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Easy shopping


We’re fortunate still to have a local weekly paper when so many communities have lost theirs. Admittedly it is not very exciting, being filled with feel-good suburban news of school activities and local heroes. Like many people in these paranoid times, I turn first to the bad news, the police report. It is quite short, just a couple of columns, but I rather suspect that an unedited version would fill the entire paper. Until recently the police report was full of car thefts, after some manufacturers had obligingly made their vehicles as easy to steal as an unlocked bicycle. Now our local amateur criminals have their driveways full and have turned to shoplifting in preparation for the holiday season.

There’s nothing new about shoplifting. It’s as old as the first shops and the first small boy who snatched an apple from the counter and ran. What seems to be different now is the scale of the thing. Retailers have reported an “epidemic” of shoplifting in 2023, reflected in the number of reports in the local paper, often accompanied by security camera photographs. The old-fashioned style of shopping where the customers would choose their items, line up at the checkout, and pay, seems to be going out of style.

And today’s shoplifters are no longer satisfied with a single apple: they grab televisions, power tools, generators, building supplies, whole racks of clothing and whole carts full of food. They can be seen on camera boldly wheeling these acquisitions out of the store, apparently without shame and certainly without interference from the store security personnel, if any. It looks like a tolerated form of looting that the retail trade is unable or unwilling to stop. The reported retail losses last year added up to $94.5 billion, and some large stores have begun closing branches where the ratio of stealing to selling has become too high. This only increases the amount of crime by forcing frustrated thieves to steal a car to drive to the next nearest branch.

Some senior citizens can remember old-style shops with counters where you asked for what you wanted. Self-service arrived early in the 20th century, popular with retailers because they could fire all the staff who used to serve behind those counters. It seemed obvious to everyone else that displaying a cornucopia of stuff in big half-empty stores with almost no staff was asking too much of human nature, and it was, and it still is.

Even self-service stores had some security until recently. You would see security personnel, usually hefty men with disagreeable expressions, patrolling near the exit doors. This was not a pleasant or safe job. Confrontations could turn violent, frightening the store’s workers and customers. So, we seem to have gone from some security to no security.

It is different in Europe, where shoplifters are less likely to be armed and dangerous. Quite recently I was stopped as I was leaving a French supermarket and searched, although I was so lightly dressed that I could not have concealed even a baguette. The mere fact that I didn’t have a baguette was probably a cause for suspicion. Next time I went to that store I took care to carry one conspicuously under my arm.

But American retailers seem to have resigned themselves to what is politely called “shrinkage,” as in “Let’s go down to the mall and do some shrinkage.” Plastic pumpkins are walking out of the doors now. Soon it will be plastic Christmas trees. After all, it is shopping season. Nobody should be left out.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.