In Which We Talk About Working in Retail and Employee Theft

by Mike Dang and Logan Sachon

Mike: The Awl had an interesting post about shoplifting yesterday. Have you ever shoplifted?

Logan: Well. No, is the answer to that, mostly. But: I did think it was really interesting how the roundup started with the assumption that all people have shoplifted? Have all people shoplifted? Also that’s a really strong word: SHOPLIFTED. I will tell you my first and only experience taking something from a store that was not mine. My friend Katie and I were little — maybe six? We were at TJ MAXX with her mom and playing in the toy section and we found this eraser that was in the shape of a princess or a fairy or something, and we decided to take it. Perhaps it was part of a larger craft set? Perhaps it was left there by another child and was never for sale at all? We got to her house, and hid our little treasure in the crawl space. Later I got home and cried to my mother, confessing my sin. I was told that it was good to be honest, but to never steal anything ever again. And I mostly didn’t! You?

Mike: Nope. Whenever I think of the idea of shoplifting I think about Winona Ryder, or that scene from Breakfast at Tiffany’s where they go into that dime store and steal some cheap animal masks for the thrill of it. And that’s just terrifying to me. There were a lot of things instilled in me as a kid that prevented me from being the type who would steal, including: Catholic guilt and being a tiger cub.

Logan: I wouldn’t say I’m a great fan of rules, but “don’t take what isn’t yours” is a rule that I’ve always gotten behind, somehow, though maybe it’s just as much out of a fear of getting caught than a moral stance against taking things. I remember a period during high school when girls were really into bragging about what they stole from Sephora, and there was another little trend with North Face jackets only being cool if they were stolen. But, yeah, that always just seemed terrifying to me. I don’t like lying. And I really don’t like my mom being disappointed in me. So. Yes. Ha. But when I started to work in retail, and started having friends work in retail and in restaurants and bars, I feel like my attitude changed a little bit. Or at least my definition of what stealing was and wasn’t became more fluid. Is taking something home stealing? Yes. Is sharing a discount or giving product away to a customer stealing? Ehhhhh.

Mike: You mean the definition of what it means to steal from a place? I got my first retail job in high school, and I also worked part-time in college, and it was just astounding to me about the theft that occurred in the places I worked. I think the statistic is something like, 75 percent of thefts that happen in retail are done by employees — not customers. And it’s totally true! I worked at Barnes and Noble when I was in college, and one of my coworkers got fired because he stole albums from the music department. I saw him working at Macy’s not too long after and I was like, “What happened?” He said, “Oh yeah, they caught me on the surveillance camera.” And I said incredulously, “And now you work at Macy’s?” And he just laughed. His whole thing was, “who cares if you steal from a big corporation!” Which is silly. Like you said, “Don’t take what’s not yours.”

Logan: Yes that’s always a big section during orientation at retail jobs — the number one reason people get fired is being late, and the number two reason is stealing. I used to work in a grocery store, and a lot of stuff gets thrown away. I worked in flowers, I had friends that worked in the bakery, in dairy, in produce. So I’d often put more flowers in a bouquet than someone paid for, or give some old flowers away to a customer or to a friend or other employees. And I’d get to take home bruised apples and day-old baked goods and smushed cakes. There was a way to do this that was “legal” in the store, fill out a slip that said, these products are not sellable, and get a manager to sign it, but you know, I certainly would sometimes make my definition of what was sellable a little more flexible than my manager’s might have been. At some point, I came to terms with the fact that giving away products is stealing, technically, even if it is going in the trash at the end of the night. I can remember realizing that, and being like, Oh, I’m a thief. But just a little tiny one. I used to, in my head, find imperfections in each flower I would give away, just so I could justify it to myself. And I always managed to justify it to myself. Even now, I’m justifying!

Mike: Giving away products that don’t belong to you is stealing, I think — even if they’re going to be thrown out at the end of the day. I mean, if you receive permission from the owner, that’s another thing, because, yes, people get comped all the time for things. Sometimes friends would ask me if I could buy them stuff at a discount, and said that they’d pay me back, and you weren’t supposed to do that. I felt awkward when they’d ask, but then I’d say, “honestly, you’d get a better discount on Amazon.” Which was (is) true. But management, at least at the store I worked at, seemed to be aware that employees had every opportunity to steal. I mean, we were a bunch of 18, 19 and 20-year-olds working for minimum wage. After a few months of getting to know me and learning to trust me, I noticed that they would place me in high-theft areas — the music department, for example, or the stockroom to open up boxes of merchandise.

Logan: My first retail job was at a clothing store. And I was maybe there a week when we had a staff meeting and the manager came out holding six sweatbands–terrycloth headbands in a rainbow of colors. And she said, “I found these in the broom closet. Hidden behind a box. One of you put them there to steal later. I want to know who it is.” And I remember thinking, why am I at this meeting I obviously didn’t try to steal, and then realizing — but she doesn’t know that about me! But now I recognize that I stole in other ways (I really want to say “stole,” but I’m going to say stole). I used my discount code on … a lot of people, at that store. Like, I practically opened every conversation I had at parties, with, “And I work at this store and I can give you a discount!” Other employees did this, too, but, if other employees jumped off a bridge, does that mean I should, too? (Yes?)

Mike: I mean, real talk, everyone who I worked with used their employee discounts to help their friends or family members. Well, maybe not at Barnes and Noble (because of Amazon), but I worked at the Baby Gap in high school, and that was the case. I did know one person who got fired for doing it, which basically scared me into not doing it, but before that happened, I probably would have done it too. In any case, I’m glad that’s not something I have to worry about anymore. I do have friends who are now managers at places. It’s hard enough trying to make sure your store is selling enough merchandise so it doesn’t go out of business — you have to worry about your employees stealing too? Yeesh.

Logan: I think if I ever owned a store I’d say like, you can take home or give away x things per week or month. Just knowing it would happen. And I think some places do this — I’ve known bartenders who have had a tab of things they could comp at night. So yeah, I’d give that power to people. Use it responsibly! And then I’d probably go out of business.