Do shoplifters really steal bread in the hope of making some dough?

ONE of the most rewarding questions, up there with “what frightens you most?” is “have you ever shoplifted?”

Whereas the query about fear makes most people pause and speculate, the one about thieving evokes a plethora of more instantaneous responses, including “I don’t think so” (which usually means they actually did), “I would never” (ditto), and — most frequently — “Yes, but...”

Maybe I move in the wrong circles, but the majority of the people I’ve asked admit to shoplifting at some stage in their past. Sometimes the crime was committed once, and under extreme peer pressure. That’s what could be called rite-of-passage shoplifting, where to prove fearlessness to friends, someone who otherwise wold never steal anything and has no use for what they do steal nicks something from a shop. So, as a kid, a friend of mine stole a lipstick in a pharmacy. It was a tester, worn down to a nub in a colour she would never have worn, and because it was a tester it didn’t have a lid, but it fulfilled the “go on, go on, prove yourself” imperative. She still blushes like a stop sign at the memory.

One of my classmates used to lift costume jewellery and sell it for half nothing in school, thereby giving the purchasers the added guilty thrill of knowingly collaborating with her. When I told my mother, she ordered me to steer clear of the thief. This wasn’t hard. She was understandably popular and I wasn’t, so she never missed me from her ring of acolytes.

Shoplifting — as opposed to generalised theft — started, according to Rachel Shteir, around the 16th century, as a parasitic accompaniment to new forms of retailing.

“In Elizabethan London, milliners, mercers, pawnbrokers, booksellers, opticians, cheesemongers, birdsellers, curriers, serge makers, soap boilers, sailcloth makers and linen weavers opened beautiful stores with glass windows to display their wares, inviting theft,” she says.

Within decades, the first major visual representation of a shoplifter had been crafted. The painting shows a woman, clearly apprehended while stealing materials in a shop, looking despairingly at one man, who has her by the arms and is pulling some stashed item from her bodice while another, on one knee in front of her, unwinds a length of lace from somewhere under her skirt. On the floor are a roll of ribbon and a small, collar-sized portion of lace, suggesting that these had already been retrieved from somewhere on her person.

If the painting was based on reality, the woman was either executed or transported to Botany Bay. Just seven years earlier, a woman named Mary Jones, left destitute when her husband was press ganged into the Royal Navy, had stolen a piece of cloth to wrap her baby against the cold, and was hanged for the crime.

The sentences tended to be softer when the accused was of a certain class, not least because judges were mystified when members of the nobility pitched up in front of them, charged with stealing from a shop. Since they self-evidently didn’t need to steal, they must, judges believed, have been labouring under an obsessional need to purloin. Down through the centuries, the shoplifters who have gone free, been recommended to undergo therapy or had relatively mild sentences handed down on the basis they were suffering from kleptomania, have overwhelmingly been women. Men who steal what they don’t need have traditionally been treated as crooks, whereas a more benign explanation is found for the same actions on the part of women.

A sad exception was the case of Lady Isobel Barnett, one of Britain’s early TV stars. The wife of a doctor who was knighted (hence the title), Barnett was a good-looking, charming, lucid woman who appeared as a panellist on programmes back in the black and white television days, among them What’s My Line?

As she aged, television lost interest in her and, forcibly retired from fame, she started to lift items from local shops. She does not seem to have gone for expensive items. (She was convicted for nicking a can of tuna.) But she does seem to have done it more than once. When arrested, she was found to have a “poacher’s pocket” sewn inside her coat. This would have been a kind of open-topped pouch, all the easier to drop items into, undetected.

A former magistrate herself, Barnett stood in court to hear her conviction, fully aware that this appearance would revive her fame in the worst way. She then went quietly home, filled a bath, plugged an electric fire into a nearby socket, climbed into the warm water, pulled the appliance into it and electrocuted herself.

Half a century later, film star Winona Ryder was apprehended by security guards outside the luxury department store Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, carrying a bag filled with expensive clothes she had removed from the store without paying for them. While her career progress was dented by her conviction, it was not ended, and while her reputation was damaged, she does not seem to have come close to Isobel Barnett’s level of self-destructive misery. Indeed, it could be said shoplifting has become just a thread in the overall weave of her brand, another reference point allowing Googlers to find a recent sub-group of celeb shoplifters, including tennis player Jennifer Capriati and gymnast Olga Korbut.

INTERESTINGLY, despite the recent case of an actor shoplifting to feed his children, and although Retail Ireland says that retailers are experiencing an increase in shoplifting, times of austerity do not necessarily generate a surge of shoplifting. A recent substantial history — Austerity Britain — found no evidence for a surge in shoplifting in Britain in the harsh years following the Second World War. On the other hand, the open displays typical of the modern supermarket weren’t around back then, and so it would have been physically more difficult to shoplift.

The question then arises as to whether the rising level of shoplifting claimed by Retail Ireland is due to poverty or profiteering. Last week, Retail Ireland’s director, Stephen Lynam, told this paper’s Conall Ó Fátharta that he believed the majority of the most popular items, which included bread, cheese and babyfood, were not being stolen for consumption but for resale in a thriving black market.

“I don’t believe, in the main, that it’s because people are stealing to feed themselves,” he said. “I think it’s because there is a black market there for products to be resold and for people to buy such goods off the back of a truck and places like that.”

Of course, there’s a black market for products that can be sold at a fraction of their label price. But the vice president of St Vincent de Paul Cork regional area Brendan Dempsey doesn’t buy the wider point. “I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. But I can’t see anyone stealing sliced cheese or a loaf of bread just so they can sell it off the back of a lorry.”

Me, neither. I just don’t see anyone secreting a loaf of bread to flog it at a profit.

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