In Which We Talk About Working in Retail and Employee Theft

Mike: The Awl had an interesting post about shoplifting yesterday. Have you ever shoplifted?

Logan: Well. No, is the answer to that, mostly. But: I did think it was really interesting how the roundup started with the assumption that all people have shoplifted? Have all people shoplifted? Also that’s a really strong word: SHOPLIFTED. I will tell you my first and only experience taking something from a store that was not mine. My friend Katie and I were little—maybe six? We were at TJ MAXX with her mom and playing in the toy section and we found this eraser that was in the shape of a princess or a fairy or something, and we decided to take it. Perhaps it was part of a larger craft set? Perhaps it was left there by another child and was never for sale at all? We got to her house, and hid our little treasure in the crawl space. Later I got home and cried to my mother, confessing my sin. I was told that it was good to be honest, but to never steal anything ever again. And I mostly didn’t! You?

Mike: Nope. Whenever I think of the idea of shoplifting I think about Winona Ryder, or that scene from Breakfast at Tiffany’s where they go into that dime store and steal some cheap animal masks for the thrill of it. And that’s just terrifying to me. There were a lot of things instilled in me as a kid that prevented me from being the type who would steal, including: Catholic guilt and being a tiger cub.

Logan: I wouldn’t say I’m a great fan of rules, but “don’t take what isn’t yours” is a rule that I’ve always gotten behind, somehow, though maybe it’s just as much out of a fear of getting caught than a moral stance against taking things. I remember a period during high school when girls were really into bragging about what they stole from Sephora, and there was another little trend with North Face jackets only being cool if they were stolen. But, yeah, that always just seemed terrifying to me. I don’t like lying. And I really don’t like my mom being disappointed in me. So. Yes. Ha. But when I started to work in retail, and started having friends work in retail and in restaurants and bars, I feel like my attitude changed a little bit. Or at least my definition of what stealing was and wasn’t became more fluid. Is taking something home stealing? Yes. Is sharing a discount or giving product away to a customer stealing? Ehhhhh.

Mike: You mean the definition of what it means to steal from a place? I got my first retail job in high school, and I also worked part-time in college, and it was just astounding to me about the theft that occurred in the places I worked. I think the statistic is something like, 75 percent of thefts that happen in retail are done by employees—not customers. And it’s totally true! I worked at Barnes and Noble when I was in college, and one of my coworkers got fired because he stole albums from the music department. I saw him working at Macy’s not too long after and I was like, “What happened?” He said, “Oh yeah, they caught me on the surveillance camera.” And I said incredulously, “And now you work at Macy’s?” And he just laughed. His whole thing was, “who cares if you steal from a big corporation!” Which is silly. Like you said, “Don’t take what’s not yours.”

Logan: Yes that’s always a big section during orientation at retail jobs—the number one reason people get fired is being late, and the number two reason is stealing. I used to work in a grocery store, and a lot of stuff gets thrown away. I worked in flowers, I had friends that worked in the bakery, in dairy, in produce. So I’d often put more flowers in a bouquet than someone paid for, or give some old flowers away to a customer or to a friend or other employees. And I’d get to take home bruised apples and day-old baked goods and smushed cakes. There was a way to do this that was “legal” in the store, fill out a slip that said, these products are not sellable, and get a manager to sign it, but you know, I certainly would sometimes make my definition of what was sellable a little more flexible than my manager’s might have been. At some point, I came to terms with the fact that giving away products is stealing, technically, even if it is going in the trash at the end of the night. I can remember realizing that, and being like, Oh, I’m a thief. But just a little tiny one. I used to, in my head, find imperfections in each flower I would give away, just so I could justify it to myself. And I always managed to justify it to myself. Even now, I’m justifying!

Mike: Giving away products that don’t belong to you is stealing, I think—even if they’re going to be thrown out at the end of the day. I mean, if you receive permission from the owner, that’s another thing, because, yes, people get comped all the time for things. Sometimes friends would ask me if I could buy them stuff at a discount, and said that they’d pay me back, and you weren’t supposed to do that. I felt awkward when they’d ask, but then I’d say, “honestly, you’d get a better discount on Amazon.” Which was (is) true. But management, at least at the store I worked at, seemed to be aware that employees had every opportunity to steal. I mean, we were a bunch of 18, 19 and 20-year-olds working for minimum wage. After a few months of getting to know me and learning to trust me, I noticed that they would place me in high-theft areas—the music department, for example, or the stockroom to open up boxes of merchandise.

Logan: My first retail job was at a clothing store. And I was maybe there a week when we had a staff meeting and the manager came out holding six sweatbands–terrycloth headbands in a rainbow of colors. And she said, “I found these in the broom closet. Hidden behind a box. One of you put them there to steal later. I want to know who it is.” And I remember thinking, why am I at this meeting I obviously didn’t try to steal, and then realizing—but she doesn’t know that about me! But now I recognize that I stole in other ways (I really want to say “stole,” but I’m going to say stole). I used my discount code on … a lot of people, at that store. Like, I practically opened every conversation I had at parties, with, “And I work at this store and I can give you a discount!” Other employees did this, too, but, if other employees jumped off a bridge, does that mean I should, too? (Yes?)

Mike: I mean, real talk, everyone who I worked with used their employee discounts to help their friends or family members. Well, maybe not at Barnes and Noble (because of Amazon), but I worked at the Baby Gap in high school, and that was the case. I did know one person who got fired for doing it, which basically scared me into not doing it, but before that happened, I probably would have done it too. In any case, I’m glad that’s not something I have to worry about anymore. I do have friends who are now managers at places. It’s hard enough trying to make sure your store is selling enough merchandise so it doesn’t go out of business—you have to worry about your employees stealing too? Yeesh.

Logan: I think if I ever owned a store I’d say like, you can take home or give away x things per week or month. Just knowing it would happen. And I think some places do this—I’ve known bartenders who have had a tab of things they could comp at night. So yeah, I’d give that power to people. Use it responsibly! And then I’d probably go out of business.



20 Comments / Post A Comment

I’ve never shoplifted before, and I’m not sure how much of that is ethics-related and how much of that is simply because as a kid, my parents managed to firmly instill in me the notion of, “Make one false move in life and you will PERMANENTLY DESTROY YOUR FUTURE, GO TO PRISON, AND END UP LIVING IN A VAN DOWN BY THE RIVER.”

However, in all of my retail jobs, I did used to give away free odds and ends and give people steep discounts at the drop of a hat, as long as there was no manager watching. This was largely because these big box stores paid me badly and treated me badly, so eventually I’d develop an attitude of “SCREEEEEEEEW THIS PLACE” and felt no reservations about denying them a few dollars of profit here and there.

emmabee (#2,008)

@werewolfbarmitzvah Yeah, I definitely did this–resented the big box store I worked at, which presented itself as an awesome family place that treated its workers awesomely, except that it wasn’t union and just happened to pay them minimum wage. I would have let people use my discount, but they tracked it, and I didn’t want to get in trouble, so I would let things slide by. Also the opposite, which is where I would “accidentally” overcharge people who were rude to me or other customers.

emmabee (#2,008)

@emmabee Oh also, I totally disagree that giving away things that would just be thrown away anyway counts as stealing, especially if you report them as discarded (so that they can be properly inventoried and written off.) I just considered it dumpster diving, minus the gross parts.

EM (#1,012)

Did anyone confess to the attempted premeditated theft of sweatbands?!?!?

Once I was went outside to smoke at a bar and there were these two girls there talking about how they had both been recently fired from American Apparel. Three other people smoking outside were like, “Oh, we got fired too!” They all got fired for stealing. They were sort of laughing about it like everyone who works there steals and eventually gets fired. Also I am continually surprised by how many people work at American Apparel.

Also I used to steal 5-cent candies from 7-11 by burying them in my Slurpee.

Fig. 1 (#632)

@Michelle I admit, the sweatbands thing cracked me up. I mean, theft is theft, but there’s something funny about petty retail theft. Especially premeditated sweatband theft.

ThatJenn (#916)

@Michelle My ethics professor in college admittedly that he regularly stole hard-boiled eggs from the dining hall by putting them in the bottom of his salad bowl (the eggs were not part of the salad bar and should have been charged separately).

kellyography (#250)

In high school and college, I never worked retail, just food service, and there was a lot of grey area there. Like, the bartenders would make you shakes or whatever for free during your shift, but it was kind of known and accepted, even among managers. And we always got one free meal per shift, but sometimes you could get a scoop of ice cream on the side or someone would “mess up” a pizza so we could all have some, but again, even managers would do this. At the time, I was broke as hell and would never have thought of it as stealing, but now I realize that that kind of thing can be considered stealing and would think twice about it.

I also have never shoplifted anything and would never (at least on purpose – there was one time I thought that some promotional spark plug gap tool key chains were on the counter at an auto parts store for free, and then was told later by my stepdad that they probably weren’t, but I don’t count that, because the cashier clearly saw me and I maintain that they were promotional and free).

@kellyography Yeah, I never got into retail but worked in hospitality plenty. We’d make all the drinks we wanted and take home leftovers. Eating at work was a bit greyer – we might eat a muffin or put together random items left in the warmer. Once in a while the chefs would make us a proper meal, if it was slow and they were in good moods.

laluchita (#2,195)

I think maybe i love the billfold so much because this is such a wonderfully dorky response to the awl’s cool kids article. That said, I shop lifted a lot but only v. specific things/places. ie from the campus grocery store which jacked everything up like 20% because students stole so much, and i was like well if i’m already paying for the theft, i’m a chump if i don’t take anything. Also spices from white people grocery stores because that is fucking highway robbery. i did it right up until last year or so and finally i was like i am a 30 year old professional
if i get busted for stealing a $6 spice jar, that will be embarrassing.

ciphressinchief (#1,880)

@laluchita Yeah spices are sooo expensive but here is my spice secret:

The bulk spices at Whole Foods! (Maybe not all the stores have them?) Anyway, you just put a couple of tbs of whatever you need in a little baggie and it’s always like under $.50 I swear to God. Just save your empties when you run out of a spice and you will never pay full price for spices again.

@laluchita @laluchita I will admit to shoplifting a few things in my teens – makeup mostly, which is really embarrassing to admit now. I definitely used to worry about getting caught but never did.

readyornot (#816)

Have you guys seen Rust and Bone? Spoiler alert, but totally relevant to this discussion and does not ruin the movie: the male lead’s sister works for a grocery store, employees take home food goods past their sell-by date, which otherwise would be thrown away. The male lead works as a security guard and installs cameras. They catch the employees. It becomes a big, “how could you betray the proletariat from whence you came?” scene, which I found really interesting. Thoughts?

oh i would have way too much anxiety to pull this off. seriously how do people do this without getting caught?! I know I would get caught. I frequently walk through stores being like “HOW seriously HOW does one shoplift from a place like this anyway?!” there’s so many lights! and employees around! And video cameras? are the video cameras fake? are you SURE the video cameras are fake?!

just thinking about it gives me the no-nos.

MissMushkila (#1,044)

@Michelle I stole a sweatshirt once from a camp that employed me as a foreign language teacher, counselor, and store manager for $250/2 weeks. (they could do this because room and board, but I was a college student with yearly rent, so not exactly fair pay). This company also never reimbursed our travel expenses to the camp, which was supposed to be part of our package, so I don’t feel very bad.

I think when this comes up, a major theme is people steal if they feel grossly, offensively underpaid and disrespected by the employer. Which is maybe a legitimate problem? Not that stealing makes it okay, but lets also not do that “well they didn’t have to take the job then!” thing – because for most that is not an option. I think the fact that companies can make huge profits, but not pay their retail staff comparably, is kind of horrifying!

eraserface (#1,628)

When I was really little I almost shoplifted a couple of tiny fake flowers from a craft store. My mom told me to put them back after I showed her how pretty I thought they were. It might have been a grand total of like 5 cents, if I’d actually done it.

eraserface (#1,628)

@eraserface andddd I just remembered that I have shoplifted garlic from Safeway out of revenge for the machine not taking my coupon on something and no one being around to help me. Not okay, but kind of funny.

BananaPeel (#1,555)

I was just about to post a comment that was turning into a detailed list of every time I have ever gotten close to the idea of shoplifting but let’s just go with: not knowingly and/or maliciously, because I consider it immoral (especially since I can afford everything I need– this isn’t some staving child/stolen bread situation.)

Megano! (#124)

I have only shoplifted once, and it was not in Canada, and if I had gotten caught it would have been the worst thing ever (but I was 13 and stupid). I never did it again though.
I worked at a grocery store once and they didn’t teach me to lock my till properly when I went on break, so someone kept stealing from me, and I had to pay it back. Only job I’ve never not gotten notice for (though I had a lot of other personal stuff going on that summer that contributed).

Also what, HOW do you even steal a massive North Face jacket without getting caught!?

Harriet Welch (#127)

I worked a lot of retail and never considered straight-up shoplifting. I would, however, take everyone’s money and use my discount and bonus store cash (for getting people to open store cards) and buy all of our friends’ wedding gifts. Everyone and their brother was getting married (8 weddings, ONE year!) and registered at the store I worked at. I was able to get 20% off, plus use my fake store money instead of real cash to contribute and always was able to get the best/nicest/most expensive stuff off of people’s registries. A manager friend (after I didn’t work there) told me this was technically stealing. But, for real, I made the store MORE money than they would have otherwise. (two people 100% registered just because I worked there and got a bonus for their registry and they knew I would get our poor friends good deals).
I regret NOTHING!

amirite (#2,677)

When I was in elementary school they had a cop come talk to us about shoplifting and I was SCARED STRAIGHT. I think the main thing that stuck with me was that if you got caught it would go on your record and if you had a record you wouldn’t be able to cross the border into the US and then your family couldn’t go on vacations because of you.

Comments are closed!