Snatch and Carry

Shoplifting is picking up, say store managers across Canada — and they aren*t just trying to be funny

BRUCE McLEOD August 15 1945

Snatch and Carry

Shoplifting is picking up, say store managers across Canada — and they aren*t just trying to be funny

BRUCE McLEOD August 15 1945

Snatch and Carry

Shoplifting is picking up, say store managers across Canada — and they aren*t just trying to be funny


WHEN store managers across Canada say shoplifting is picking up they’re not trying to be humorous. To them there is nothing funny about the light-fingered Joes and Janes who prey on Canadian storekeepers—robbing them of millions of dollars annually in a counter blitz that has almost doubled since the outbreak of war.

The other day, from a private office in a large department, store, I watched what happens when a shoplifter gets caught. She was about 27, a pretty brunette with large brown eyes, now tear-filled. Slumped in a chair beside the manager’s desk, fingers nervously twisting at a lace handkerchief, she kept repeating over and over again, “Please don’t tell my husband. Don’t tell my husband. If he knew about this I’d kill myself.”

On the desk beside her lay a fountain pen and a small dinner ring which she had slipped into her purse when she thought nobody was looking. Later, when a spotter stopped her she indignantly protested his accusation, then broke down and tearfully admitted tne theft.

In her purse, along with the pen and ring, which together weren’t worth more than $35, the spotter found $211 in cash and a bank book crediting the young woman with savings in excess of $1,000. Now the store manager was trying to find out why the young woman, wife of a wealthy insurance man, had stooped to stealing something she could easily have bought for cash. Her answer was typical of that given by most shoplifters whenever they are caught.

“I don’t know,” she sobbed. “I don’t know. I just couldn't help it.”

A few minutes later, after promising never to come into the store again, she was allowed to go.

“Has she learned her lesson?” I asked the manager. He shrugged. “Maybe she. has. But most of them don’t. It gets in their blood. You’d be shocked if I told you the names of some of the prominent women we’ve caught trying to steal merchandise. We caught one woman twice in 17 days—and her husband earns more money in a month than I do in a year.”

“Why don’t you have them arrested?” I wanted to know.

“Sometimes we do,” he said. “But not often. It’s too dangerous. Some people actually hope we will call the police. Then, unless we can make our charge stick, they can sue us.”

“There are other angles too,” interrupted the store spotter. “You heard that girl say she’d kill herself if we told her husband. You may not believe that. But a few years ago, in western Canada, after I reported a woman shoplifter to her parents she tried to drink iodine.”

“And remember,” the manager explained, “we daren’t accuse anybody inside the store. We may know that a customer is loaded with unpaid merchandise but we can’t accost her until she tries to leave. Technically no theft has been committed as long as the customer remains on the premises.”

“Do you always stop a suspect?” I enquired.

“Not always,” the manager concluded. “We try to take the long-range view. Sometimes, rather than risk a lawsuit or lose the business of a shoplifter’s wealthy friends, we let her walk out with her loot. But never, of course, if her tastes are too expensive. We might overlook the theft of a scarf or pair of gloves but not that of a fur coat or expensive jewellery.”

This doesn’t mean, of course, that shoplifters don’t ever get rapped hard over the knuckles. An outstanding example was that of a woman named St. Clair. In New York, during 1929, she was caught trying to steal a coat. A fourth offender, she was sentenced to life imprisonment. Her sentence was commuted after she had served eight years.

Penalties in the United States are much harsher than in Canada. In this country shoplifting may be penalized with anything from a suspended sentence to a fine or a jail term. If the shoplifter is a first offender a suspended sentence may be handed out. If, however, shoplifting has been carried out frequently by the culprit, he or she may go to the penitentiary.

Magistrate M. G. Gould of North Bay puts it this way: “We try to judge each shoplifting case on its

circumstances. I would say, however, that penitentiary sentences of two years or more , for the theft of articles from a store are rare. Sentences are usually lighter.”

One Toronto fur shop has a novel method of dealing with women who try to walk off with expensive unpaid merchandise. I was chatting with the manager when a clerk came into the office, carrying a rather shabby, worn fur neckpiece.

“Mrs. M. just walked out with a silver fox and left this in its place,” he said. “I thought it best not to stop her.”

The manager smiled. “Good,” he said. “Proceed as usual. I don’t think we need worry.”

I was surprised. “Are you going to let her get away with it?”

“No,” he said. “She just thinks she’s put one over on us. You see, whenever this happens—and it happens about twice a month in this store—we phone the woman’s husband and tell him his wife bought a new fur but neglected to pay for it—and would he be so kind as to mail us a cheque. Usually we get the cheque with no questions asked.”

In Ottawa the proprietor of a magazine and tobacco shop told me shoplifters robbed him of between $200 and $400 a year. “Caught a young stenographer a few weeks ago,” he said, “trying to walk out with two pipes and a full box of cigars dropped inside her umbrella. She told me her sweetheart was a heavy smoker and she figured by giving him the pipes and cigars she might jolt a proposal out of him.”

When he runs into an imaginative shoplifter like that a store operative has trouble deciding whether or not the culprit is telling the truth or just trying to pull his leg. Like the university coed accused of stealing two pairs of gloves from a Winnipeg store. “I really didn’t need them,” she told police. “I just did it for a thrill. You see I’ve always had anything I wanted simply by writing a cheque. I was bored stiff.”

Or the haughty dowager, in a Maritime city, who was caught stuffing a shopping bag with expensive perfumes off a cosmetic counter. She asked forgiveness on the grounds that she had just invested $7,500 in Victory Bonds and was a bit short of ready cash.

In a Fort William butcher shop last winter a man with $400 in his wallet tried to steal 39 cents worth of pork chops. In court he was fined $31.75 despite a plea that he had merely forgotten to pay for the meat. About 20% of shoplifters plead absent-mindedness.

The Lakehead case was unusual, not only because the shoplifter was convicted, but also because it involved a man. Merchants everywhere are agreed that women are the backbone of the shoplifting business. Men, they say, seldom steal from stores, and the few who do are usually so awkward or amateurish that they are easily caught. Experience has shown that about 95% of all shoplifting is done by amateurs, and since 90% of these amateurs are women it is easy to see that shoplifting is almost exclusively a hobby of females.

In Sudbury a pretty, young store clerk told me, “I can’t help laughing at the men. They’re so obvious it’s pathetic. And when you catch them they’re so embarrassed. They stammer and stutter indignantly.

Then they wilt completely and pay up. Of course every now and then you run into a professional, and when a man decides to make a science of shoplifting he’s usually good.”

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Snatch And Carry

Continued from page 18

Managers of larger stores say shoplifters come from every stratum of society. The manager of an Ottawa department store puts it this way: “Of the 300 women who shoplift every month in the larger stores here, between six and 10 of them are likely to be women of wealth and high social standing. Of the others, about 40 boast social prominence but lack the wealth to go with it. The rest are a mixture of middle-class types.”

These same men agree there is little shoplifting in the poorer neighborhoods. Middle-class districts claim the top offenders.

Children shoplift too. A few do it for devilment but most youngsters steal at the instigation of some adult. In Windsor, Ont., four youngsters, all under 12, were nabbed in a grocery store, trying to smuggle $20 worth of foodstuffs inside roomy windbreakers. They told store officials they were working for a man who paid them off in chocolate sodas. In Hamilton a woman and her young son and daughter were caught with loot from five different stores. Working as a team during the Christmas shopping rush they had stolen several men’s shirts, two tablecloths, cosmetics, a glass salad bowl, four books and some jewellery.

Another class of shoplifter—and one who is difficult to outwit—is the visitor from out of town. These are usually women who haven’t the nerve to steal from shops in their own home towns and who invade big city shops in the hope of getting something for nothing. Since they are strangers to the store operatives, they often get away with shoplifting where a better-known character would be watched and caught.

Many women shoplifters seem genuinely relieved when caught. They admit they have become addicts of the light-fingered racket; that nothing short of a public scandal could drive the fever from their blood. These types are easy to break down and usually sign confessions without much prodding. Professionals, of course, aren’t so easily impressed—not even by the threat of a jail sentence. Professionals never sign anything.

Of course this doesn’t mean that storekeepers consider every customer a prospective shoplifter. The majority of customers are honest people interested only in paying for what they take away. The percentage of shoplifters in any one store depends in many cases on the type of goods sold by that store. The percentage in a hardware store would be higher than in a hat shop. Some merchants think between three and 11%, of their customers would shoplift if given the chance. Others say the ratio is lower than 3%,. In groceterias the ratio might be higher even than 11%,, depending on the neighborhood in which the store is located.

According to store spotters professional shoplifters are easily recognized. Usually they have no registration card or any ready means of identification on them when caught. They refuse to talk. And most of them have on them some special gadget designed to facilitate stealing.

One stand-by is a cotton stocking pinned inside the coat. Here it can soak up a lot of merchandise without betraying its bulk. Sometimes a heavy reinforced pocket is cut or sewn into the lining of a skirt or coat. Sometimes a skirt pocket will be tied at the bottom with a string. Then, if stopped for questioning, the shoplifter jerks the string, spilling the stolen merchandise on the floor. shoplifting losses at between $200 and $450 a year.

The owner of a novelty shop told me: “When a woman does this, she’ll step away from the merchandise and then stoop over and help the clerk pick it up, apologizing profusely for having knocked it off the counter.”

How Shoplifters Hide Loot

Underclothing is another favorite hiding place for the shoplifter’s loot and many a tin of coffee, grapefruit or i pound of bacon has marched out of a , neighborhood grocery inside a roomy ! pair of bloomers with elastic around the knees. In Montreal a woman was found with five oranges, an alarm clock, a jar of jam, a bottle of ketchup and a tin of apple juice cached inside a set of red bloomers. Long underwear tied around the ankles is also a favorite with sleight-of-hand males. They pop merchandise inside their shirts, loosen their belts and let the articles drop into the legs of their undies, where ônly a hawk-eyed spotter could pick them out.

Men who make a profession of shoplifting sometimes use flesh-colored cords looped around their necks—like the cords used by saxophone players. Under suitable conditions they can pick up a suit, hanger and all, by hooking them on to the cord. Under a loose-fitting overcoat, the bulge can hardly be noticed.

Baby carriages also provide harassed merchants with a sizeable headache. At one time so much merchandise was being hauled away in Junior’s pram that today many storekeepers ban ! carriages from their stores. A popular hiding place was under baby’s pillow, and if stopped the mother would almost invariably blame baby for picking up the merchandise.

An old ruse used by women preying on the dress shops is to take three or four dresses into a fitting room, put a couple of them on under their old dress and walk out of the store. In North Bay, Ont., they still remember the women who tried to shoplift a $35 frock. When halted by a suspicious store manager she was quick to show him that she was wearing only one dress under her coat.

“I wore this dress downtown today,” she protested. “Surely you don’t think I came in here wearing no dress at all!”

Subsequent questioning, however, proved she had done exactly that. She had entered the store, wearing nothing but panties and brassiere under a light topcoat. In a fitting room she had put on a new dress and tried to walk out with it. She almost got away with it too.

Men’s wear shops are usually victimized during rush hours. Customers come in, try on a new sweater, hat or jacket and then walk out wearing their loot before busy clerks can check up on them.

The folded newspaper technique, too, is favored by the so-called shoplifting elite. Recently an obviously wellheeled matron attracted the attention of a spotter in a large Toronto store. Well-dressed, with greying hair upswept beneath an expensive hat, she was standing by a lingerie counter. Nonchalantly she folded a newspaper over a slip and stuffed both into her shopping bag. Strolling to another department she casually laid the paper over a counter display of bracelets. Two of them were missing when she picked up the paper and walked off with it clutched tightly under her arm. A few minutes later the paper was put to work at a glove counter; then at a purse display. For 40 minutes the spotter trailed the matron around the store. Finally, as she hurried through a main entrance, he stopped her. She . was explosively indignant; threatened to have him discharged. But when he mentioned calling in the police she became suddenly docile, surrendered her shopping bag and confessed. “I’m really very ashamed of myself,” she said. “But I can’t help it. You see I’m a kleptomaniac. I fought it for years but I still am the victim of an uncontrollable urge to steal. I’ve been to doctors but even they can’t help me.”

Admittedly, psychiatrists say there is such a thing as kleptomania; but, when it comes to shoplifting, true pathological cases are few and far between. Not one of the store detectives or managers with whom I talked had anything but cold scorn for such an excuse. As one manager put it: “If you live on the

wrong side of the tracks they call it theft. If you own a lorgnette and live on Snob Hill it’s kleptomania.”

Store detectives are even more sceptical. One said, “I’ve made dozens of investigations but never once have I bumped into a genuine kleptomaniac. Some women steal out of sheer vanity. Most of them do it because it thrills them to get something for nothing. But all of them act deliberately and with premeditation. Kleptomania is only a corny excuse they resort to when caught.”

Doctors Take Different View

Doctors, however, agree with psychiatrists and say some people are victims of an emotional upset that fills them with an uncontrollable urge to steal. They call it a disease.

One doctor told me, “I have had experience with two genuine kleptomaniacs. One was the wife of a professor. The other was a promising medical student. The only thing the professor could do was to visit every store in his town and ask the merchants to be tolerant. Instead of charging her with theft, they’d send him a bill for what she took. Eventually she ruined him financially.”

The wartime increase in shoplifting is attributed by store managers to a variety of reasons. Some blame rationing. A Sault Ste. Marie merchant told me, “As soon as rationing was announced we experienced an increase in shoplifting. Women tried to get away with sugar, coffee and tea.”

A new angle, designed by shoplifters to beat rationing, was recently smoked out at North Bay. There women were spotted slipping pounds of butter inside empty lard containers. They’d pay the cashier a few cents for what looked like lard and make off with the butter ration-free.

Other merchants think the increase in self-serve stores, the shortage of help needed to supervise larger counter displays and the increased cost of living have all contributed. “Many husbands refuse to believe that foodstuffs have gone up in price,” a grocery man in North Toronto told me. “They expect their wives to run the house on the same budget they had back in 1939. That can’t be done. And when the wife runs short of money, rather than quarrel with her husband she sometimes stoops to shoplifting.”

Groceterias, incidentally, are among the businesses hardest hit by shoplifting. Many estimate their monthly losses at many hundreds of dollars. Novelty shops, five-and-ten stores and hardwares are also heavy losers. Book stores in some large cities place their losses at several hundred dollars a month, while the annual loss sustained by large metropolitan department stores may run into a cool $100,000 or more. A merchant doing $50,000 worth of business in a year usually sets his In Canada, while there is no counter part to SMPA, many of the operatives hired by stores keep records of the people they catch or suspect.. These records contain not only names and j addresses but also the height, color of hair, eyes and complexion—even the j professed religion of the shoplifter.

Shoplifting is a seasonal racket. In July and August, when business is slow', shoplifting hits the skids. The upswung starts in September and reaches its peak during the Christmas season. Special occasions, such as Mother’s Day and Easter, also give shoplifting a spurt.

How can stores protect themselves from this counter barrage? Some store managers throw up their hands apd say adequate protective measures j would cost them more than the goods j they lose. But most stores adopt defensive measures of one kind or another—even if it’s only a welltrained alert staff of clerks.

In Toronto only the two largest department stores employ a staff of store detectives, and they shy away i from discussing their activities for fear of offending customers. These “counter dicks,” as shoplifters call them, include both men and women. They dress like ordinary customers and mingle with the public. Other stores use spotters whom they employ at various seasons of the year. Thase operatives sometimes travel from store to store across the country, hiring out to managers who want to make a check on their shoplifting losses or compile a list of suspects for future reference. Many of these operatives are middle-aged women, wise in the ways of the shoplifter.

Portrait of a Shoplifter

One of them told me, “The average shoplifter is well-dressed and usually has from $15 to $80 in her purse. Waitresses and stenographers when caught usually have from $10 to $50 on them. Some even have uncashed pay cheques. Once I caught a chef trying to lift a pair of silver candleholders—don’t ask me why—who had $90 in his pocket and uncashed cheques for two months wages.”

I In many stores the manager himself 1 is the best detective. As he strolls i around his store he is constantly w'atching for the customer who is ; trying to pull a fast one. Some managj ers say they catch an average of one customer an hour trying to steal merchandise.

According to the manager of a Toronto sportswear shop, there are some definite signs that help managers and detectives spot shoplifters. “Extreme nervousness or nonchalance is usually a tip-off.” he says. “When a woman removes her change purse from her handbag before entering a store, j you can usually count on it that she’s planning a little shoplifting. And when you find a customer stalling around a counter, you’d better keep an eye on him.”

In the United States, where yearly shoplifting losses run millions of dollars higher than in Canada, protective measures are more highly developed. One of New York’s largest stores loses about $1,000,000 annually to customers with larceny in their souls. To fight the racket it employs 100 store detectives. U. S. storekeepers may also call for help from SMPA (Stores' Mutual Protective Association). SMPA keeps a file of hundreds of photographs of men and women who have been convicted of shoplifting. It also lists the names of thousands of other individuals who have been caught, shoplifting but not convicted. This information is made available by SMPA to all member stores.

A more complicated but very effective method of trapping the shoplifter is a system of sales checks used by many stores. Often shoplifters find they have no use for the merchandise they’ve pilfered. So they try to return it for cash. That’s where they run into trouble, for most merchandise returned without a sales slip can be traced back to the store.

\Vhile the shoplifter is a rat in the eyes of most storekeepers, they are willing to admit that shoplifting is merely one of many weaknesses that afflict the average human. As a sergeant of detectives once told me: “Most people get a kick out of pulling a fast one on somebody else. After all, what’s the difference between the character who shoplifts and the character who lies about his income tax or drops a slug into a pay telephone?”