Shoplifting has had an “outsized impact” on discussions about crime that has been exploited by justice reform opponents, one professor argued on Friday.

Brooklyn College sociology professor Alex Vitale was one of multiple professors and researchers who discussed with CNN growing concerns over the rise in retail theft as more stores have closed or moved out of large cities. However, Vitale insisted that the concern is usually overblown.

“Historically, shoplifting has always had this outsized impact on public discourse,” Vitale said.

He added, “We see examples on video of behaving badly and it gets invested with all this extra meaning about the collapse of social order.”


The report by CNN contextualized “anxiety over shoplifting” as “an enduring phenomenon” that “is often a stand-in for larger concerns of cultural, economic or political changes” from concerns over “bored and sexually repressed” women in the 1800’s to teens and college students in the 1960s.

“In the 1960s, there was more of a political and cultural element to shoplifting,” Michael Flamm, a historian from Ohio Wesleyan, said. “There was a much wider articulation that shoplifting was a critique of the capitalist system.”

Flamm added, “Shoplifting tied into a wider sense that respect for authority was diminishing. It was a stand-in for larger concerns and anxieties.” 

The National Retail Federation (NRF) found that retails across the nation lost $112.1 billion in revenue due to theft in 2022 with Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City being among the most affected cities. In addition, major store brands such as Target and Walmart have shuttered multiple stores, citing retail crime and annual losses as a factor.

Freezers chained shut at San Francisco Walgreens

Although the article also found that shoplifting reports in 24 major cities were 16% higher in the first half of 2023 compared to 2019, it cited a report from the Council on Criminal Justice that “there is no clear national rise in shoplifting.”


The piece further added that the shoplifting issue has been used politically to push back against police and criminal justice reforms.

“Shoplifting has also become a politically charged crime that many on the right and some Democrats have exploited to oppose criminal justice policy reforms,” the article stated.

James Walsh, who directs the University of Ontario Institute of Technology’s graduate program on criminology and justice, added, “The figure of a shoplifter may provide for a scapegoat for deeper problems that are more complex and intractable… It resonates with broader concerns about law and disorder.”

Walgreen store closing

Retailers have attempted to combat theft in unique ways such as limiting store hours to protect employees. Other stores have gone viral with images of shelves with basic amenities like toothpaste and frozen foods locked up behind security cases.

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