Thursday, November 10, 2011

New Books: The Steal by Rachel Shteir

The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting by Rachel Shteir

If you are interested in reading something a little out of the ordinary, about a phenomenon so pervasive we hardly seem to take notice of it anymore, consider this fresh and original look at the history and cultural significance of shoplifting. Rachel Shteir reviews differing social perspectives on shoplifting: shoplifting as crime, psychological disease, and social protest. The author explores various theories of why shoplifting occurs. Is it a response to a culture of hyper-consumerism? Does the frequency go up in times of economic downturn? How do retailers stop it? There do not seem to be easy answers to these questions. Shteir gives us a history of anti-theft technology. She describes the current edition of the shoplifter, the mall “booster.” And yes, the book would not be complete without an account of Winona Ryder’s famous shopping trip.

In addition to the speculative side of this discussion, there is the hard economic side. It is estimated that every American family loses $400.00 a year to shoplifting related price inflation, and that in 2009 American retailers lost $11.7 billion to shoplifting. Consumers are often under the impression, because they have some sense of mark-up margins on merchandise, that retailers have huge profit margins. This is seldom the case. After operational expenses, sales promotion markdowns, and clearance markdowns, the profit margin of a retailer is often a very small percentage of the overall sales volume. Shoplifting can cut into that margin to such a degree that such losses may force a small or even large retailer out of business. So while this is an entertaining discussion of the subject, it is also a serious one, and will perhaps spark other sociological investigations.

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