During the four weeks leading up to Christmas, an estimated $1.8 billion in merchandise will be shoplifted this year, according to The Global Retail Theft Barometer, a survey of retailers worldwide. That's up about 6 percent from $1.7 billion during the same period last year.
"They shoplift for Christmas gifts, they steal for themselves, for their family," says Joshua Bamfield, executive director of the Centre for Retail Research and author of the survey.
Unfortunately, this is not new. "Sticky fingers" are common during the holidays. The crowded stores and flustered clerks make it easier to slip a tablet computer into a purse or stuff a sweater under a coat undetected. But higher joblessness and falling wages have contributed to an even bigger rise this year. People steal everything from necessities (food) to luxuries they can no longer afford (e.g. iPods or a Gucci purse).
"It's really a question of need versus greed," says Joseph LaRocca, senior adviser of asset protection for the National Retail Federation trade group. "People will rationalize what they are stealing: 'Oh, I'm feeling the economy. I lost my job.' But it's hard to make the argument you need a $900 handbag."
Some experts say the economy's influence is largely a cop-out. They say shoplifters are stealing for myriad reasons this holiday season that have nothing to do with economic turmoil. Among them, some do it for a rush or thrill. For others, it's about filling a void. Still others are trying to relieve anxiety, boredom or depression--all emotions that are particularly common during the holidays.
"Shoplifting is generally a crime of opportunity- and opportunities abound at the holiday," says Barbara Staib, a spokeswoman for the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention. "The 'stressors' that come with the holiday will certainly help them rationalize their need for bad behavior."
Shoplifting is surprisingly common. An estimated one in 11 Americans shoplift, according to the National Association of Shoplifting Prevention. It bases its information on academic research and information from those who are ordered or choose to enter its counseling programs for shoplifters.
About 75 percent of shoplifters are adults -- equally men and women -- while kids make up about 25 percent of them. More than 70 percent of shoplifters say they did not plan ahead to steal and they acted spontaneously.
It adds up to billions of dollars in losses for retailers.
Theft of all kinds--including shop lifting, organized retail crime, employee theft and vendor fraud--cost retailers more than $119 billion worldwide in the 12 months ending in June, up nearly 7 percent from the same period in 2010. That's the biggest increase recorded by the Global Retail Theft Barometer since it began the survey in 2007.
In the four weeks leading up to Christmas, retailers in the U.S. are expected to lose $5 billion in theft and other crimes. About 36 percent of those losses come from shoplifting. Employee theft represents about 44 percent. Vendor theft and administrative error make up the remainder.
Several major chains declined to discuss their efforts to thwart the growing theft in stores by shoppers and employees. But the National Retail Federation says big merchants are spending about $11.5 billion a year to fend off losses.
They're trying to improve their technology, such as surveillance methods and tagging of merchandise with security devices. They also are working with competitors and law enforcement agencies more than ever by sharing more information, such as what criminals are taking and how they are targeting individual merchants.
Retailers' efforts are important, prevention experts say, because theft not only costs them, but society as a whole. Theft drives up retailers' costs and those are often passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices on everything from blueberries to blouses.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.