Wal-Mart to Allow Petty Shoplifting

Wal-Mart has announced a new shoplifting policy: Steal less than $25 and we won’t prosecute.

Wal-Mart is moving away from what it called a zero-tolerance policy on prosecuting shoplifters and will now only prosecute anyone caught taking merchandise worth $25 or more, according to a published report. The New York Times reports the change in policy, citing internal documents from Wal-Mart that say it will now only press charges against those between the ages of 18 and 64 who take at least $25 worth of goods. Formerly its policy was to press charges against anyone who took at least $3 in goods.

The paper said the change in policy will allow Wal-Mart to concentrate on theft by professional shoplifters and its own employees. The paper said those two groups steal the bulk of merchandise from the chain. “If I have somebody being paid $12 an hour processing a $5 theft, I have just lost money,” J. P. Suarez, who is in charge of asset protection at Wal-Mart, told the paper. “I have also lost the time to catch somebody stealing $100 or an organized group stealing $3,000.”

Wal-Mart told the paper it would closely track shoplifters it did not have arrested, and would ask that they be prosecuted after a second incident. It will also seek the prosecution of all suspected shoplifters who threaten violence or fail to produce identification, no matter how much they are trying to steal, according to the report, which said professional shoplifters often do not carry ID in order to avoid arrest.

This intersects two ongoing story lines beautifully. First, the NYT has once again released secret information and compromised public policy. Presumably, Wal-Mart would have preferred to keep this change under wraps in order to avoid giving a one-time $24.99 get out of jail free card to everyone with an ID card. Second, one wonders if this new generous policy will please critics who say Wal-Mart isn’t doing enough for the poor. Are any of its competitors giving people $24.99 in free stuff with no purchase necessary?

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Humor, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. ob1 says:

    But the public has a right to know that it can steal $24.99 from Wal Mart! How can you be so insensitve James? Those nasty capitalists deserve it. With the Bushhitler admin opressing the people how else can they get their CD/DVD’s ? Thanks to the NY Times, now they know.

  2. Mark says:

    You can get a couple of decent DVD’s for less that $25.

    Off to Walmart I go to claim my bounty!

  3. Anderson says:

    Definitely a dig in the eye at Wal-Mart by the NYT, but the real question is, who the hell at Wal-Mart leaked this stuff?

    I think it’s a trap: they’re trying to embolden the shoplifters & catch them more readily. Comment back at us, ob1 and Mark, so we know you’re not in custody, okay?

  4. While I have no doubt that both the Bush administration would have wanted to keep the swift story silent and Wal-Mart keep its rules for five finger discounts silent, there is a big difference. Compromising national security hurts all of us and it is very hard to put the genie back in the bottle. Wal-Mart may get a lesson on the ‘broken window’ theory of crime from this, but they can recover with a few high profile prosecutions. The NYT owes a duty (which they shirk in deference to their privileges) to all of us to keep national security secrets secret. They owe no such duty to Wal-Mart.

    Now Wal-Mart may want to exercise its advertising clout by not placing advertisements in any paper that re-prints NYT articles (I assume the NYT in even their stock market nose dive state would not be seriously discomforted by losing wal-mart circulars). I would suggest that the Bush administration seek to plug the leaks that resulted in the swift story and include some grand jury requests for source information to the reporters and editors of the times.

  5. Mark says:

    Comment back at us, ob1 and Mark, so we know youâ??re not in custody, okay?

    Just got back, Anderson, and it’s true! I went to the electronics section, and I took Wall Street at $7.99. No other DVD’s really interested at however, so I grabbed a set of headphones for $10.99. Not wanting to push the $25 limit, I decided to walk out of the store, but not before grabbing a few $0.99 Snickers bars and some breath mints (Mentos!). As I was walking out, the 90-year old “greeter” asked me what I was doing, and I simply told her that I was taking the stuff, and persuant to Wal-Mart policy, since I did not have more than $25 worth of merchandise, there was nothing she could do about it.

    She said goodbye and have a nice day, but I was disappointed that she did not say to visit again…

  6. BWA says:

    First, the NYT has once again released secret information and compromised public policy.

    I find it odd that Wal-Mart company rules are regarded as “public policy” by some. I was not aware that Wal-Mart corporate headquarters was considered a legitimate branch of government (yet).

    Also, the idea that knowing about this policy will cause massive shoplifting seems to be predicated on a belief that the only thing that keeps us from stealing is fear of prosecution. Personally, I have no plans to begin a life of thievery simply because Wal-Mart tacitly condondes it.

  7. Fersboo says:

    I find it odd that Wal-Mart company rules are regarded as �public policy� by some. I was not aware that Wal-Mart corporate headquarters was considered a legitimate branch of government (yet).

    In that context, wouldn’t it be hilarious if Wal-Mart, unilaterally, chose to go back to the original no-tolerance policy. The masses could claim that their ‘rights’ have been diminished; Reverends Sharpton & Jackson could hold rallies highlighting the disenfranchisement Wal-Mart is causing, ad nausem.

  8. BWA,

    You are right that not everyone will start shoplifting. In fact, the people most likely to start shoplifting would be those least likely to read the NYT (or any other paper). But just as the details from the swift revelations are likely to get to those who are interested and allow them to modify their behavior, so to with this.

    If you are prone to a five finger discount, would you be more or less likely to go ply your preferences at Wal-Mart where if caught with less than $25 you will be released or at Target where you presumably would be prosecuted (or at least the question of prosecution is less certain). Upon boasting of your free gift from Wal-Mart, could there be someone who hadn’t considered the possibility but decided they too would get some free stuff?

    The question is not will 100% of America start shop lifting at Wal-Mart, rather the question is if the percentage who would shoplift at Wal-mart is likely to go up or down with this announcement.

    A couple of months ago I was shopping at Wal-Mart and came across a mess in an aisle. Talking to the guy cleaning it up, someone was taking large plastic bottles of soda, shaking them up, poking a hole in their side and then leaving them in a temporarily uninhabited aisle. The cost to Wal-Mart was the soda (a couple of bucks), the time for the guy cleaning it up and unhappy customers who had to step through the resulting mess. I suspect that announcements like this are likely to also encourage, rather than discourage behavior like this. Of course it also depends if the people doing it were kids pulling a prank or brave liberals striking back at the man. Given the people’s republic I live in, its probably a 50-50 chance either way.

  9. anjin-san says:

    Wal-Mart’s corporate policies are now “public policy”? Really?

    Personally, I feel that after Wal-Mart lobbied against a bill that would require radiological screening of container shipping inbound for American ports because it might hurt their profitability, they can rot.

    Its instructive to see who lines up with the “profits over national security” crowd…

  10. BWA says:

    The question is not will 100% of America start shop lifting at Wal-Mart, rather the question is if the percentage who would shoplift at Wal-mart is likely to go up or down with this announcement.

    Your point is well taken, and I suspect the answer is that shoplifting will rise somewhat as a result of this.

    But the NYT is not to blame if this happens. Wal-Mart has devised a policy, based on profit analysis, and someone (presumably a Wal-Mart employee) chose to share this policy with a New York Times reporter.

    The existence of this policy is both interesting and illuminating, to the extent that it tells us something about Wal-Mart, our nation’s largest employer and retail outlet. For the NYT to have deliberately withheld this information merely to appease Wal-Mart (to whom the paper is in no way beholden) would have been contrary to its reason for being.

    The solution, as always, is: If you don’t want something you do appearing in the newspaper, don’t do it.

  11. BWA,

    I think we are in agreement on the NYT’s right to publish this (see my first comment). They are to ‘blame’ for publishing it as they made the decision to publish it (just as they made decisions to not publish other material), but they owed no duty to Wal-Mart to refrain from publishing. In the same vein, Wal-Mart owes no deference to the NYT’s first amendment rights as far as using its advertising dollar clout to persuade newspapers to not run NYT articles.

    And Wal-Mart is absolutely to blame for setting their own policy. While I have no doubt that prudence would have them prefer the ‘secret’ memo wouldn’t have been published, it was their decision to set the $25 limit. Even without the NYT, the impact of this policy would have been more shoplifting as people people ‘get away’ with shoplifting and word spreads. The article will just spread the word more quickly and with greater authority.

    Also, Wal-Mart has the right to use this as a giant sting operation, reversing the policy without public comment and vigorously prosecuting all shoplifters.

    I think it was a foolish policy on Wal-Marts part, but certainly the NYT has the right to point out the foolish policies of major corporations.

    Now if you want to delve into the tinfoil hat land, note that those who shop at Wal-Mart regularly supported the president in the last election by about a 60 point margin. Those who never shop at Wal-Mart supported Kerry by similar margins. The NYT article will likely increase any growth in shop lifting the policy my incur (it won’t cause it, just make the increase happen sooner). The increase in shoplifting may impact Wal-Marts bottom line (they give a rationale that not spending employee time on this will be a net gain, but that ignores the ‘broken window’ effects on the total amount of crime). Since shop lifting will impact Wal-Marts bottom line, they will likely raise prices. Thus Bush supporters in 2004 are likely to perceive higher inflation in 2008, making them less likely to support the GOP in 2008 due to economic issues. Thus this whole thing is just a NYT plot to cost the GOP votes in 2008. That theory has to be at least as credible as the one about the WTC being an inside job.