Shoplifting: survival of the sneakiest

MICHAEL OLESKER

December 01, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The first time Leon was caught shoplifting, he was 9 years old and immediately plea bargained by crying.

''I promise I'll never do it again,'' he sobbed quite believably.

''Let's give him another chance,'' said an assistant sales manager who thought she understood human nature.

From this, Leon learned a valuable lesson about life: Acting is everything.

''Hi, Doc,'' Leon cries out now to the nearest pharmacist whenever he enters a drugstore. He is 42 years old and should feel idiotic doing this, but he does not.

He cries this greeting loudly enough that all within the premises may hear him, citizen and security people alike. That he has never before actually laid eyes upon the pharmacist he is greeting is immaterial.

Leon is sending a message to all those who work in the store: This guy's familiar, he's safe. He seems to know Doc. You don't have to clock him too closely as he wanders the store, since no person who knows Doc would ever think of stealing from him.

''But what happens,'' Leon is asked, ''if the pharmacist doesn't say hello back to you?''

''They always say hello back to you,'' explains Leon, ''as long as you call them Doc. They're all frustrated surgeons, right? You call 'em Doc, you're making them feel like a real doctor. It's psychology, see?''

Those like Leon are in the minds of all shopkeepers these days, as we have now entered the nation's traditional time of holiday shoplifting. The malls are beginning to fill with people, some of whom have money and many of whom merely have cunning.

''I steal,'' says Leon, ''only what I absolutely need. Medicines, clothing, maybe a little food.

"I go where I fit in. I always dress like those around me. And then the trick is to act like you belong. The idea is: hit and walk. Running's the worst thing you can do. The best way to get out is to imagine you've got a terrible hamstring pull and walk accordingly.''

Those like Leon cause higher prices for the rest of us. Security guards must be hired, alarm systems installed, insurance premiums paid. The bills are passed on to the honest, who have now begun to spend their holiday money while attempting to maintain their tenuous grip on solvency.

On Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, allegedly the heaviest shopping day of the year, there was action in the malls, but nobody was certain what it meant yet.

''I see people, sure,'' said the owner of a men's clothing store at one Northeast Baltimore County mall. ''But what are the people doing here? I don't know. I see people, but I don't see packages.

''They walk around for a while, they get a slice of pizza for lunch, and then they nurse a cup of coffee for an hour-and-a-half and talk with somebody else who's not carrying packages. Are they spending any money? This, I don't know.''

But the early news is not good. In a telephone survey conducted by this newspaper, 63 percent of those polled said they expect to spend less this holiday season than they did in 1990, which was a dreadful year for retailers.

At the same time, a survey by the Conference Board's Consumer Research Center projects a drop in consumer spending. And last week the board reported that its November index of consumer confidence had plunged to 50.6 percent on its 100-point scale, lower than it fell in the pits of the 1981-1982 recession.

''Recession?'' the man in the White House, George Bush, keeps asking of today's economic troubles. ''What recession?''

''Recession?'' the man at the men's clothing store asks now. ''Of course it's a recession. That's why nobody's spending. You can't ask people to spend money they're afraid they aren't going to have. Every day, the newspapers talk about the job layoffs. If you don't get laid off today, you worry that you might get laid off tomorrow. So you're afraid to spend money.''

''Recession?'' says Leon. ''Hell, that's just a word. They could tell us times are great out there, and I'm still looking to make the best deal I can. Who knows if I'll be out of work tomorrow?''

Leon's words take the breath away. He is a longtime government employee in a job once considered beyond threat. In today's climate, there are few such jobs, as the state and city look to cut back anywhere they can and the federal government wrestles with the worst economy in a decade.

''I don't consider this stealing,'' says Leon. ''I consider it survival.''

''But you survive at other people's expense,'' he is told.

''Then let them do their own stealing,'' he says.

''And if everybody starts stealing?''

''Then why,'' says Leon, ''shouldn't I?''

In the current climate, the store owners hold their breath. Leon is considered a minor problem these days, the sort of nuisance for which they pay insurance people and security guards.

What troubles them more are all the honest ones in their shopping malls, the ones who wander through with empty arms, who stop and have lunch for a little while, and then wander back out of the malls without spending the kind of money they did in better times.

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