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CityLab Daily: The History of Why People Shoplift

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A customer enters a Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. store in San Francisco. Recently, Walgreens blamed shoplifting for closing stores in San Francisco.

A customer enters a Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. store in San Francisco. Recently, Walgreens blamed shoplifting for closing stores in San Francisco.

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

A viral video of a man brazenly stealing from a Walgreens, and an uptick in reported retail theft have thrust shoplifting into the spotlight in San Francisco. The pharmacy chain most recently blamed organized rings of thieves for its decision to close multiple stores in the Bay Area, though available data casts doubts on that claim. Nationally in the U.S., the crime is said to be responsible for $45 billion in annual losses in the retail industry. 

Shoplifting, of course, is nothing new. It’s a centuries old crime, and our fascination with it has long been tied up in American anxieties about youthful rebellion, mental illness, urban disorder and economic inequality, according to Rachel Shteir, author of The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting. In a Q&A with Sarah Holder, she traces its history to 16th century London, when the first accounts involved stealing clothing to create class-shifting disguises. Today on CityLabWhat’s Behind the Fascination with Shoplifting?