1980s >> 1985 >> no-966-february-1985

Trouble in store

They might have said: “The people who own this supermarket hope you will come in and buy food here. But no matter how much you need it. you must not take anything from the shop unless you pay for it because that’s the way we get profits on our investments. If you don’t obey these rules you will probably be punished under the law.”

What they actually said, in two posters side by side on the door, was: “Welcome to Safeways’. “Shoplifters Will Be Prosecuted”.

Like many other offences, shoplifting has apparently been on the increase, from 126,844 incidents recorded by the police in 1972 to 242,304 in 1982. The total value of goods lost to the shops in this way is set at about £8 million a year but it is likely that it really amounts to a lot more than that; in particular shop assistants are suspected of a vast amount of undetected theft. Anyone starting a career in crime by testing out their welcome at Safeways may be reassured by the fact that about 50 per cent of contested cases result in an acquittal in court.

There are various methods for the apprentice shoplifter to consider, from the simple one of putting items straight into a shopping bag instead of into the basket so thoughtfully provided by the supermarket and leaving without paying for them; to the more difficult, like grabbing a discarded receipt. finding foods for the same price and getting a refund on them. In between lie methods requiring some manual dexterity, like swapping those sticky price tags or “gleaning”—opening packs of food and eating it while in the store, which can give a supermarket shelf the appearance of a field ravaged by locusts. Some known shoplifters. presumably on their day off, relax by playing games, attracting attention by concealing some item on their person and walking around the shop for a while before replacing it. to the chagrin of the watching store detective.

Who are the shoplifters? An article in Justice of the Peace (28 January 1984) said there has been “. . . an increase in the incidence of organised or group shoplifting (the Australian gang) and the use of violence arid intimidation. . .” but this aggravation of magistrates’ paranoia represents too alarmist a picture. A very high “clear-up” rate is claimed by the police for shoplifting — 88 per cent compared to 37 per cent for all offences — which is a measure of the shoplifters’ ineptitude. Then there is the fact that nearly half of the incidents recorded in 1982 concerned goods worth £5 or less, which is hardly the type of loot looked for by determined. sophisticated gangs. In fact, juveniles make up the largest group of shoplifters and. according to the Home Office (Designing Out Crime, HMSO). it is the offence most often committed by youngsters truanting from school.

The rising tide of shoplifting has been resisted by the shops in a strengthening of their defences. The Association of Prevention of Theft From Shops, whose Director is a Baroness, acts as an intelligence agency. Many goods are so packaged that it is very difficult to conceal others in with them (it is. of course, also very difficult to unpack the things when you get them home). In clothing shops, tags which can only be removed by a cashier set off a clamorous alarm if anyone tries to take them through the doorway. Shops are surveyed by closed circuit TV and patrolled by store detectives, whose vigilance may be sharpened by the commission they get for every successful arrest.

It is ironic that all this effort is expended to deal with a problem which the shops originally made for themselves. The age of the shoplifter is also the age of the self-service store: “Shoplifting”, the Home Office unsurprisingly concluded, “is discouraged by the presence of assistants who are there to serve the customer.” But the old style shops, where assistants, who had knowledge and skill as well as patience, served customers across counters, were relatively costly in floor space and wages. (Imagine the acreage of counters, and the swarms of staff, the average Safeways would need if they used that method today.)

All of that was swept away soon after the war in what was called the Great Marketing Revolution, in which a lot of money was invested with the object of cutting staff and making more profitable use of shop floor areas. The revolution left the customers to do the serving themselves, from displays replenished by squads of nocturnal “shelf-fillers” and then to volunteer to pay at check out tills operated at the kind of pressure to ensure the minimum of customer contact and the maximum of alienation. Now nobody stands chatting in a supermarket; the shelves can’t talk back and the check out operators haven’t got the time.

The big snag with the revolution was that it also allowed the customers to help themselves from the displays and so opened a field of crime to thousands of people who would not otherwise have had such a tempting opportunity. Vagrant alcoholics could help themselves to their booze, penurious mothers could help feed their children, aimless truants could arrange an afternoon s supply of free sweets and fags. About 4,000 of the yearly convictions for shoplifting are of people of 60 and over, many of them never having been in court before and who, but for the existence of the self-service shop, would almost certainly never have fallen foul of the law.

This has given rise to the stereotype of the menopausal shoplifter, a concept whose significance is obscured by the implication that age has to be a disability when in fact the problem lies in the disabling effects of capitalist society. The magistrates’ courts see a continuous procession of these wretched, frightened people, often middle-aged women in despair. These women are often described in court, by helpful policemen. as “respectable”, which means that they have been nurtured since birth on an insidious diet of capitalist morality. For them, the apex of attractiveness coincides with that of their profitability as an employee — with their youth. The fulfilment of their life began with employment, followed by marriage and a coping with children, housework. the mortgage and the bills while still disseminating a stereotypical sexual allure. At an age when cosmetic artifices can no longer smooth wrinkles, when no profit-conscious employer would give them a seat in the typing pool or at an assembly line, when their children have left home to grapple with the stresses of their own marriage, many women may feel their usefulness died with their fertility and that now they are unwanted, unattended.

An obvious way to draw attention to themselves is to offend against all they have been conditioned to regard as moral and correct. Such people could hardly burgle a house or hold up a bank but shoplifting is an easily available crime, fitting neatly into their daily routine of housework and shopping. Too often, however, their arrest is only another stage in a chronic depression. Hundreds of people every year are driven into a mental breakdown by their arrest and during a recent 18 month period the Portia Trust recorded 32 suicides by people accused of shoplifting. The other side of this bitter story is to be found in the people who own the supermarkets and the companies which supply them, among whom there are some massive fortunes: the Vestey family (£1.5 billion); the Sainsbury family (£900 million); James Goldsmith (£500 million); Garfield Weston (£300 million) (Sunday Times. 7 October 1984). These are some of the class whose interests are protected by the store detectives, the police and the courts, who welcome us to their shops as long as we pay for what we take away, whose interests are in the end responsible for the alienation, misery, depression and suicides.

In its early days shoplifting was perhaps not regarded quite so seriously. In fact one study found that some shops took the level of their loss as an index of their attractiveness. According to the Home Office. “Retailers . . . may be disinclined to change marketing techniques so long as these gain more in sales than they lose in theft”. The balancing point, of course, is concerned with profits, which is as it should be in a society whose wealth is produced to be sold rather than to satisfy human needs. The shops warn us that in the end we all pay because they simply raise their prices to cover their losses to the shoplifters. But if it were possible for a company always to recoup losses in that way they would not need to defend themselves so tenaciously against theft, or wage demands, or a slump in their sales.

The shoplifters go to their work untroubled by the spurious, justifying economics of capitalism’s defenders. Except that they might ponder on the greater act of legalised theft which establishes the property rights of the owners and whether a more comprehensive appropriation than their furtive acts might do better for the human race.