What the rising level of thefts tells us

A month ago a Yorkshire vicar managed to get himself in all sorts of trouble by telling his congregation that shoplifting from big companies could be justified.

As long as you are in a “desperate situation” he said, taking stuff from “national” retailers was better than any other kind of stealing for the simple reason that it spreads the pain around. Shoplifting nudges up prices for other shoppers very slightly and nudges down returns for shareholders very slightly.

The Archdeacon of York did not agree with the Rev Tim Jones’s cost-benefit analysis and I suspect the retail industry wasn’t much impressed either.

New figures just out from the British Retail Consortium show that “product shrinkage” rose 34% last year with total losses being estimated at around £1.1bn. These are the kinds of numbers that should give pause for thought to the “recession, what recession?” brigade.

Sure, the odd celebrity shoplifts just for the thrill, and there are others who see shoplifting as, as one blog as it, “a statement against the alienation of the modern consumer”. But for most people, stealing is a measure of some sort of desperation. It reflects actual changes of circumstances – the last year looks to have seen a rise in both basic shoplifting (to keep food on the table) and high-value shoplifting (driven by a psychological desire of some to maintain a certain standard of living (there was an unexpected rise in the lifting of high-value items last year).

But studies show that shoplifting is also related to stress. When people are highly stressed, and particularly when they are stressed by events they perceive as having an unfair effect on them, says Dr Will Cupchik, author of Why Honest People Shoplift, “they may be inclined to steal, whereas in normal circumstances they would not.”

So it may be that the rising number of thefts really should be seen as an informal measure of consumer confidence – and not one that is telling us anything good about this year.