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The Desire Machine

Shoplifting, retail space and conditioned consumption

  • Ülemiste Center, Tallinn, Estonia   Ülemiste Center, Tallinn, Estonia

Criminologist Theo Kindynis looks into the environmental conditioning built into the shopping mall experience and asks whether the ambience of such spaces, designed first and foremost to provoke the impetus to consume, encourages impulsive shoplifting and how the determined shoplifter must understand the environment in order to exploit it.

“Every historical epoch”, argues social theorist Lauren Langman, “has distinct ways of organising time, space, behaviour and subjectivity. These converge in its principal architectural sites… that articulate cultural texts of meaning, identity and power”. The assertion that shopping malls – “cathedrals” to consumption – represent the architectural embodiment of a globalised era of hyper-consumerism, has by now become something of a truism. Yet what do the architectural principles employed in the design of consumer spaces – which seek to influence human behaviour in innumerable subtle ways – mean for our understanding of space, subjectivity and agency? As a criminologist interested in the relationships between crime, control and the city, consumer spaces provide me with intriguing examples of how architecture and human agency can become entangled with one another.

Shoplifting is widely thought to be one of the most prevalent yet simultaneously one of the most underreported crimes in consumerist societies. The necessarily secretive nature of retail theft makes it inherently difficult to research, and sociological and psychological attempts to explain motivations for shoplifting have tended to focus on biographical “background factors” – demographic and behavioural characteristics – producing largely inconclusive findings. By contrast, I want to suggest that late capitalism’s cultural imperative to consume at all costs – an ideology that is concretised in the architecture of retail design – now lies at awkward tangents with the law.

Retail environments are curiously contrived spaces: to begin with, their configuration is calculated in order to maximise the efficient “circulation” of visitors. Beyond not-so-subtle design strategies such as alternating the arrangement of escalators, or the literally maze-like layout of IKEA showrooms, a cursory review of a typical planning and design guide intended for architects of retail spaces details numerous techniques available to direct the movement of shoppers.

Curved mall designs – such as at London’s Westfield Stratford City – are employed in an attempt to make longer corridors appear shorter, and to foster a heightened sense of anticipation of the rewards that await the consumer around the next bend: “The curve”, boasts one developer, “acts like a funnel and pulls people through”. Sloped walkways, in combination with flooring materials of different textures and directional patterning, are used to create “corridors” to subconsciously direct “traffic flows” through the retail space. Display cabinets and stands are arranged in staggered formations, creating semi-permeable barriers that act to break up and slow down the flow of movement, in an attempt to encourage shoppers to stop and browse. To step into a shopping mall is therefore to enter into a kind of architectural flow diagram: a system of design features that work together to coordinate and choreograph consumption.

(Westfield Stratford City, London)

In recent years, marketeers have turned their attention to retail environments’ so-called “atmospheric” or ambient properties, and their ability to subtly influence consumers’ behaviour and perceptions. Almost every feature of modern retail space – from temperature and music to light and odour – is now engineered in an attempt to elicit a host of physiological, emotional and behavioural responses conducive to consumption.

Without suggesting that shoppers are simply passive mindless dupes, it is nevertheless the case that the proliferation of these spaces, in which our inclinations and actions are increasingly “scripted”, i.e. subtly, subconsciously dictated by an array of architectural contrivances. This in turn poses distinct challenges to how we think about human behaviour. Within this context, it simply does not make sense to think of human behaviour exclusively in terms of autonomous, conscious decision-making. Rather, consumer spaces throw into stark relief the extent to which architecture and human agency are inextricably enmeshed with one another. However, the “impact” of such architecture is never predetermined. Consumer spaces are navigated through a dialogical process of negotiation, the precise outcome of which is inevitably influenced by the intentions of both designers and users. 

(Yorkdale Shopping Centre, Toronto)

Still in this context, it is interesting to think of shoplifting – particularly impulsive shoplifting – as an unintended consequence of an environment designed as a kind of “desire machine”. The criminologist Jack Katz investigated shoplifting in his 1988 book Seductions of Crime. He describes how several of his respondents were seemingly unable to account for their actions “rationally”. These teenage shoplifters instead described department stores as “magical” environments, and recounted in anthropomorphic terms how the products on offer seduced them to deviance. Whereas Katz implies that these accounts are “techniques of neutralisation” – a kind of self-justificatory excuse – I would suggest that the designed-in phantasmagoria of consumer spaces really can bestow the products on offer with an ineffable, alluring aura that in some instances proves irresistible to the would-be thief.

However, whereas shoplifters may subconsciously be seduced by some aspects of the retail environment, they must actively work to resist others. The brandscapes of luxury retail, shopping malls and department stores are also securityscapes. CCTV operators survey the shop floor from numerous elevated angles – zooming, swivelling and scanning for suspicious behaviour; security guards and store detectives patrol the aisles; and an array of sensors and alarm systems maintain a series of invisible barriers across the stores’ thresholds. The aspiring shoplifter must learn how to manipulate the layout and design of the retail space for their own ends if they don’t want to get caught in the act. Successful shoplifters are able to subvert the spatial logic of retail design, utilising mirrors and other reflective surfaces to surreptitiously keep tabs on security guards; taking advantage of CCTV blind spots, dressing rooms and unmonitored stairwells to stealthily remove security tags, to conceal goods, and to avoid triggering alarm systems. To quote one shoplifter I spoke to, the art of retail theft lies in “using their maze to my advantage”. In this way, shoplifters flirt with the architectural contrivances of retail space in a strange dance of seduction and resistance, countering the designers’ schemes with their own sleight of hand.

The architectural context of shoplifting, space that gives physical expression to late capitalism’s injunction to consume, is one especially stark example of how crime, and social interaction more generally, cannot be understood apart from their spatial and cultural context. This is particularly the case when architectural and design features, that aim to constrain and influence our behaviour in a variety of subtle ways, become increasingly prominent throughout our cities: from the “everything-proof” Camden Bench, to the classical music played in London Underground stations – all intended as crime deterrents. The takeaway for criminologists and other social critics is that, in order to properly comprehend the motivations, cognition and causes of individual behaviour, we must look to how human intents and actions are enmeshed within complex constellations of power and agency, which are articulated, in part, through architecture and design.

– Theo Kindynis is a doctoral candidate at the University of Greenwich in London, researching crime and urban space.





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