Students walk off with a new habit: Shoplifting

By Bella Brody

Students’ names have been changed to protect their privacy

On Black Friday this year, junior Grace was shopping at The Grove, a shopping complex in Los Angeles, with a few of her friends from California. After trying on multiple pairs of designer sunglasses, she finally settled on a favorite — but instead of walking to the register and paying for them, she put them on her head and confidently walked out of the store. 

The sunglasses cost $1,200. And by the end of that day, after visiting multiple other stores, she had stolen $16,000 worth of clothes, makeup and other accessories.

In an informal Black & White survey of 51 students, 55% said they had shoplifted at least once. One in 11 Americans will shoplift at least once in their lives, and teenagers ages 13 to 17 account for 25% of all shoplifters arrested despite making up only seven percent of the U.S. population, according to a study from the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention. More than $13 billion worth of products are stolen annually from U.S. retailers, according to the NASP. 

Students shoplift for a variety of reasons. In the same survey, many students who shoplifted reported that their motivation stems from laziness and anxiety related to spending money. One person surveyed said they shoplifted because “it’s easy and free.” 

“When you’re with friends, it’s almost like a fun thing to do,” senior Emily said. “My friends and I would go on ‘stealing trips.’ We would go to the mall to see a movie, and then the rest of the day we were at the mall. We would just steal from everywhere.”

Junior Jacob had never been caught shoplifting until a trip to Macy’s at Westfield Montgomery Mall. He had been stealing from Macy’s for a few years, and it was the first store he and his friends went into that day. They stole about $100 worth of makeup products and then left the store. They proceeded to walk around the mall and shoplift from other retailers. At the end of the day, they returned to Macy’s for one last stop, he said. 

“My friends and I were walking out of Macy’s, and I noticed a man wearing all black walking right in front of us,” Jacob said. “He slipped behind us, and this guy got in front of me and grabbed my arm and said, ‘Macy’s Security, you’ll have to come with me.’ They had caught us on the cameras or one of the cashiers had seen us put one of the items in our bags.” 

The security guard then escorted Jacob to a small room that he described as “almost like a jail cell.” Rather than handcuffing him, the guard took Jacob’s bag and started going through it. Because he had stolen items from other stores, Jacob lied, saying that the only items stolen were from Macy’s in order to avoid further trouble. The security guard then explained to him that if the cost of everything he stole exceeded $100, it would be classified as a criminal misdemeanor. 

Jacob’s items were worth $106, but instead of calling the police, the security officers decided to let him go since they thought it was his first offense. 

Students who go to the mall with the intent to shoplift often purposely wear outfits that can conceal stolen clothes and accessories or bring a bag that can fit stolen goods, junior Maddie said. 

The merchandise that students report stealing often aren’t items they necessarily need. Maddie consistently stole clothes from Nordstrom on the weekends for just a few months, only stopping after mall security caught her sophomore year. To her surprise, the guards she encountered weren’t dressed in outfits that blatantly said “security.” They were dressed like average people.

“I was stealing from Nordstrom, and I would wear out clothes from BP and all the brands they had there,” said Maddie. “I would purposely wear baggy clothes to the mall so I could put on extra pairs of pants or two shirts underneath.” 

Even though there’s less security surveillance at lower-end stores, employees are still aware of the continual problem, Maddie said. Additionally, with the advent of apps like Tik Tok that broadcast tutorial videos showing “how to shoplift,” shoplifting has become more popular, said one PacSun manager at Westfield Montgomery Mall. 

Employees working in retail in Montgomery County view this petty theft as “pointless,” he added. 

“Your parents work for it [their money], so why would you not pay or use your money, or get a job?” the PacSun manager said.

An employee working at Altar’d State, a popular clothing stall in the mall, said that shoplifting there happens about four out of seven days a week. 

“Sometimes we are able to recover the merchandise,” the Altar’d State employee said. “It’s usually younger girls. We’ve learned that it’s an initiation for girls trying to be popular, so they come in and they try to steal small items like jewelry and sunglasses.”

Because most of the shoplifters who are caught at Altar’d State are young teens, the store usually first notifies their parents and doesn’t prosecute them, according to employees. Most of the time, parents offer to pay for the stolen merchandise. Altar’d State employees only call mall security if someone is trying to physically escape the store after being caught. 

Another employee working at Urban Outfitters said that it has significantly reduced the amount of theft within their Westfield Mall store by almost 60% to 70% in the past couple years, she said. 

“It used to be a lot worse a couple of years ago when I first came to this store,” she said. “It was the highest I’ve ever seen in all my years of retail. Our number one way of deterring theft is engaging with customers.” 

Because of company policy, Urban Outfitters isn’t allowed to call security on average shoplifters even if they attempt to sprint for a store exit. However, if the products stolen amount to a major loss, the store must call the police right away. 

Bonnie Zucker, a psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in adolescents and adults, views shoplifting as a normal step in adolescence, unless it’s an ongoing ritual. 

“We want someone when they shoplift to have some sense of remorse about it,” Zucker said. “Even if they’re in touch with the thrill of it, we want them to feel either badly that they stole something they didn’t pay for or feel bad for the owner of the store. We actually encourage people to feel bad about things they do like this.”

While many of her peers steal for the rush, Maddie began feeling incredibly guilty after walking out of stores with hundreds of dollars of makeup and clothes stuffed in her pockets and under her clothes. 

“I hated the feeling after doing it,” Maddie said. “Sometimes I was so stressed about the fact that I had this stuff that I felt kind of sick.” 

Once security guards finally caught Maddie, the guards called the police and gave her a citation. She had to participate in a mandatory county class on shoplifting where she learned about the large impact shoplifting can have on businesses. Prices in stores are higher in order to compensate for the amount of money lost to shoplifters, she learned. 

“I learned a lot,” Maddie said. “[Shoplifting is] simply not worth it, and then you just end up with all of this stuff that you didn’t earn.”