More than spirits are being lifted this holiday season.
During the four weeks leading up to Christmas this year, an estimated $1.8 billion in merchandise will be shoplifted from U.S. retailers, according to The Global Retail Theft Barometer, a survey of retailers worldwide. That's up about 6 percent from $1.7 billion during the same period last year.
"They shoplift for Christmas gifts, they steal for themselves, for their family," says Joshua Bamfield, executive director of the Centre for Retail Research and author of the survey.
Sticky fingers are common during the holidays. The crowded stores and harried clerks make it easier to slip a tablet computer into a purse or stuff a sweater under a coat undetected. But higher joblessness and falling wages have contributed to an even bigger rise this year. People steal everything from necessities (think food) to luxuries they can no longer afford (think electronics or Gucci purse).
"It's really a question of need versus greed," says Joseph LaRocca, senior adviser of asset protection for the National Retail Federation trade group. "People will rationalize what they are stealing: 'Oh, I'm feeling the economy. I lost my job.' But it's hard to make the argument you need a $900 handbag."
Experts say the economy's influence is largely a cop-out. They say shoplifters are stealing for myriad reasons this holiday season that have nothing to do with economic turmoil. Some do it for a rush or thrill. For others, it's about filling a void. Still others are trying to relieve anxiety, boredom or depression — all emotions that are particularly common during the holidays.
"Shoplifting is generally a crime of opportunity— and opportunities abound at the holiday," says Barbara Staib, a spokeswoman for the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, a nonprofit that provides shoplifting prevention education programs. "The stressors that come with the holiday will certainly help them rationalize their need for bad behavior."
Shoplifting is surprisingly common. An estimated one in 11 Americans shoplift, according to the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention. It bases its information on academic research and information from those who are ordered or choose to enter its counseling programs for shoplifters.
About 75 percent of shoplifters are adults — equally men and women — while kids make up about 25 percent of them. More than 70 percent of shoplifters say they did not plan ahead to steal and they acted spontaneously.
A report from the Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation showed that there were 1.06 million shoplifting offenses in 2010 known to law enforcement nationwide, up from 875,191 such offenses in 2006.
It adds up to billions of dollars in losses for retailers.
Theft of all kinds — including shop lifting, organized retail crime, employee theft and vendor fraud — cost retailers more than $119 billion worldwide in the 12 months ending in June, up nearly 7 percent from the same a year earlier. That's the biggest increase recorded by the Global Retail Theft Barometer since it began the survey in 2007.
In the four weeks leading up to Christmas, retailers in the U.S. are expected to lose $5 billion in theft and other crimes. About 36 percent of those losses come from shoplifting. Employee theft represents about 44 percent. Vendor theft and administrative error make up the remainder.
Several major chains declined to discuss their efforts to thwart the growing theft in stores by shoppers and employees. But the National Retail Federation says big merchants are spending about $11.5 billion a year to fend off losses.
They're trying to improve their technology, such as surveillance methods and tagging of merchandise with security devices. They also are working with competitors and law enforcement agencies more than ever by sharing more information, such as what criminals are taking and how they are targeting individual merchants.
Retailers' efforts are important, prevention experts say, because theft not only costs them, but society as a whole. Theft drives up retailers' costs and those are often passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices on everything from blueberries to blouses.
"I think one of the things we have to remember is shoplifting is a crime," says Staib, with the prevention group. "Shoplifting is not just an economic issue, it's a social issue."
Shop owner Travis Maynard, who has been on both sides of the shoplifting fence, agrees.
As a teenager running with a bad crowd, he used to steal regularly — Visine to cover up his drug use, condiments to finish off his sandwich and even a flowering tree as a gift for his mother. Then he got caught stealing a Misfits CD at age 16 and changed his ways.
Maynard, 31, now watches for shoplifters at Lime Tiger Studio, a shop in Murfreesboro, Tenn., where he sells antiques, vintage clothing and other items. He says he knows the tricks and is on high alert when someone is lingering too long in a certain spot.
"For someone to come in and pretend to be a patron of my business and steal, to me it's the most disgusting thing someone could do," Maynard says. "It's one of the highest levels of dishonesty."