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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Five-Finger Discount Still Thriving

They come in all shapes, sizes and ages, sporting baggy clothes and expressions of forced nonchalance. These are the people who love to shop, hate to pay and do much to keep Moscow's store security guards employed.


There are the shoplifters who steal out of necessity -- like the elderly woman at Roditi International who, a security guard said, was recently observed taking a package of cheap biscuits and let go, because, "she was a very poor lady."


And then there are the shoplifters who are thieves for the thrill of it. "They come to steal not because they are poor and hungry," said a security guard at a Garden Ring supermarket. "They just want to show their friends how brave they are."


Whatever their motives, shoplifters are as big a part of the retail scene today as they were in Soviet times -- perhaps even bigger, say petty thieves and the people who catch them. That's because the arrangement of the Western-style store, where customers can select items themselves, makes the shoplifters' lives much easier.


"If we had the salespeople standing behind the counter like some stores it would be much more difficult to steal," said Ivan Iliin, the manager of the Kalinka-Stockmann supermarket who estimated the store's losses to thieves at about $4,000 a month.


Still, one of the appeals -- for both Westerners and Russians -- of shopping in such places is the chance for greater intimacy with products, whether it be a canned good or cold medicine. And so, instead of reverting to the Soviet look-point-and-pay system, managers of Western-style stores are resorting to more and more sophisticated means of thwarting thieves.


At the Stockmann's clothing outlet on Dolgorukovskaya Ulitsa, management has attached to each article an anti-theft device that not only sounds an alarm when taken through the store's exit but also emits ink when taken off without a special tool. Stockmann's security guards say shoplifters often steal the sullied clothes all the same, only to throw them away outside the store.


That lends credence to the observations of some police officers who say that, more often than not, shoplifters steal simply for kicks. "We catch shoplifters in our district and some of them look like quite well-to-do people," said Nikolai Potapov, an officer with Moscow's No. 2 Militia Station on Bolshaya Polyanka Ulitsa. Potapov cited as an example a young businessman recently arrested for stealing a jar of caviar at a nearby Garden Ring supermarket.


All told, Potapov said his station gets between two and three shoplifters a month, mostly unemployed young men. If convicted, offenders face a fine of some 400,000 rubles ($76) or a prison sentence of up to three years. Because of limited resources, Potapov said militia officers make no special effort to catch shoplifters and simply arrest those detained by store security guards.


Despite the stiff penalties, many shoplifters, especially young men, seem to revel in getting something for nothing. Yaroslav Mogutin, 22, a Russian journalist now living in New York City, once published an article entitled "How I Shoplifted in Paris and New York." He explained the thrill as a combination of "the fear of being caught and the excitement you feel when you are going through that exit."


Another self-confessed shoplifter, Denis, a student, compared the shoplifting experience with going to a casino. "It is like playing roulette. You can be a professional. You can be an amateur. But either way you steal." Denis counted the theft of three bottles of Guinness beer among his recent coups.


"Of course I could afford that beer but 13,000 [rubles] is a very high price for a student," he said, "so, I decided to steal it."


In Soviet times, a shoplifter's selection was skimpy but the same thrills were to be had, according to Misha, 24, who recounted once stealing some not-so-fresh frozen fish because there was nothing else to take. Misha said the briny booty, cooked over a fire, was all the better for having been stolen.


"It was a very tasty fish," he said.