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With Winona Ryder in the spotlight, Chicago area shop keepers fear increased shoplifting this holiday season

by MNS Staff
December 10, 2002

With the holidays just around the corner, shoppers are on a mission. From sweaters and perfume to the latest video games, people are rushing out to malls and department stores to find the perfect gift.

But in light of actress Winona Ryder’s November shoplifting conviction, store managers in Chicago are keeping a closer eye on their customers to make sure that no one walks away with a five-finger discount this holiday season.

"Shoplifting has always been an issue at our store," said Ross Rolando, the manager of Brookstone Co. on Michigan Avenue. "It will probably be just as bad during holiday shopping."

Brookstone Co., a nationwide specialty retailer, sells health and fitness products as well as items for the home, office and garden. Rolando said customers who steal merchandise tend to go for small items, especially the high-end and expensive ones displayed close to the door.

"A lot of shoppers come in with multiple bags and then shove the merchandise inside them," Rolando said. "We try to have as many workers out on the floor as possible. If we see it, our policy is to confront the person right there and take care of the situation."

Dustin Underwood, the department manager at Urban Outfitters, a clothing store for men and women on Rush Street, said it is difficult to categorize shoplifters.

"In a store of our size, we see it all. We can get the 17-year-old girl doing it for kicks, to the wealthier, more Winona-esque customers," he said. "It doesn’t matter what class you come from or what your social status is because people will steal whatever they can get away with and whatever they can get their hands on."

Underwood also said some shoplifters are brazen and will run out the door with clothes, jewelry and sunglasses or blatantly stuff items in their pockets or bags. Although the store does not always catch the thieves, when they do, Underwood says he will press charges.

"Shoplifting affects the whole store," he said. "The store loses money, and in order to make up for that loss, money's taken out of employees’ salaries and bonuses."

Sara Fabrycy, the manager of Crabtree & Evelyn, a bath and body care store on the Magnificent Mile, has found a different kind of shoplifter at her store.

Fabrycy said they are more sneaky and underhanded, and it may be attributed to the small lotions and bath products her store sells.

"Some of our items are really small and easy to lift," Fabrycy said. "People can be really tricky and slip out the door before you even notice something was stolen. It’s hard for us to know because we're constantly restocking the shelves and making sure they’re full."

When she catches someone stealing, however, they won’t get off the hook.

"If I see someone trying to steal a product, I go up to them and ask them how they'd like to pay for what’s in their pocket," Fabrycy said.

She added that she tries to monitor the entire store and service every customer who walks in. Fabrycy said she will be looking extra hard for any shoplifters during the holidays.

"I’ve noticed that people have different techniques and ways of stealing," she said. "Some people come in and look around the store to check us out and see what we’re doing. It unfortunately happens the second we turn away to help another customer.

"Others come in teams," Fabrycy continued. "One person tries to distract us while their partner steals."

Winona Ryder may be the most famous shoplifter in America, but she’s not the only one with sticky fingers. Her trial brought more attention to an already prevalent problem.

Steven Pick, a Chicago criminal defense attorney for 10 years, said he has represented many people accused of shoplifting.

"Shoplifting has been a problem for a long time" Pick said. "No one in Chicago really cares about Winona Ryder. None of my clients has said they stole a sweater or a can of beans because of her. Plus, the professional [shoplifters] I deal with will not walk into places like Saks Fifth Avenue, Filene’s Basement and Nieman Marcus because these places have internal security watching everybody."

According to Pick, committing retail theft in Illinois can put shoplifters behind bars for up to three years. The punishment depends on whether the offender is charged with a misdemeanor or a felony. A person who steals merchandise valued at under $150 will be charged with a misdemeanor, while someone who takes merchandise valued at more than $150 will be charged with a felony.

"Shoplifters charged with a misdemeanor will face court supervision, a fine and a no-contact order," Pick explained. "This order basically says they can’t go back to the store where the offense was committed."

When someone is convicted of a felony, the shoplifter can spend time in prison. But Pick said in his experience, offenders usually get probation with community service or are put on conditional discharge and have to report to a probation officer once a month. Ryder, who was convicted of grand theft and vandalism, two felonies, was ordered to perform 480 hours of community service, pay $6,355 in restitution to Saks, and undergo drug and psychological counseling.

Pick said anyone is capable of shoplifting.

"I've seen the teenage girls who do it mostly for the thrill. I've seen middle-aged women who've never been arrested before. I've seen the poor mothers from poor neighborhoods that need to put food on the table," he said.

"You can analyze all you want about why people steal, but I can’t say there’s one kind of person who does it. The teenage girl might not want to ask her parents for money, or she could be under peer pressure. The middle-aged woman could be doing it for attention. I don’t know."

Pick said his clients usually steal with the intention of reselling the stolen items on the streets for drug money.

But there’s hope for store managers because people like Walter Larkin are trying to reform first-time offenders by teaching them how to cope with their problem.

For 18 years, Larkin has been a counselor at a theft deterrent program sponsored jointly by Rush Presbyterian St. Luke’s Hospital and Cook County Circuit Court. Teenage shoplifters who have been charged are usually ordered by a judge to participate in the program.

"Honesty's fundamental," Larkin said. "I want these kids to question their actions. Did they do it because they wanted to, or was it someone else’s doing?"

The program, which has a 90 percent success rate, evaluates each offender to see what the problem is and how it can be corrected. Participants fill out questionnaires, talk with counselors and attend group therapy sessions.

Larkin said their reasons for shoplifting can be due to poor impulse control, but most of the time, it’s peer pressure.

"Parents used to have the influence, but now it’s the friends who have it," he said. "Kids hear from their peers how easy it is to steal. They measure their progress based on what their friends say and end up getting into trouble."

Larkin said temptation, immediate gratification, alcohol and drugs are other factors that play a role in shoplifting.

"Most of these kids don’t even need what they’ve stolen, and most first-time offenders are never arrested again" he said. "But it tends to be psychologically rewarding for them because they’re stimulated by the excitement. The embarrassment of being arrested, the embarrassment of hiding the offense and the embarrassment of being exposed usually stops them from doing it again."

No matter what the reason, Larkin has a goal for each offender: "At the end of the day, I hope they learn how to accept responsibility for what they’ve done."