The very contemporary art of shop-lifting

There is little hope of people taking the crime of shop theft seriously now that the ICA has started hosting debates on it
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LAST THURSDAY, as part of its "therapy season", the Institute of Contemporary Arts hosted a debate on the psychology of shop-lifting. An appreciative audience (including one "recovering shop-lifter") listened as the author and royal- counsellor Susie Orbach suggested, along with Lorraine Gamman and Adela Shapiro, that it was a social disorder - a bit like anorexia.

Shop-lifting, the argument went, was merely a by-product of our avid consumer culture. Powerful marketing went into making us want things we do not need; unscrupulous interior design made things as easy to reach as they are hard to afford. Shops stood accused of "visual provocation", and all those thieves and pick-pockets became luckless victims of capitalism.

It sounded impressive, and went down well. Everyone enjoyed hearing the media described as sensationalist upholders of a nauseating status quo. But it is always hard to make such generalisations sit comfortably with an individual case.

Even as the audience was buying their tickets, two nice-looking young Russian women stood in the dock at Marylebone magistrates court, charged with what one of the ICA speakers called "thrifty shopping". A store detective from Hennes in Oxford Street testified that she had followed the two women from room to room and had caught them red-handed, not to mention red-faced.

It was hard to say whether the Russians were luckless capitalists, or just novices in the wonderful world of the free market. There was talk about the height of the clothes-rack the detective hid behind - whether it gave her an unobstructed view (Yes, she said, an excellent view - she was 2ft away). Then she described how she trailed the two women to the Tube station.

And three months later, here they all were, in a windowless courtroom listening to the sotto voce murmuring of the man hired to translate between English and Russian.

The cautious idioms of the law tried to poke through the language barrier. The women made solemn pledges to tell the pravda, the whole pravda, and nothing but the pravda, but the interrogation that followed was like tapping on a locked door.

Did you attempt to steal anything from anybody else?


Do you recall any of the other customers in the shop that day?


Do you know why the police stopped you?


The women stared at the sign on the magistrate's desk: PLEASE DO NOT LEAVE PROPERTY UNATTENDED. Perhaps they were thinking of theft as a "transformative act". Perhaps they felt, along with the audience at the ICA, that the real crime was the unfair distribution of income. Either way, it was an inconclusive and expensive afternoon.

Shop-lifting can too easily seem the perfect crime. No one gets hurt, and few of us care if some fat-cat superstore loses a video or two. When the lads in The Full Monty swiped their jackets and sprinted across the car park, it seemed innocent, like a prank.

But shop-lifting is big business. In 1997, it cost Britain's retail sector pounds 608m, a sum that inevitably finds its way back into our bills. The British Retail Consortium suggests that each household pays pounds 85 per year to subsidise this national bad habit. Retailers now find shop-lifting too light-hearted a term. They prefer shop theft, plain and simple.

David Leigh, project manager for store security at Marks & Spencer, does not resemble the caricature of a private detective. He doesn't have a black eye or a fifth of whisky in his pocket. Security, these days, is managerial - a question of liaising with police officers or co-ordinating town-centre initiatives. Leigh talks about "local solutions to local problems". The sign on the wall of his Baker Street headquarters says: THIS OFFICE OPERATES A TIDY DESK POLICY.

He joined M&S 32 years ago, as a behind-the-counter salesman in Eastbourne, in the days before open-plan made shop-lifting so tempting and easy. He rejects the idea that shop-lifting is a growing problem, that there was ever a halcyon pre-crime period where no one nicked anything. But he does admit that things have changed.

"Back then it was quite common for shop-lifting to be in the papers," he said. "It was thought of as quite a serious crime. Now, it wouldn't feature unless it involved a celebrity, and the perception is that it doesn't matter. Wrong, wrong, wrong."

The M&S on Oxford Street is in The Guinness Book of Records as the busiest shop in the world. Cameras and security guards whirr and watch, and know what to look for - people with roomy bags or spacious coats. They know all about the "refunders", the ones who pick a jumper off a rack and then claim it was a gift that doesn't fit. But it still looked awfully easy to slip a V-neck on and walk outside. I briefly considered a spot of method journalism - trousering a bra, for instance - but decided against it.

"In a few years time, all our goods will have a chip in them," said Mr Leigh. "They will beep if you try to leave without paying. That's coming. But we're also getting involved in a wider way - with the police, with schools, because truancy is a big part of this, with town centres - to make shopping safer. It's a social issue. A huge part of the money needed to pay for drug addiction comes from acquisitive crime."

Acquisitive crime? The phrase would have died at the ICA. One of the speakers suggested that burglars who smash their cars through plate glass are "expressing anger" rather than making off with a lucrative bootload of Kenzo suits. It's an interesting point, but it wouldn't go down very well with David Leigh, or indeed in court. It was a tense moment at the ICA when a pragmatist in the audience pointed out that the most commonly stolen items are razor blades and alcohol.

What is "the discourse of cultural resistance" in Russian, anyway?