Some shoplift out of what they consider economic necessity, others to feed drug addictions. Still others do it because they cannot control their compulsion to steal.
Whatever the reason, shoplifting takes a big bite out of Utah retail stores' profits every year. Retailers nationwide lost an estimated $35 million a day to shoplifters and employee theft, according to 1989 statistics.Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Cache, has introduced a bill to the Utah Legislature that would help Utah businesses bite back. Under SB10, adult shoplifters would be liable in a civil action for the retail price of any stolen merchandise.
Additionally, the court could require the adult to pay exemplary damages up to $500, court costs and reasonable attorney's fees.
Under current law, stores have no civil recourse if a defendant has returned stolen merchandise or paid restitution as ordered by the criminal court.
"We all pay for it in increased costs to make up for what's done by shoplifters and employee theft," Hillyard said.
Hillyard said most of the affected stores would use punitive damages to defray the cost of in-store security systems intended to stem thefts.
Tim Stetner, general manager of Nordstrom's Utah stores, wouldn't specify how much merchandise is taken out of the department stores but described the dollar amount as "enormous."
"We could run your newspaper, this store and a whole lot of other businesses with the amount of money taken out of these stores," Stetner said in an interview with the Deseret News.
Barbara Wold, a national retail sales consultant, wrote in her December 1989 newsletter that about 40 percent of a store's losses are derived from shoplifting and 45 percent are from employee theft.
Wold also wrote that shoplifting occurs 126 million times a year in the United States. Incidence of the crime increased 33 percent between 1985 and 1989, making it one of the fastest growing crimes nationwide. Wold estimates companies spend more than $200 million a year to prevent shoplifting.
Nordstrom, for example, employs a team of detectives at each store to keep an eye on shoppers. The store's sales force is well schooled in customer service, which also deters theft. "We have three times as many people on the floor than most stores this size do," Stetner said.
Stetner said Utah is the only state in which Nordstrom operates that does not enable retailers to seek civil damages from shoplifters. The law would be a welcome addition, he said.
Still, thefts from Nordstrom's Utah stores pale by comparison to the occurrence of shoplifting and employee theft in other states where the chain operates.
"It's a bigger problem in other places. Utah is not the crime capital of the world," Stetner said.