Europe: When free love is a stolen condom

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Is nothing sacred any more? In the never-ending battle against shoplifting, German retailers have learnt to keep a vigilant eye on sticky- handed kids near sweet counters, and housewives wafting past the tills with bulging handbags.

They were guarding the wrong goods and watching out for the wrong suspects. For the shoplifter of the Nineties shows marginal interest in sweeties and shiny gadgets that slip easily into the pocket. What he or she really wants is condoms for free.

This stunning discovery was made by an exhaustive survey of 14 shops all over Germany, conducted by the Retailers' Association. True, a lot of razor blades, CDs energy-saving light-bulbs and batteries were going missing, the plain-clothes inspectors ascertained. Particularly popular were a certain brand of Swiss chocolates and a narrow selection of spirits.

But in terms of sheer convenience and stealability, nothing beats a six- pack. So many contraceptives are being nicked, the inspectors estimate, that more than one-third of condoms worn by Germans have not been paid for. Thirty-eight per cent to be precise.

Understandably, shopkeepers are in a lather over the pernicious new crime. Security will have to be stepped up, and perhaps drastic measures will have to be considered. Pharmacies already refuse to keep these objects of desire on the counter.

But making contraceptives available on demand only might deflate sales further. For according to the survey the thieves are not acting out of malice, nor have they misunderstood the term "Free Love". They are merely shy, the poor darlings.