More than spirits are being lifted this holiday season.
Shoppers may be grabbing lots of things off shelves, but many are leaving stores without paying for them.
During the four weeks leading up to Christmas, an estimated $1.84 billion in merchandise will be shoplifted this year, according to The Global Retail Theft Barometer, a survey of retailers worldwide. That's up about 6 percent from $1.7 billion during the same period last year.
"They shoplift for Christmas gifts, they steal for themselves, for their family," says Joshua Bamfield, executive director of the Centre for Retail Research and author of the survey.
Some people always get sticky fingers during the holidays. After all, the crowded stores and harried clerks make it easier to slip a tablet computer into a purse or stuff a sweater under a coat undetected. But higher joblessness and falling wages have contributed to an even bigger rise this year, with people stealing everything from necessities (Think: food) to luxuries they can no longer afford (Think: Gucci handbag).
"It's really a question of need versus greed," says Joseph LaRocca, senior advisor of asset protection for the National Retail Federation trade group. "People will rationalize what they are stealing: 'Oh, I'm feeling the economy. I lost my job'."
Some experts say the economy's influence is largely a cop-out. They say shoplifters are stealing for myriad reasons this holiday season that have nothing to do with economic turmoil. Among them, some do it for a rush or thrill. For others, it's about filling a void. Still others are trying to relieve anxiety, boredom or depression — all emotions that are particularly common during the holidays.
"Shoplifting is generally a crime of opportunity— and opportunities abound at the holiday," says Barbara Staib, a spokeswoman for the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, a nonprofit that provides shoplifting prevention programs. "The stressors that come with the holiday will certainly help them rationalize their need for bad behavior."
As it turns out, while many Americans believe in the "thou shalt not steal" creed, many also believe in getting the five finger discount. In fact, an estimated one in 11 Americans shoplift, according to the National Association of Shoplifting Prevention, based on research collected on people who enroll in its prevention courses.
The profile of a shoplifter may be surprising to some. Three-quarters of shoplifters are adults — equally men and women — while kids make up about 25 percent of them. Most — more than 70 percent of shoplifters — say their crime was spontaneous.
Premeditated or not, all the stealing translates into hundreds of billions of dollars in losses for retailers each year.
Theft of all kinds — including shop lifting, organized retail crime, employee theft and vendor fraud — cost retailers more than $119 billion worldwide in the 12 months ending in June, up from up nearly 7 percent from the same period in 2010. That's the biggest gain ever recorded by the Global Retail Theft Barometer since it began the survey in 2007 and it represents about 1.45 percent of retailers' $986 billion in sales.
Thirty-six percent of losses come from shoplifting by average Joes. Employee theft represents about 44 percent. Professional criminals who steal massive amounts of goods to resell account for about 3 percent, while vendor theft and administrative error make up the remaining 17 percent.
Several major chains declined to discuss their efforts to thwart the growing theft in stores by shoppers and employees. But the NRF says big merchants are spending about $11.5 billion a year to fend off losses.
They're trying to improve their technology, such as surveillance methods and tagging of merchandise with security devices. They also are working with competitors and law enforcement agencies more than ever by sharing more information, such as what criminals are taking and how they are targeting individual merchants.
Retailers' efforts are important, prevention experts say, because theft not only costs them, but society as a whole. Theft drives up retailers' costs and those are often passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices on everything from blueberries to blouses. That's a particularly tough pill to swallow in a weak economy.
"I think one of the things we have to remember is shoplifting is a crime," says Staib, with the prevention group. "Shoplifting is not just an economic issue, it's a social issue."
Shop owner Travis Maynard, who has been on both sides of the shoplifting fence, agrees.
As a teenager running with a bad crowd, he used to steal regularly — Visine to cover up the drug use, condiments to finish off his sandwich and even a flowering tree as a gift for his mother. That is, until he got caught stealing a Misfits CD as a teen and decided to turn his life around.
Maynard, 31, now is keeping an eye out for shoplifters at Lime Tigard Studio, a shop in Murfreesboro, Tenn. where he sells antiques, vintage clothing and other items. He says he knows the tricks, recognizing what is easily pocketed and when someone is lingering too long in a certain spot. Knowing how to spot those problems may have helped him avoid being a victim of shoplifting in the six months he has been open.
"For someone to come in and pretend to be a patron of my business and steal, to me it's the most disgusting thing someone could do," Maynard says. "It's one of the highest levels of dishonesty."