Introduction: Shoplifting

Shopping at the supermarket might never be the same for you after reading these fifty unique shoplifting stories. They’ll have you wondering if the customer in the aisle with you is a thief.


As a young grocery store manager back in the early nineties, I was involved with a variety of shoplifting incidents, approximately two hundred and fifty in my first five years in management. The whole idea of stealing from a grocery store really struck a nerve with me. It soon became apparent that shoplifting was a common occurrence not limited to gender, age, race, or social standing.


I had witnessed shoplifting when I was coming up through the ranks, but not to the degree I saw when I began looking for shoplifters in earnest.


The first store location I managed was in a vacation area bordered by a small college in New England. You might not think it was a shoplifting mecca, but it was. A third of the people caught were college students. Another third were senior citizens. The other third were common thieves or people down on their luck.


Over the years, I told friends and family members shoplifting stories. Some made them laugh, some made them cry, and some just made them angry. I started to document the tales, thinking someday I would compile them in a book.


For Christmas 2020, I got a Chromebook laptop—much better than pencil and paper. I started to put words to all the stories about shoplifters I had documented in my forty-plus-year career as a supermarket store manager. Shoplifting was one key part of managing a store. You had to protect the bottom line.


During my career, I caught nearly one thousand shoplifters. I worked in thirteen stores that covered two states. These are my stories. Imagine all the other stories that managers, and loss-prevention personnel in supermarkets, clothing stores, big-box stores, home-improvement stores, etc. could tell. Each must have hundreds. That is an awful lot of shoplifting going on in this country today. Estimated losses for shoplifting annually are in the billions of dollars. The products stolen range from a pack of gum to a carriage full of groceries.


Before I got the idea to write this book, when I tried to find books on shoplifting, it was difficult. Most were about how to prevent shoplifting, or the economic results of the act of shoplifting. I also found books about kleptomania. This book about shoplifting is different. I wanted to tell the stories of individual incidents that I have dealt with over all my years as a store manager.


Many of the incidents I experienced are similar, but each is unique and has its own character. There are so many ways to shoplift, different ways the shoplifter gets caught—enough to write a couple of books.


The stories in this book are all from actual incidents. All the shoplifters were caught by me or by my staff in a team effort. Several of them were reported by customers and employees as well. The shoplifters are nameless. All arrests are public record. The police and towns are real, but anonymous.


Shoplifters are not limited to a specific color or race. Various age groups are portrayed in the book only to show the diversity. I portray each offender’s gender accurately. According to my sample of nearly one thousand shoplifters, the females shoplifted over sixty percent of the time as compared to the men.


Along with the stories of actual shoplifting incidents is information offered to educate the reader about shoplifting and some of the nuances and provisions of the law. I look at civil recovery, grand larceny, willful concealment, kleptomania, organized crime rings, police involvement, communication, and what it’s like in the courtroom with a judge.


That there are senior citizens who can’t afford to eat, who steal because they are hungry, should be a wake-up call of grave concern to us all. Over four hundred shoplifting incidents involved senior citizens, and over one hundred got away. These older adults are just trying to survive. Sometimes, they just want that little extra something that we take for granted. The social security system that was put in place to care for our friends, neighbors, and loved ones in their golden years has obviously failed.


Opioid-addicted shoplifters also account for hundreds of incidents; they were easy to spot but not so easy to contain or arrest. If a shoplifter was high, he or she was usually very cooperative, docile, easy to control, and I had each one arrested. It’s the only way I thought they could get help—by getting entered in the system and standing before a judge. If a person needed a fix and was stealing to support his next score, that person was not thinking straight. When confronted, the shoplifter often tried to run, and often, the incident ended in a struggle. That shoplifter was arrested.


Shoplifters who stole while shopping with their kids were especially troubling to me. There were easily over a hundred incidents that I documented. Kids are sponges and learn from their parents. The older the kids were, the more they saw. There were many kids who were in on the shoplifting—directed by the adults in the strategy of it, what to do. These kids will steal when they grow up, no doubt.


My dealings with parents of minors who were caught shoplifting elicited a variety of responses; some thanked me, others nearly accused me of being at fault. Sometimes, when I called a parent and not the police, I wished I had called the police. This was very rare; most parents were very thankful that I called them. But a parent is a parent, and when it comes to their children, I was apt to get the kind of response you’d get from mama bear protecting her cub.


I called one parent early in my career and told her that her fourteen-year-old daughter had been caught shoplifting from the store. The mother thought I was her boyfriend, pranking her, because he had just dropped the girl off.


I would like to thank all my family and friends. My co-workers, managers, supervisors, I worked for were instrumental in helping me learn about shoplifting and teaching me the laws around it, so we could all catch as many shoplifters as we did. The store managers who came up through the ranks, as I did, have their own stories to tell. Some have more stories; some less. Some managers shared their stories with me, and those appear in a later chapter of the book. I also am grateful to the many customers who lent a hand when we were trying to control a shoplifter—for their help in a crisis and for being loyal.


To the many police departments and officers I have dealt with over the years, I would like to say your job is not getting any easier, and I personally applaud all your efforts. There was never a bad incident in the many arrests that we made together. Defunding your departments will not help with the shoplifting problem, and most likely will push the crime further down the food chain, turning into a free-for-all. Thank you for your service.

Chapter 2: A Typical Shoplifting Incident

Most shoplifting incidents I managed or was involved in were handled rather quickly and without much embarrassment to the individual who was implicated. Usually, an employee or member of management saw something suspicious and reported it. We then kept an eye on that individual.


There were a number of cameras in our building. Some were fixed, but a lot were moveable—left to right, up and down—and they also could zoom in and out. The cameras had high-quality lenses and could hone in on the date on a penny.


The cameras gave us a lot of information, and they didn’t lie, but you still needed to follow the suspect until he or she passed the point of sale—the registers. You had to be sure a suspected shoplifter had in his or her possession the item you believed was concealed. You had to be one hundred percent certain.


On some occasions, I saw suspected shoplifters either feel they were being watched or otherwise get spooked. They would dump whatever they had in their possession in another aisle. If an employee didn’t witness this unloading and continued to confront them, the store, or I—or both of us—could become liable. This is why it was important to have certainty before lodging an accusation.


An incident comes to mind from spring 2014 as representing most of the shoplifting cases I have been involved in over the years. One of my employees told me a female in the health and beauty aisle had put what the employee thought was an Olay beauty product in the customer’s pocketbook.


We went to the camera room and watched our suspect. A few moments later, she put a large bottle of Advil in her purse. Now, I was not certain she was in possession of the Olay cream, because I didn’t witness that theft, but I was sure about the Advil she put in her pocketbook. If there had been time, I could have rewound the camera feed to watch her take the Olay beauty product, but there wasn’t. We did have enough evidence to confront her.


I watched the customer until she got to the registers. I also informed my front-end manager about what was happening. The customer took her wallet out of her purse before she got to the register, which we knew to be a sign that she would not open her purse at the register. She was probably fearful the product might be visible in her pocketbook.


Normally, if I was on watch, I would confront the shoplifter, as I did with this individual. On occasion, I would have another member of management with me to learn how to approach a suspected shoplifter. There were protocols to follow.


That moment just before a confrontation was always a butterflies-in-the-stomach time for me, whether the suspect was a child or a senior citizen. From my first shoplifter to my last, the feeling was always the same.


I learned from experience, though, which shoplifters would not pose a problem and which would become trouble. I did not feel that female would be difficult. When she was done checking out, I met her near the exit.


Because, by law, you cannot accuse someone of taking something even when you are one hundred percent certain, I asked, “Did you forget to pay for the Advil you have in your pocketbook?”


She hesitated, realized she was caught, and said, “Oh, I didn’t realize I put it in there.” She continued, “I would like to pay for it.”


“Okay, let’s go to my office, so we can settle this” I said, and we went to the office.


When there is a female suspect, you must have a female witness. If you are a female manager and have a male suspect, you must have a male witness. Protocols also forbade one from taking a suspect to the office alone, one on one. Always, you had to have a witness present.


The female employee who’d reported that incident to me was waiting in the office to serve as the witness. The shoplifter took out the Advil and put it on my desk. We were all seated. I asked her about the Olay beauty product she had in her bag as well. She was a little shocked but reached in, took out the Olay, and placed it on my desk.


“Do you have anything else,” I asked.


She said no and opened her pocketbook so I could see inside. I asked my female employee to look inside the pocketbook as well. She also didn’t see anything else that looked like it belonged to our store.


I told the customer, “This is shoplifting.” I told her what she had done was a crime and asked her if she thought I should call the police. She said, “no.”


When the police are called, arrest is nearly a certainty. Our Olay shoplifter could have been taken in a police cruiser to the police station, and possibly, she would have been locked up in a holding cell. She would have been released with a court date to appear before a judge.


In court, she likely would have pled guilty, and fines would range between one and two hundred dollars, or more. She would have been put on probation, and her name would have made the local newspaper. If the incident was her first offense, it would have been recorded as such, and she would suddenly have a criminal record.


Now, I don’t know if that shoplifter had a record, but I know she did not want the police to be involved.


I explained that the law provided her with an option to arrest; she could pay what was called a civil recovery fee, which was essentially a fine that provided restitution to the merchant for the cost of surveillance and time spent apprehending a shoplifter. This fee did not cover the cost of goods stolen; the shoplifter could pay for those separately. The benefit to the shoplifter was avoiding embarrassment, police involvement, and court appearances; they could put a stop to the incident in the moment.


Each state in the United States has its own guidelines for civil recovery, which must be followed judiciously and in an exacting manner. At the time of this incident, Massachusetts law provided not more than five hundred dollars in restitution, and New Hampshire law was not more than three hundred, for each shoplifting incident.


This customer agreed to pay the restitution. She filled out the appropriate paperwork and paid fifty dollars with a credit card. She also paid for the Olay and Advil separately, as the stolen product is not part of the restitution paid to the merchant. I explained to her that the charge against her would then be confidential; no one else would learn about it. “However,” I told her, “If you are caught shoplifting again, I will have to call the police and have you arrested.”


Before the customer left the office that day, I explained to her she could still shop at our store as long as she didn’t steal from us again. “When you steal, it affects me and all of my employees,” I told her.


She promised she wouldn’t shoplift again, got her carriage of groceries, and left.


This was an easy incident to handle. Most of the remaining chapters in this book illustrate that confronting shoplifters was not as calm a process as in this case. Many shoplifters also did not show appreciation, even though I felt offering shoplifters I caught the option of civil recovery was giving them a break. I only presented this possibility if, and only if, the shoplifter was cooperative—to save the individual from embarrassment.


Once, I caught a female stealing forty dollars’ worth of groceries. After she decided to go with the civil recovery law, she told me she could not pay her oil bill. I explained to her that we could call the police, and she could take her oil bill issue up with a judge. I also told her the judge would more than likely fine her. She reluctantly paid civil recovery.


On another occasion, in 1995, I caught a professor who taught at a prestigious New England private high school. He stole a pen. The professor was quite arrogant as I explained to him that he would be arrested by the police in this small town, even for stealing a pen. He finally agreed to the maximum civil recovery at the time, which was two hundred dollars in restitution. He said he had his reputation to protect.

Chapter 30: McCormick Addiction

One afternoon in 2014, I caught a guy stealing McCormick extract—four one-ounce bottles still in their cardboard containers. The shoplifter put them in a reusable bag, which I watched him also steal as he walked across the front of the store.


He headed for the door, and I kept an eye on him until he moved toward the exit. We met each other in the vestibule, and I asked the shopper if he forgot to pay for the extract he had in his bag. He said he had and followed me to the office without incident. The shoplifter didn’t want the police involved and agreed to pay civil recovery. He made restitution and left the store. I didn’t give him a No Trespass order as he was cooperative.


“You may continue to shop here, but you can’t steal from us again. When you steal from the store, you are stealing from all of us who work here.”


Fast forward a couple months.


At the end of each night, the grocery staff broke down and tidied the grocery aisles, so they were neat and ready for the next day’s customers. Any empty packages or damaged merchandise was brought to the attention of the closing manager.


Two nights in a row, employees found empty McCormick extract boxes on the shelf in the baking aisle, missing the bottles inside. The bottles are quite small and easy to conceal.


The first night, there were four empty packages, and the next night there were six. I did not think about the individual who I’d caught months earlier; he didn’t cross my mind, perhaps because he’d taken the box with the bottle.


Two nights after the discovery of the empties, we found six additional empty boxes of extract. It was time to look at some video to see if we could catch our perpetrator.


Now, watching surveillance video for a particular moment in time can be daunting and tedious. It is not as easy as one might think. It can be done, but it is time consuming—and costly, which is why civil recovery feels so necessary to merchants.


While we weren’t dealing with a major loss—the extract cost $2.99 a bottle—there was a pattern developing. We hoped to find the suspect.


The Monday before Easter Sunday, we discovered fourteen empty containers of extract. They were on my desk when I got to work that morning. All from the weekend.


I finished my morning duties and went to the security office to try to find out who was doing this. There was a stationary camera, watching the aisle where the spices were. I watched the film for about an hour, maybe more, and finally saw the guy who was taking the extract, all displayed on the bottom shelf.


I watched the shoplifter squat like a baseball catcher, open the boxes, and put the bottles in his pocket. He neatly closed each empty box and put it back on the shelf.


I went back to roughly the same time in each of the nights we found the empty boxes. It was the same guy each time. The video was not crystal clear, so it was hard to get a good look at his face. Each night, he took a few more bottles of extract than the previous night.


In total at that time, there were thirty-six missing packages of McCormick extract. We had what we needed to catch him.


I stayed late with another manager to catch this guy in the act. We set a camera that had the capability to pan, tilt, and zoom on the spice section. The guy who had been coming in every night showed up and went right to the spice section. He emptied one package of extract and put the bottle in his pocket. When he got to the next box, he was surprised by a cashier who was putting overstock back on the shelves.


“You shouldn’t be doing that,” she told him. I was never so proud of that sixteen-year-old employee for speaking up. The fact that she noticed what the guy was doing was wrong and said something about it was remarkable to me, and I later told her so.


She spooked the shoplifter, though. He took a second bottle and headed towards the door.


On my way out of the office, I told an employee at the service center to call the police. We had to move quickly as our suspect was rushing to the exit.


We caught him at the door, and I finally recognized him. He was the guy I’d caught two months ago. His hair was different, and he was better groomed.


“Did you forget to pay for the extract in your pockets?” I asked him.


This time, he was not cooperative, and he tried to get away. Another manager and I struggled with him, trying to detain him, and we ended up on the floor. The manager and I were able to hold him successfully until the police arrived, though.


The officer, who I dealt with often, asked, “What are these bottles?”


“McCormick extract,” I said.


He seemed a little put out to be called for such a small item.


I explained that over the previous eight nights, this same suspect had stolen thirty-six bottles. He then was puzzled as to why someone might want to steal that much extract.


“They contain alcohol,” I explained. “It’s like drinking a nip bottle from the liquor store.”


Our shoplifter needed professional help.


You can’t make this stuff up.

Chapter 32: Little Girls Shoplifting Big Girl Things

When I caught young shoplifters, especially those under age sixteen, I called their parents. I believed the parents would take care of the situation. Most of the teen shoplifters were dropped off at the mall or the store to shop while the parents went home to do their own thing, or to shop separately in the store. However, parents were not called in the following incident.


One Thursday in 2010, two young girls entered the store about one in the afternoon. They stood out because it was a school day, and there wasn’t anyone else their age in the store. A manager told me they were in the health and beauty aids aisle, and I watched them on the cameras. They moved around a lot in the aisle, looking at many things.


One of the girls had a good-sized pocketbook and the other a sweatshirt with a pouch. They both were looking around and acting suspicious.


The two girls must have felt comfortable as they started taking items and putting them in the pocketbook. Into the pocketbook went two of each item they coveted, presumably one for each girl. The only variation occurred when they chose shampoo and conditioner; they must have had their own preferences when it came to their hair. The girl with the sweatshirt put four items in her pouch as well.


After about ten minutes, the girls seemed to be satisfied with their choices and headed for the exit. I will say, it was entertaining to watch these two girls act all grown up while shoplifting, with no intention to pay.


The two made it only so far as the vestibule. They were detained and brought to the office. The female service manager was already in the office when the girls came up the stairs.


They sat down in the office, and I asked them why they weren’t in school. No response. They also would not say how they had gotten to the store. They were on the punkish side, and they acted cocky, like, “What do you think you’re going to do about it.”


When I was given the total dollar amount of what they stole—$157.76, which I considered to be excessive—I called the police and not their parents. I eyed them looking at each other when I made the call.


Officers arrived, assessed the girls, and looked at me as I was pointing to the pile of beauty aids they had stolen. There were some food items as well. I told the officer how much the items had totaled and said they were not responsive to me either.


The officer immediately asked the girls for their names, and their whole demeanor changed. They answered all the officer’s questions. They told him they’d skipped school.


They were handcuffed and seated in the back seat of the police cruiser. I thought that was a good move; they would always remember this ride with handcuffs on. I hoped it would teach them a lesson.


The half dozen times I have called the police for shoplifters under eighteen, I always got a letter from the juvenile court department, asking me to appear at the suspect’s hearing. I did go to court for these two girls.


The few times I appeared in court, I was there for hours and never had a role. I think I simply represented the face of the victim, a reminder for the perpetrators as to what they had done wrong. That’s what happened in this case as well.


I never learned the girls’ situation. Bad home life? Maybe they were running away and were using the supermarket to stock up on supplies before they left.


Their shopping list: two Venus razors, two Venus cartridges, two Nutrisse hair products, two feminine hygiene products, a Dove shampoo and conditioner, one each of Herbal Essence shampoo and conditioner, two cans of Edge shave gel for sensitive skin, two containers of Johnson and Johnson body talc, and enough candy and gum for a week.