A story I did for Vice where I went around a few Berlin supermarkets and stole what I could, which wasn’t very much. Tania Kelley took the photo.
German anti-theft watchdogs believe that every twelfth person to enter a supermarket in Berlin is a shoplifter. The first time you’re caught they stick you with a €50 fine. The average klepto gets caught every fiftieth time, so as long as you’re stealing more than a euro worth of merch every time you hit up the supermarket, you still come out of it in the clear. There is the nasty aspect of a criminal record, but who on earth is ever going to find out about that? I just moved to Berlin so I thought I’d join in.
New to the game, I thought I’d adopt the accidental shoplifter approach. That is, getting a trolley, putting your coat in one end, stuffing the more expensive items underneath it and only paying for the cheaper products that are out there in clear view of the cashier. If the cashier were to catch me, I could just play ignorant, apologize, and pay up. I’m not a pussy, I assured myself, I just need to dip my toe in the petty breakers before jumping into an ocean of crime. I aimed very low and began in the cheapest supermarket in Berlin, Penny Markt.
The girls there hate their jobs. Their cheap office chairs are too small for their sausage bums. The security guard lurks in the shadows of the dairy aisle, too busy counting down the minutes to his next wank in the cold storage room to care what you’re sticking up your sweater. It’s easy, but when most products retail at less than 50 cents and their best bottle of booze costs less than a watermelon, no matter how well you do, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re basically stealing from a trash can. In spite of the temptation to load up, I slide a tin of 30-cent chickpeas under the jacket in the trolley and pay for the other ten euros’ worth of shopping. No one noticed, and while I was no Winona Ryder, at least I was stealing healthy.
I needed to ditch the accidental lifting technique if it meant paying to steal each time. Being the most expensive of all the supermarket chains in Berlin, you’d think Kaiser’s would have made security more of a priority. But apart from creating aisles wide enough to give the cashiers a clear view of the floor, they haven’t done much to scare a thief. The only cameras they have are at the registers, so as long as you’re not after chewing gum or batteries, the rest of the store is like a baby and you’re stealing candy from it.
I took a basket, wandering through the aisles picking up a few pieces here and there before I came across a jar of Italian anchovies costing €6.50. I slid the anchovies up my sleeve, then made for the exit, ditching my basket next to the cheese stand, and left the building. Apart from the anchovies leaking all over my jeans and then stinking up the train carriage, shoplifting, I was learning, was as dangerous as a knife made of cotton wool. And as long as my body could adapt to a diet of chickpeas and salted fish, there was no reason why I should ever starve in this town.
The difference between a hobbyist lifter like myself and a veteran crook wasn’t experience or technique, but balls. Bio Markt are a chain of organic stores around Berlin that are as ubiquitous as taxis. The shop floor in Bio Markt is as clear and open as a desert valley. The shop assistants will spot you if you so much as fondle a grape. Like all old hippies, the people who work here are dicks and will call the establishment as quick as you can say happy trails. By the time I’d gone in and out of the shop three times and still not stolen anything I knew I couldn’t steal from Bio Markt.
A friend of mine has been living in Berlin for the guts of a year on tips she gets from a bar job. She’s a terrible bartender and earns fuck all, so supplements her income by shoplifting, which she’s actually very good at. Her favorite hunting ground is ALDI because there’s a wide aisle on the left side and you can just walk straight through and out the door without having to push your way past other people with shopping carts and baby strollers. Strollers are to shoplifting what stingers are to car chases.
My friend was going to tutor me in the ways of blind spots and two-way mirrors, and help me find my balls. “Just act like it’s yours and take it,” she said. I took two tins of tuna, one in each pocket of my jacket. Fish had been good to me before, I repeated to myself, and made for the wide aisle on the left and freedom.
The next day my friend went back to ALDI and got caught with a small tub of purple soap dispenser in her bag. They brought her into a back room of the store and made her wait while they called the police. She has almost zero German; the security guard had even less English. When the police turned up they drove her to her home to confirm the address and then left telling her that ALDI would decide whether to proceed with civil action within a week. Throughout the whole incident she cried so much she nearly asphyxiated and ALDI, possibly softened by her tender display, never sent her a summons. ALDI likes the ladies, it seems, and you can fuck up there safe in the knowledge that if you start to weep and you have a set of tits, you’ll get a lift home and they won’t prosecute.
Someone once told me that it’s actually more fun to steal things you don’t really need, and that the crucial rule you must abide by when shoplifting is to always keep it fun. By the time you’re depending on it as the number one means of supplying you with nourishment, you need to get on the phone to someone caring and ask for an intervention. A good test of whether shoplifting is still fun is when you get home and mostly find booze, chocolate bars, and coconut bubble bath up your sleeves.
Supermarket chain Plus has more booze and coconut bubble bath than any other supermarket in Berlin. They also have a nasty turnstile entrance and they lock off all the other register lanes that aren’t in use, so getting out without complication isn’t easy. I opted to try and steal some vodka from one of their stores. As I entered, I eyeballed the security guard, then made my way past the yoghurt, cheese, and dried meats to the wine spirits section. I picked out the bottle I wanted and grabbed it. And then put it back, made my way to the tinned food aisle, took a can of tuna and walked out the door. I will always be a pussy. But watch your tinned fish when I’m about.