Consumer Trends: The filched filets

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Filet mignon is one of the most frequently shoplifted items in this country, and its popularity as a stolen good seems to be on the rise. Between 2009 and 2011, the loss rate for such “luxury meats” increased 21 percent, according to Adweek.com.

In fact, shoplifting overall is increasing in this country, up 6 percent over last year. Statistics say that one in every 11 people entering a retail store will likely leave with at least one item he didn’t pay for. This costs retailers billions each year.

Globally, the first Worldwide Shrinkage Survey reported that meat took second place to cheese as the most stolen item of 2011. (After those two things: candy.)

It’s no coincidence that shoplifters’ top three picks are food items, since shoplifters have made grocery stores their target of choice. That’s tough on supermarkets, which often operate on very slim profit margins — around 1 percent, according to Rutgers University research. A grocery store that has a $7 steak stolen will have to sell $700 worth of goods to make up the loss. All this theft costs the American family around $400 a year in increased prices.

This problem is not new. A British pamphlet, dated 1698, called “The Great Grievance of Traders and Shopkeepers,” referred to the “notorious increase” in shoplifting during the second half of the 17th century, the Washington Post reports. Back then, harsher punishments for shoplifters were recommended. Lawmakers listened: The following year saw the passage of the Shoplifting Act, which declared stealing more than five shillings’ worth of merchandise a hanging offense.

Research suggests that today’s shoplifter is most commonly a man between 35 and 54 years old, and his behavior is not necessarily the consequence of a shortage of money. Rachel Shtier, author of The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting, says, “The truth is that most amateur shoplifting arises out of want — either the thrill or the desire to get something out of nothing, or as a kind of impulse control disorder, or as a disease. One thing that the most recent research does show pretty much across the board is that it’s not driven by need, as in Jean Valjean, ‘I’d like to steal a loaf of bread.’”

That notion could support the somewhat counterintuitive argument that the recent rise in shoplifting is actually a sign of economic recovery. A recent study by the National Retail Federation found that shoplifting is definitely on the rise. Retailers lost more than $37 billion in 2010, up from $33.5 billion in 2009. It also found that employee theft — shop-lifting as an inside job — was the major culprit, with customer theft coming in second.

Perhaps when the economy was at its worst, when jobs were scarce and employees were primarily concerned about keeping the one they had, they didn’t feel inclined to shoplift. As the economy improves and they feel more secure in their positions, they might be more inclined to take risks — and merchandise.

Statistics do conform to that theory. Retailers’ losses peaked in 1994, when the economy was thriving. They’ve declined steadily since then, right up until last year. Strangely enough, that could turn out to be a good sign.



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