The impossible city

James Harkin is a freelance consultant.

Urban strategy 1: Shoplifting

Strategy for the modern shoplifter is difficult to state without patronizing the experienced, confusing the novice, or offending both with a style unsuited to the terrain in which they work.

Nevertheless, some precepts bear repeating. In-store "wasters" of consumer goods should investigate how the stock is managed and accounted for before they even contemplate an intervention. Walk-ins should endeavour to know store, staff and cameras better than the manager. They should think about shift working and make a mental note of who works when. They should invent soubriquets for each security guard and trace the beats through which each moves around the store. Stealth rather than impulse is the watchword. He who can't help acting on impulse should start by liberating a decent set of running shoes.

The art of shoplifting is as old as the retail economy itself. Even before that, the shoplifter had attracted more than his fair share of intellectual attention. For the 19th-century French socialist Proudhon, to lift was to rescue the item from its commodity form and return it to its properly sensuous nature as a useful object. While his contemporary Karl Marx poured scorn on the idea that the lifter could hasten the demise of the capitalist system, he was the first to point out that the dialectic between police and thief drives both employment and innovation. Similarly, the modern shoplifter has changed the incentives of retail outlets everywhere: providing work for an army of otherwise unemployable security staff, stimulating investment in closed-circuit television technology, and ushering forth the development of multitudinous tag-like gadgets which, unless you pull them off in the changing rooms, are in danger of bleeping on the way out of the store.

The modern shoplifter, however, has fallen on stony intellectual ground. According to Dr Talbot in a recent article published in the Journal of Social Psychology, the majority of British shoplifters come from the ranks of the lonely and the unfulfilled, and actively seek to be caught for their crimes. Now it may well be the case that some lifters go about their business in a slovenly manner, but to tar the lifting fraternity with the infelicities of a few is neither good ethics nor responsible science.

Among experienced shoplifters, Dr Talbot should know that emotional or material scarcity is rarely the precipitating factor. An established body of research suggests quite different motivating forces. A minority of so-called "talkers", it is true, get involved in the hope of being caught and winning a chat with the store manager; "fetishists" act because they like the feel of the merchandise; "prima donnas" lift in the hope of mimicking the behaviour of famous actors or the hosts of day-time TV shows. But the vast majority of shoplifters act for the sheer pleasure of a job well done, the thrill of calmly doffing their proverbial cap at the staff and other responsible citizens and walking breathlessly out of the store. The lifter, like the inventor or the bonds trader, thrives on risk - and should be respected for what he puts back into the retail economy as well as what he takes out.

There are other, more inclusive considerations. At a time when we are more concerned than ever about gender inequality, consider this: a full 58% of UK shoplifters last year were women. While women are seriously under-represented within most categories of violent crime, it seems that they are more than holding their own in the lifting stakes. The time has come to lift the stigma on lifting, to celebrate the diversity of the modern shoplifter. We should also think twice before stamping out one of the few forms of manual labour at which the British still excel.

There are, inevitably, those within the lifting community who devalue the currency of the work. Wet-behind-the-ears "Morrissey told me to do it" students only lift half-heartedly, without either ambition or aplomb. They do so, and here Dr Talbot has a point, either to brag about their exploits or to self-mythologize - too keen to invent some kind of eau-de-Kerouac which might augment a stultified personality and win them a serviceable bunk-up at the student bar. Once caught, the lifting student quickly loses her swagger, blabbing and ranting about the effect of a criminal conviction on her future career. She should remember her audience: a security guard or a frustrated store manager is unlikely to be impressed by the argument that prosecution would endanger a promising career as a politician or a molecular biologist. This is one of the few occasions when they are likely to enjoy their job.

If the shoplifter is not prepared to do the honourable thing, to deny everything and leave proof of intentionality to a slack-jawed jury, she should think seriously about a strategy for mitigation. As an aside, Dr Talbot points out in his article that conviction rates for menstruating women and for lifters who volunteer a history of being sexually abused as a child are substantially lower than the national average. With respect, this is a lesson from which we can all learn.

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