The five finger discount

Forget bushdiving. The latest craze: shoplifting. Samantha Cook and Leigh Raymond investigate.

Typing in ‘shoplifting’ in Google provides you with websites designed to give the would-be lifter with an endless tip list. Until recently, even Wikipedia would bring up all the information you would need to begin your very own criminal career. Could this perhaps be linked to the rising numbers of student shoplifters? Winona Ryder never had it this easy.


Shoplifting is defined as the act of stealing merchandise from a shop. In South Africa, the most shoplifted items include razor blades, batteries and chocolates. In Italy in 2006, the most shoplifted item was Parmesan cheese, with expensive cheeses making up 10% of stolen goods.

Student perpetrators claim that their actions cannot be called stealing, as they only “jack” big chain stores, where the prices are so high that they could not be expected, heaven forbid, to pay for the items themselves. An undisclosed amount of stock goes missing from similar shops all the time.

A spokesperson from a local retail store expressed concern about the frequency of shoplifting incidents. A number of shoplifters are caught every month, with most of these being Rhodes students and high school learners.

The majority of academic papers on the psychology of shoplifting reveal that adolescents are most involved with shoplifting, citing rebellious behaviour and neglect as the main reasons.

The spokesperson said that being caught is a lesson that offenders must learn because, “It’s not nice to stay at the police station, especially on a Friday.” If your case is only heard on the Monday, you may face a long weekend stay in the company of Grahamstown’s finest.

Grant Barrow from Whitesides Attorneys says concern extends beyond the loss of stock from various retail stores. It seems healthier recreational activities such as bushdiving have lost their appeal and have been replaced with the rush that comes from relieving retailers of their wares. Barrow said that it has become a sport among students to dare each other to shoplift goods from stores.

Philip Abrahams, a fourth year BA LLB student, said that he thought it to be “absolutely reprehensible”. “Tertiary students are in an incredible position of privilege and have more than enough recreational opportunities. In the economic context of Grahamstown, shoplifting can be incredibly problematic,” he says.

What few of these students seem to realise is that due to the loss of stock from the stores, retailers are forced to push their prices higher in order to make a profit. Retailers have to increase their security measures and budget for increasing legal fees. A second year BCom student said, “It’s not really fair because in Grahamstown it’s not like it’s big companies who can afford it, it’s individuals. And it’s stupid because you get a criminal record.”

A first-time offender is likely to get a suspended fine or a short jail stay, as well as a criminal record. This has many implications not worth the adrenaline rush of lifting some item from a shop, as a criminal record makes applying for a job or a visa more difficult than usual.

Shoplifters rarely fit the profile of a typical criminal, and the crime is often committed purely for the thrill. Your typical shoplifter usually has no criminal record, can afford to pay for the items they are stealing, take things that they do not need and know and admit that their actions are wrong. But they can’t bring themselves to stop – a problem that is rooted in the psychology of the compulsive shoplifter. People who shoplift for fun divert attention from those who do actually have a psychological problem.

For some, shoplifting is their way of rewarding themselves, a ‘lift’ to get them through the day or the week. One of the most important things in understanding the psychology of a compulsive shoplifter is understanding that most of the time, ‘getting something for nothing’ represents more to the shoplifter than the retail value of the item. It can be a way to relieve stress, boredom, frustration or depression – approximately one in every three shoplifters are diagnosed with depression.

It can also be ‘justified payback’, where shoplifters feel that they give so much of themselves to others and get so little in return. It may also represent a substitute for any loss that the shoplifter may feel, particularly for children with divorced parents or those that have lost a parent or close friend.

The addiction grows in the exact same way as any other addiction. The shoplifter experiences a high after successfully stealing an item, and this high temporarily eliminates any feelings of anxiety or depression that the shoplifter may have. Once the high fades and reality sets in again, they feel the urge to recreate the high by shoplifting again, and so a vicious circle of behaviour begins. Not every incident of shoplifting will lead to addiction – for some people it’s a way of testing the system. A third year BSc student said that she once stole a pack of batteries from a local store. “I felt so guilty afterwards that I thought that everyone who talked to me suspected me. But the thrill at the time was quite invigorating.” Although shoplifting may

be fun for some, it’s also stupid and not acceptable, even from the dullest crayon in the box.



One Response to The five finger discount

  1. Nelefaispas says:

    Never shoplift though as it will mess you up for a long time. An eventual employer won’t understand your supposed highs. You would be depressed for a very long time. Let alone the reputation that one carries as being a thief.

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