Shoplifting: Is it an age-related problem? 

One issue that criminal defence lawyers deal with on a regular basis is shoplifting. There is a public perception that shoplifting is typically aberrant teenage behaviour. But my experience in dealing with countless shoplifting cases is that the stereotype of teenagers shoplifting for a thrill is not at all reflective of the reality of shoplifting. This raises the question: is shoplifting an age-related problem? Do people “grow out of it” or is it something that is not limited to any particular age range?

I’ve done some research into the role that age plays in shoplifting and have set it out below.

Shoplifting Statistics:

It has been suggested that between 5 and 10% of shoppers in any given department store will shoplift before leaving the store. Shoplifting is the most common of all abnormal consumer behaviours. It is believed to have a pervasive and detrimental impact on both industry and society at large. Between 37 and 63% of adolescents shoplift in a given one-year period, while studies indicate that 61% of college-aged individuals have shoplifted at least once. The retail industry posits that shoplifting accounts for 30% of store losses annually, with the total dollar value of goods shoplifted totaling at least $30 billion. Shoplifting doesn’t just impact retailers; the average American household may pay upwards of $360 more per year for goods, due to the rising costs of shoplifting. Furthermore, up to 7.5 cents on every dollar is lost due to shoplifting.
Gender and Shoplifting:
Shoplifting may be considered a problem that primarily presents in females. However, the stereotypes about the bored thrill-seeking housewife or the kleptomanic grandmother are generally regarded by the literature to be untrue. A 1973 study found that men shoplift slightly more than women. This is relatively consistent with my experience in dealing with those charged with shoplifting. Similarly, younger individuals have increased rates of shoplifting as compared to older people. Unsurprisingly, lower income people are more likely to shoplift than those from an upper class background. However, the amount of available spending money a person has was found to be unrelated to the decision to shoplift.
For every apprehended shoplifter, it is estimated that 34 shoplifters go unapprehended. The decision of store security personnel to involve the authorities in a shoplifting incident is not influenced as strongly by race, sex, or economic status as some may believe. Rather, the items that were shoplifted, such as merchandise of high value, alcohol, or other inedible goods, are more likely to be the basis for this decision.

The Role of Age in Shoplifting:
Studies show that 50% of youth who shoplift do so before the age of 10. That same study found that 63% of youth surveyed had shoplifted at some time in their lives. Although most of the items stolen by adolescents were relatively inexpensive and most adolescents were infrequent shoplifters, 4% of participants had stolen on more than 10 occasions in the past 9 months. Since the study also detected a decrease in the incidence of shoplifting as students progressed through high school, there is a clear correlation between age and shoplifting behaviour.
Youths are most likely to shoplift from among ten different product types: candy; music; sporting goods; clothing; health items; school supplies; books/magazines; toys; drugs/alcohol; and cigarettes. A survey of over 150 adolescents demonstrated that 62.3% did not shoplift. 14.3% of the remainder only stole candy or sweets. 11.5% stole relatively inexpensive merchandise, such as books, toys, or school supplies. A further 11.9% stole numerous expensive items, or prohibited items such as alcohol and cigarettes. Male youths were more likely to shoplift than their female counterparts. However, despite the discrepancy between incidence of shoplifting between males and females, studies have shown that the processes leading up to the decision to shoplift are substantially the same among the sexes.
From the literature addressing the problem of shoplifting, there appears to be a correlation between age and shoplifting. As individuals advance in age, their perceptions about the moral blameworthiness of shoplifting shift. The rates of shoplifting peak at high school age; 40% of arrests for shoplifting are youths. This is attributed to the fact that moral development occurs over time. Therefore, a lack of moral development may play an increased role in the likelihood that an individual will shoplift.
Despite this research into the impact of age on the likelihood of shoplifting, there are many other reasons why individuals may choose to shoplift. Academic studies have been grappling with the issues of what motivates individuals to shoplift since the early 1970s. One such study considered three factors that contributed to youth shoplifting behaviour. There, the authors examined three factors and how they impacted the propensity of youths to shoplift. These factors were: acquaintance with friends who shoplift; attitudes towards the morality of shoplifting; and emotional attachment to parents. It is claimed that these three factors explain 45% of all youth shoplifting behaviour. Prior to this study, it was commonly believed that much youth shoplifting behaviour was in fact caused by dares. In reality, however, 64% of adolescent shoplifters indicated that they have never been dared to shoplift; 17% reported being dared only rarely. Thus, it is seen that only 19% of adolescent shoplifting can be explained by dares.
The shoplifting behaviour of youths is highly linked with that of their peer group. The exposure of an adolescent to shoplifting behaviour from their peers weakens moral beliefs that the individual holds against shoplifting. For example, the youth may rationalize the behaviour by suggesting that the store won’t miss a small item or that stores have shrinkage costs built into their prices, and therefore expect that some items will be stolen. It could also be that the simple knowing that a friend steals works to undermine beliefs against theft. A youth in this position may face conflicting beliefs about his feelings about his friend contrasted to his moral beliefs against shoplifting. Abandoning or modifying one of these ideas results in an attitudinal shift in the youth toward shoplifting. It is suggested that it is less likely for a youth to shift his attitude toward the friend than he is to shift his attitude toward shoplifting.
Attachment of an adolescent to his or her parents or guardians can also play a role in whether or not that child decides to shoplift. It has long been established that there is a correlation between juvenile delinquency and a lack of parental attachment. For youth who report getting along with their parents, there is a marked decrease in incidence of shoplifting. This has been attributed to the fact that the emotional bond shared by parent and child can serve as a mechanism to pass along a set of expectations about moral and amoral behaviour. The resulting increased acceptance of anti-shoplifting attitudes is coupled with a decrease in the youth’s association with other youth who shoplift.
Combating youth shoplifting is highly desirable for retailers, consumers, and the justice system. It has been suggested that forewarning youths of the dangers associated with hanging out with peers who participate in shoplifting behaviour may work to decrease the incidence of this crime. This is because it is believed that negative social influences are less impactful when individuals are aware of the way in which they function. Additionally, emphasizing the harmful consequences of shoplifting, rather than strictly its illegal nature may be more effective at deterring youth shoplifting behaviour. This is because although youth recognize that shoplifting is wrong, their attitude toward it is overwhelmingly morally ambivalent. By placing emphasis on the harm caused to others by this behaviour, shoplifting takes on a human face. Studies have shown that youth generally avoid committing crimes against those with whom they feel a sense of community or kinship.

As a result, although age plays a role in shoplifting it does not dictate shoplifting behaviour. Youth are not more likely to shoplift simply because they are young. Rather, as with all other types of criminal or aberrant behaviour, the decision to shoplift appears to be influenced most strongly be extrinsic, rather than intrinsic factors.

I have successfully resolved numerous shoplifting cases. I understand the sociology and science behind shoplifting, and can understand the role that emotion plays in shoplifting behaviour. If you or a loved one is facing a shoplifting charge, give me a call and we can discuss your options.

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