Baby formula is among the most shoplifted items in Africa. This list is the real measure of middle class demand

The most shoplifted goods in Africa aren't what you think

Africa’s middle class is said to be the fastest-growing in the world, having tripled over the past 30 years, with one in three Africans now living above the poverty line of $2 a day. 

much-cited study by the African Development Bank estimated the numbers at 313 million middle class Africans, but cautioned that income and consumption—the two variables used most often to measure lifestyles—capture only one dimension of the characteristics of the middle class; other variables such as education, professions and aspirations are also important features that help establish who is in the middle class. 

One unorthodox measure of unmet consumer demand, which can help measure “aspirations”, is examining shoplifting in African retail stores. 

The retail industry euphemistically calls shoplifting “shrinkage”, and this study by the University of South Africa reveals that contrary to popular belief, most shoplifters do not steal items because they are needy, hungry or desperate. 

A good 90% of shoplifters are amateur, opportunistic pilferers who nick small items that they may not even need only when the chance presents itself, but one in ten is a professional shoplifter who targets high-value items intended for resale on the black market. 

Shoplifting is estimated to cost African retailers anything between 1.5% and 1.7% of turnover—Atul Shah, the managing director of Kenya’s biggest retail chain Nakumatt reckoned that the country’s $2.3 billion retail industry, was losing up to $35 million every year to shoplifters. 

Although the professionals are a small fraction of shoplifters in general, they cost stores more because they target expensive items which they then sell to a “supplier” at about a one-third of the retail value of the goods. 

The “supplier” then sells the goods to another retailer, who has a lawful outlet for the goods and can make a bigger profit margin by sourcing expensive goods cheaply through these black market deals. Nearly 72,000 cases of shoplifting were reported in 2011-12 in South Africa.

What kind of goods are stolen through shoplifting? Criminologists have come up with a nifty acronym to describe the type of items that heavy duty shoplifters target, CRAVED items (Concealable, Removable, Available, Valuable, Enjoyable and Disposable). 

Globally, the most shoplifted items are cheese, choice cuts of fresh meat, and confectionery/chocolates, along with cigarettes and high-end liquor. 

Anti-stretch mark scream

In Africa, the craved goods seem to be slightly different, and anecdotal evidence suggests that infant formula is among the most targeted goods—most major supermarkets in Kenya for instance now either place infant formula behind a counter or secure it with a tamper-proof seal. 

High-end beauty products such as anti-stretch mark and anti-wrinkle cream are also popular with the thieves, along with small, valuable electronics like digital cameras and smartphones. 

These aren’t basic commodities, instead they are “second-order” goods that consumers start demanding once their basic needs are met—in that way, shoplifting data is perhaps one of the most valuable insights for researchers trying to measure Africa’s “elusive” middle class.

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