Why Do People Shoplift? 5 Reasons and How To Prevent It

why do people shoplift

For many brick-and-mortar retailers, shoplifting seems inevitable.

It’s difficult to pinpoint who exactly is likely to shoplift, and there isn’t one main reason why people do it. Is it done out of necessity, or because shoplifters want a luxury item they can’t afford? Is it done out of desperation, or is it a psychological disorder? And if a person steals once, are they likely to commit another crime?

Shoplifting continues to be a growing concern for retailers and is an issue that affects both big-box chains and independent stores. According to a National Retail Federation survey, shoplifting costs American retailers $100 billion every year. That’s a figure set to rise; almost 70% of retailers say they’ve seen an increase in in-store theft.

Ahead, read up on some common shoplifting traits so you and your staff know what to look out for, learn how to curb those traits, and discover the tools you need to implement a loss-prevention policy for your retail business.

Why do people shoplift?

There are many reasons why people shoplift, from thieves who shoplift for the thrill of it to people who steal out of necessity. Certain people are also compelled to shoplift as a result of psychological factors like depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder—both of which make it harder for people to overcome the urge to steal.

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5 reasons why people shoplift

To help curb shoplifting in your store, dive deeper into the driving factors behind theft.

1. Psychological factors

Psychological disorders lead some people to shoplift. They include depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and kleptomania. These disorders can influence anyone to steal, regardless of what they look like, their demographic, or their salary bracket.

Mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder can impact an individual's decision making and increase the likelihood of shoplifting. For instance, someone who's feeling overwhelmed by anxiety might grab something off the shelf without realizing what they're doing

Dr Raffaello Antonino, counseling psychologist and founder of Therapy Central

2. Financial difficulty

Not everyone has the luxury of disposable income. More than half of Americans are worried about keeping up with the cost of living.

People with a low income might feel they have no other option but to shoplift essential goods. If a single mother is struggling to feed their children, for example, they might shoplift baby food because they feel they have no other way out.

3. Low risk

Studies have shown that just one in 48 shoplifters are caught. Shoplifting is a crime that rarely results in legal consequences, therefore some thieves consider it a low risk offense. They’d rather hedge their bets on getting something for free versus paying the price of the crime.

4. Peer pressure

Peer pressure happens when friends or family influence a person to steal. This is especially true for younger people who might suffer from low self-esteem. They are likely to want to fit into the crowd and be accepted by their peers.

5. Emotional problems

Emotions have a major impact on the things we buy. Shopping has been proven to release dopamine in the brain—a neurotransmitter that makes people feel pleasure.

But if people with emotional problems don't have the financial means to buy new products, they might shoplift to get the short-term dopamine rush they crave.

People suffering from depression or anxiety may be more likely to engage in shoplifting to cope with their feelings. The thrill and adrenaline rush associated with stealing can provide temporary relief from distressful emotions

Sarah Watson, psychologist, certified coach, and COO at BPTLAB

7 groups of people who shoplift

The reasons why a shoplifter steals can vary, but there are certain characteristics shoplifters often share. Terrence Shulman's book Something for Nothing: Shoplifting Addiction and Recovery highlights seven types of people most likely to shoplift, so you can identify and prevent theft in your store.

1. Addictive compulsive

People with psychological difficulties such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) or low serotonin may have an uncontrollable impulse to steal.

Oftentimes, addictive compulsive thieves feel guilt and regret after the shoplifting episode, but the actual act of stealing is an urge they’re unable to resist.

2. Professional

Professional shoplifters often work in groups and are referred to as “career criminals.” Multiple factors drive their shoplifting activities, though many steal items they can resell to turn a profit on.

Jeff Moriarty says that for his jewelry store, Moriaty’s Gem Art, thieves target the business because its products “are high-ticket items, and they can sell them easily online and to pawn shops. And because we are family owned, they think we are easy targets.”

3. Addict

Much like gambling, for some people, shoplifting is an addiction they struggle to overcome.

A teenage shoplifter, for example, may struggle to break the habit when they enter their 20s. They have been conditioned for years to not pay for the items they use, making it harder for them to part with cash and curb their shoplifting addiction.

4. Impoverished

Not all shoplifters have malicious intentions. Cash-strapped people might turn to shoplifting to steal items they need to survive, such as food, hygiene, or baby products. This shoplifter profile is often referred to as economically disadvantaged, since they feel they have no other option than to steal.

5. Thrill-seeker

Shoplifting gives some people an adrenaline rush they constantly want to chase. A thrill-seeking thief is oftentimes a young person trying to push boundaries and impress their friends with stolen goods and bravado.

6. Unintentional

Not all shoplifters predetermine their thefts. Visitors to your store can steal inventory without realizing, like people who leave the store for an emergency while unintentionally carrying your product.

These people rarely conceal the item they’re stealing since the product isn’t top of mind, and the incident isn’t intentional. Once they realize, the incidental shoplifter might return to the store with an apology.

7. Kleptomaniac

Kleptomania is a psychological disorder that gives people an uncontrollable urge to steal. It’s similar to obsessive-compulsive disorder in the way people can’t resist the temptation. There’s rarely a driving force behind the reason to steal.

How to recognize a shoplifter

There aren’t physical traits that make a person more likely to steal. Shoplifters are just as likely to be male or female, have any skin color, and be rich or poor.

“No single factor makes a person more likely to shoplift,” says Natalie Maximets, a certified life transformation coach at OnlineDivorce. “Shoplifting is a complex behavior and is influenced by multiple factors, including psychological and environmental factors.”

There isn’t something about the way a person looks that will help you identify whether they’re likely to shoplift, but there are traits that you and your staff can look for.

Behavioral cues are more important than physical or demographic characteristics. Here are some traits that’ll help you identify shoplifters.

Works in groups

In fictionalized dramas and movies, shoplifters are typically portrayed as lone wolves, entering stores alone and swiping items when no one is watching. The reality, however, is that many shoplifters work in pairs or groups.

A member of the group might distract sales staff, asking questions about an item or sending the sales associate to another section of the store. Shoplifting is most likely to happen when sales staff are occupied or distracted.

Carries bags or coats

It’s true that bold thieves will just grab an item and run from the store, but the majority of shoplifters, especially amateurs, are likely to conceal stolen items in things they bring into the store.

This includes, but isn’t limited to:

  • Handbags
  • Shopping bags from other stores
  • Large coats
  • Umbrellas

    Some thieves will actually purchase something as a way to conceal other items in it, or in the same bag as they walk out of the store.

    Takes many items into changing rooms

    In clothing stores especially, shoplifters will often take many items into dressing rooms without any intention of trying them on. They do this to stuff one or two items into bags, as well as to distract sales people in the fitting room area.

    Shoplifters will often leave items they don’t want inside the dressing room so sales associates can’t tell which ones they’ve taken and left behind.

    Switches price labels

    Price label switching is when a shopper changes the price tag on one item for a cheaper price tag. They might still go up to the cashier to pay for it, but the item will ring in at a lower price.

    Attempts fake refunds

    Shoplifting doesn’t always consist of stealing store items. Thieves steal a retailer’s cash—a type of return fraud that causes the biggest losses for 13% of retailers.

    Trying to refund an item that wasn’t previously purchased at the store for cash is a common form of shoplifting. Scammers enter the store with a counterfeit receipt or product they purchased from another store, hoping for a cash bonus of the entire product value.

    How to prevent shoplifting

    Now that we’ve outlined some common shoplifting traits, what can you do about it? Shoplifting prevention is key, especially considering each instance of theft costs retailers $460 on average.

    Here are five shoplifting prevention tips that retailers can take to curb theft in their stores.

    Greet customers

    Acknowledging customers when they enter the store is much more than good customer service.

    Greeting customers makes them feel welcome—but it also tells potential shoplifters that staff can see them. That verbal and visual acknowledgement can sometimes be enough to scare potential shoplifters into rethinking their actions.

    Staff your store appropriately

    One of the most effective ways to prevent shoplifting is to make sure there are enough employees on the floor.

    Large stores often assign specific floor sections to employees so they’re responsible for greeting and assisting all customers that enter that specific area. By having staff spread out across departments or areas, shoplifters always know they’re being watched.

    Need help managing staff rotas? Homebase integrates with Shopify POS, so you can manage timetables and deter shoplifters with adequate coverage.

    Illustration of a calendar with different team member’s schedules overlapping.
    Schedule team rotas with Homebase’s Shopify POS integration

    Organize your store layout

    The layout of a store can affect how easy it may be for shoplifters to succeed. Some things to keep in mind include the following:

    • Consider putting highly desirable items in one area, assign staff to closely watch the aisle or area, and design the area in a way so there’s only one entry/exit point.
    • Install mirrors in blind spots.
    • Hang anti-theft signage to deter shoplifting in unattended corners.
    • Keep store windows clear to aid visibility.
    • Place the cash wrap near the entrance to the store where customers pass before leaving.

      We have cameras set up throughout the store and we moved our checkout counter near the door

      Jeff Moriarty, director of Moriarty’s Gem Art

      Limit changing room items

      Implement a store policy that limits the number of items a customer can take inside the room at a time. This will help retail staff take account of which items enter and exit the changing room area.

      Have staff count out the number of items and hang or fold them so that each item is visible inside the dressing room. Only when a customer is finished with one item can they swap it with another they’d like to try on.

      When the customer is done, ask them to bring all of the items out of the change room. Have staff count them quickly so that the same number of items are returned.

      Train your staff to prevent shoplifting

      Perhaps the most important tip is to educate any staff who interact with customers on loss prevention.

      Training employees on shoplifter traits and providing a store policy on how to handle these customers is a retailer’s most effective tool. This includes:

      • Having a staff member approach a suspicious customer and ask, “Can I help you?” or “Can I ring that up for you?” to deter shoplifting without sounding accusatory or rude.
      • Providing cashier training as cashiers are typically located near the exits.
      • Let staff know that if they see a customer steal something, they should alert a manager immediately and not try to take action on their own or chase down the shoplifter.
      Orange bar chart displaying how retailers think the risk of guest-on-associate violence, external theft, and organized retail crime have increased.
      More than three-quarters of retailers say the threat of violence has increased over the past five years

      Why do people shoplift: conclusion

      When it comes to stopping shoplifting, a little can go a long way. Customer service, store layout, and staff training all contribute to protecting your business by showing potential shoplifters that you are alert and watching.

      Most of all, it can help reduce the majority of absent-minded shoplifting incidents—those that are committed by people who enter stores with no intention of stealing—and add greater security to your retail business.

      Get help managing your retail store

      With Shopify POS, you’ll have one dashboard that manages all aspects of your retail store—from staff rotas to inventory management.

      Additional research by Michelle da Silva

      Shoplifting FAQ

      Why do people shoplift?

      There are several reasons why people shoplift. This includes the need to buy essential items (such as food or baby products), peer pressure from friends, and psychological disorders that make the urge to steal feel impossible to overcome.

      Who is more likely to shoplift?

      • People with psychological disorders
      • Teenagers and adolescents
      • Economically disadvantaged people
      • Professional crime groups
      • People with a shoplifting addiction

      What are the 7 groups of people who shoplift?

      1. Addictive compulsive
      2. Professional shoplifters
      3. Addicts
      4. Impoverished people
      5. Thrill-seekers
      6. Absent-minded people
      7. Kleptomaniacs

      Is shoplifting a serious crime?

      Shoplifting is a crime with serious legal consequences. People who get caught stealing from stores could be charged with a felony conviction and jail time, depending on the severity of the crime.