-burdened police departments and district attorneys to prosecute is difficult, says Mr. Trimble: "From what I've seen, shoplifting is not really taken seriously."

Mr. Sennewald says the answer is not to toughen laws or increase prosecutions; it's to put shoplifters in diversionary programs that would teach them theft's consequences for the economy. "That would relieve the burden on the district attorneys and the courts, and create less resentment in the judicial system," he says.

In Ryder's case, prosecutors are asking for three years' probation and restitution. While some pundits have decried the fact that she could get off easily, many security experts say the county is making an example of her. Most shoplifters never see the inside of a courthouse.

But her case points up another important aspect of the crime: There is no one profile of shoplifters, no single set of motives. "Loss-prevention teams are no longer looking at particular types of people, but particular types of behavior," says Mr. Butler.

Filching facts

Average loss per shoplifting incident: $195.73

Average loss per employee theft: $1,445.86

Percentage of shoplifting cases referred for prosection: 24

Retail chains reporting the highest losses from shoplifting: Household furnishings, drug-stores, recorded music/videos

Source: 2001 National Retail Security Survey, University of Florida

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