Monica Cheru — There has to be nothing as irritating as having your handbag turned inside out by some surly guard manning the exit of some supermarkets whose injunction to submit yourself to a search casts loud aspersion to your character. While most are content to just glance inside, you will occasionally find some specimen who seems almost determined to rip off the lining of the bag to really prove that you did not filch a sweet from the shop. When you eventually manage to rescue your bag you stalk off, swearing never to enrich such a shop with your custom ever again.
But there seems to be a good reason for the attitude. Not every person who walks into a shop is interested in the time-honoured commercial transaction of getting goods in exchange for money.
There are career shoplifters who dedicate themselves to procuring different items from shops for free. So bothersome are these people that some shops display galleries of rogues featuring the worst of the lot.
A retail shop in the CBD used to have a large mural behind the teller with pictures of the shop bandits labelled by name and modus operandi. A large supermarket chain has also taken to displaying the rogues as a deterrent.
"A person whose picture is put up there as a thief will not come back here. Others who want to steal will also think twice about it," explained a security detail at one such shop who did not realise that he was talking to a journalist.
Asked as to whether those pictured have been convicted before the courts, the guard did not seem worried about such legal niceties.
"We only put up pictures of people that we caught, not anyone who just walks into the shop. Those are thieves and they cannot dispute that."
But the effect of posting picture of some obscure nonentities on one physical wall seems muted in a city with so many people.
Perhaps if the pictures had a wider audience such as the social media platforms, things would be different as a person would become notorious within hours.
Yesteryear musician Zexie Manatsa once made the headlines for helping himself to a tube of hair dye and attempting to walk out of shop without paying for it. He pleaded poverty and seems to have learnt his lesson from the resultant bad publicity and legal repercussions.
Shoplifters appear to fall into two categories. There are those who apparently succumb to some momentary moment of madness and the established career criminals.
The first group generally takes small items of minor value and is usually caught because they are nervous and give themselves away. They normally steal goods for personal use.
The second group are more likely to steal several items and are in it for business procurement not personal use. The first group is made up of individuals while the second one may have groups of more than ten and they really cause serious damage to their victim's bottom line.
Most people believe that shoplifting is a crime of women.
"It is women that we worry about. They have so many places to hide things like inside their clothes, in baby wrappers and in handbags. Shifty looking men wearing jackets are also likely to be thieves," another guard said.
He went on to detail some of his experiences with women shoplifters who seem to be able to play Houdini-like tricks with stolen goods.
"I was surprised to see a two-litre pot coming from inside a woman's clothes, between her legs. They will steal everything like groceries, clothes, shoes and kitchenware."
The shop has since installed a high barrier at the exit forcing clients to open their legs wide in order to step on or over it. But according to the guard some women have found a way to counter that.
"Some of them wear tights inside their wide skirts and they just stuff things in there then walk out. So you really have to keep an eye out"
The activities of shoplifters do not just result in inconvenience for everyone else as we endure tedious checks; they actually pay a considerable role in pushing up the prices that we will pay for the goods that we purchase.
The retailers have to protect themselves from loss through theft by various means which all ultimately add to the cost of the merchandise.
All that security detail that monitors the shops and customers has to be paid for. These include the people standing at the doors who may physically check what you are carrying out.
But in most of the larger shops you also have plain clothes people moving around and others stationed in strategic places with a panoramic view of the shop floor.
You might also have other people monitoring CCTV camera screens. All that equipment also does not come cheap. Finally you have the insurance premiums for the cover against such losses. All those are legitimate but considerable business costs that are added to the basic price of operations.
But in some sole trader operations it is the workers who take the flak for any missing goods.
"Once a month there is a stock take and the value of anything that is missing is divided between all the workers and deducted from our salaries. There are five of us here so you can imagine that if we miss goods more than one hundred dollars we lose more than twenty dollars per person," a shop assistant in one of the CBD downtown shops confided.
So most workers in the shops affected have devised ways of protecting themselves by discouraging thieves.
"We mete out instant justice to anyone that we catch," unequivocally said a worker in a shop that carries several posters advising those with nimble fingers of the dangers of getting caught in the act.
Although there was some hullabaloo last year over the death of a shoplifter who had been beaten for pilfering a packet of washing powder, the shop workers said that they were not aware that it is illegal to hand out their own version of justice instead of reporting culprits to the police.
"What is the point of going to the police? That takes too long and you have to keep track of the case or nothing happens to the thief. This way thieves know that we are serious."