A More Nuanced Look at the Asheville “Shop-Lifting” Epidemic

I was doing some work at my favorite coffee shop this past Saturday. While I sipped on water and patiently waited for the baristas to make my smoothie and frozen chai latte (I like to be well-hydrated!), the latest Mountain Xpress cover caught my eye. “Steal This Paper Instead,” the headline read. “Asheville merchants fight shoplifting.”

Once I collected my three beverages, I collected a copy and took a seat to check it out. I went through a phase in the mid-aughts where I was fascinated with and thus did a ton of reading up on shoplifting—inspired, I think, in part, by two students I had at the time who were busted shoplifting right before graduation (more on them later)—and thus gravitate towards shoplifting stories, usually, unfortunately, with the intent to disprove the way it’s covered (I don’t necessarily love this “I’m smarter than the media-at-large” mindset I sometimes find myself in, but also think more of us should look more critically at the way our news is delivered—I also don’t think I’m smarter per se, just less willfully ignorant/less worried about skewing the truth for clicks and advertiser dollars). 

The media typically covers shoplifting as the result of poverty, desperation, and drug addictions—and that’s not entirely inaccurate as there isn’t a typical profile of shoplifter—but research suggests that shoplifting is more often than not a middle-to-upper-middle-class crime. Winona Ryder wasn’t the outlier, you know? What made her case particularly unique was that she was caught and prosecuted. A 2008 study in the American Journal of Psychology found that people with incomes of $70,000 shoplift 30% more than those earning $20,000 a year. These folks aren’t stealing for financial reasons and not necessarily because of addiction or psychological reasons. Rachel Shteir, author of the book “The Steal,” told CNBC she believes they steal out of a sense of entitlement, or perhaps shame —condoms, rogaine, and pregnancy tests are some of the top-swiped items. She’s also expressed that many middle-class folks find it ok to steal from large corporations, and that they justify their behavior that way. 

A 2012 study from German-language spa and hotel guide Wellness Heaven backs up the American Journal of Psychology study, finding that items are taken more often from hotels rated 5 stars and up, than from mid-range chains. It makes sense, too, because these hotels are less likely to want to prosecute their clients. The same goes for retail. Think about it. It’s easy to bust a kid at Walmart for walking out with a bunch of tee shirts than it is to stop a well-to-do woman with a profile for walking out of Saks with thousands of dollars worth of purses. 

The two students I had who shoplifted supported all this data. One was top of her class. She drove a brand-new Jeep. She and her mother were pain-in-the-ass types who called to argue any grade under an A- (the other was simply her Gretchen Weiners). Word from the teacher’s lounge said they were caught with over $400.00 of jewelry from Macy’s, but got away with just a slap on the wrist. I assume they were banned from Macy’s, but I never saw anything in the papers about them being charged (believe me, I was monitoring them closely), and I’m sure this shoplifting scarlet letter didn’t follow them around or derail their lives in any meaningful way. I think a world where this only made them more emboldened and that the daughter of the pain in the ass mother still shoplifts when she’s not girlbossing while the southern-Pennsylvania Gretchen Weiners still shoplifts when she’s not selling leggings on Instagram can certainly exist. 

The Mountain Xpress article leans hard on the opioid and fentanyl of it all. “There seems to be, with a lot of these petty crimes, a connection to opioid addiction, specifically fentanyl,” Capt. Joe Silberman is quoted as saying this in the piece. The piece also reports that many suspects arrested and charged with shoplifting end up getting charged with multiple offenses, including drugs and drug paraphernalia. It also notes that many shoplifting reports are filed from businesses along Tunnel Road. That tracks, but I’d challenge critical-thinking readers to consider if shoplifting is reported as often in other locales. Would downtown businesses report shoplifting which might deter tourists? Mast General Store is cited in the piece, and they get a much different demographic than Tunnel Road. The Mountain Xpress also talked with the owner of VaVaVoom, a lingerie boutique, about how they don’t see much shoplifting. VaVaVoom sells $120 eco-friendly silk robes and $75.00 corsets. I feel safe assuming they also get a different demographic than a Tunnel Road Best Buy, and thus feel safe wondering whether or not they’d feel less inclined to report a nice, sober-seeming middle-class white lady who shoves said eco-friendly robe into her designer purse the way a Tunnel Road Best Buy might prosecute a Black teenager. Again, this is all conjecture, but I think it’s something to think about. 

I attended a networking event here in Asheville recently, and the room atmosphere could only be described as circle-jerk-esque. The participants talked about what a creative, vibrant, unique community Asheville is (honestly, I was shocked no one played the quirky card) and essentially intimated that it was their collective free yet entrepreneurial spirits that helped build this ethos. They also cautioned how us Ashevillians in that room (a room full of white-middle class “creative types”) have to fight back against the changes happening in Asheville: the growth, the influx of tourists…the “homeless” problem was mentioned in the most delicate of terms. The rise of crime wasn’t directly addressed, but its specter certainly hung over that part of the conversation. There was never any talk of looking inward, and examining what role the established, entitled, Asheville upper to middle-class creatives played into this. The event was held at 9 AM on a workday and packed with professionals like myself who had the privilege and flexibility in their lines of work to attend such an event at 9 AM on a workday. I make over $70,000, and I feel safe assuming I was on the lower end of socio-economic levels in that room that morning. 

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