What is a Five-Finger Discount?

G. Wiesen

A five-finger discount is a slang term for the crime of shoplifting, which is an act of theft typically perpetrated by individuals toward a retail company or business. While it can potentially refer to employee theft or any form of theft in general, the term is most commonly used in reference to shoplifting items by thieves who appear to be customers. A five-finger discount refers to the use of five fingers, or a hand, in taking and hiding an item for removal of the item without paying for it, which constitutes a sizable though illegal discount.

Shoplifting is sometimes referred to as a "five-finger discount."
Shoplifting is sometimes referred to as a "five-finger discount."

As a slang term, it is difficult to establish the history of the five-finger discount, though its usage is prevalent throughout a number of different English-speaking regions. There is some opinion that the term may be Australian or British in origin, but this is difficult to determine. Regardless of its origin, a five-finger discount today refers to shoplifting and theft from a place of business, typically a retail establishment.

Shoplifters attempt to give the impression that they are customers, while hiding the goods they steal out of sight.
Shoplifters attempt to give the impression that they are customers, while hiding the goods they steal out of sight.

In the United States, shoplifting is a major crime that contributes to billions of US Dollars of lost profit each year. This type of five-finger discount can take a number of different forms, from casual shoplifting to organized criminal enterprises that engage multiple shoplifters working together and may even work with employees to steal from larger companies. Casual shoplifting often takes a seemingly innocuous form, targeting small ticket items and only stealing occasionally, but these types of theft add up in the long run.

Professional shoplifters are more likely to target businesses with higher ticket items, looking for products that can be resold easily for decent amounts of money. This type of five-finger discount is often applied to electronic devices, expensive clothing, athletic shoes, and jewelry. Shoplifting laws can vary from country to country and even be different between various states or provinces within a country.

In some areas, a person suspected of shoplifting can be stopped while still in a store but appearing to approach the exit of the store without paying for items. Other areas, however, require that a person physically leave a store before he or she can be accused of shoplifting and prosecuted by law. The best ways to prevent a five-finger discount from being applied in a business is through prevention, often by establishing strong anti-theft policies and using tools such as video surveillance and electronic article surveillance (EAS) systems. These procedures can help ensure that products are more difficult to take without being seen and to detect concealed items on a person as he or she attempts to leave a store.

Retail loss prevention may focus on stopping employee theft.
Retail loss prevention may focus on stopping employee theft.

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Discussion Comments


I used to work in a retail store and I think employees got more 5 finger discounts than customers sometimes. We called it "shrinkage", and I once got assigned to the loss prevention department. My job was to walk around the store in regular clothes and watch other people shop. If I saw anyone hiding merchandise in their clothing or a purse, I was supposed to flash a secret signal to the nearest security camera and then follow the shoplifter around.

Our policy was to wait until the suspected shoplifter physically left the building with the merchandise before confronting him or her. If they were still in the store, there was still a chance they might decide to put it back or pay for it.


I probably shouldn't be telling this story, but the first time I ever heard of a 5 finger discount was when I went shopping with a friend at a local department store. We walked around most of the aisles, but I didn't see anything I wanted to buy. My friend got a frozen drink from the candy counter in the middle of the store.

When we got outside, my friend said "I Just got a five finger discount! Want to see?" He dumped out the drink cup and held out four pairs of expensive earrings. I got scared because I was not the shoplifting kind, and I thought we were going to get hauled back into the store by a security guard or something. He told me he does it all the time. Nobody ever checks the inside of a drink cup when you walk out the front door.

I can't say I've never swiped a piece of gum from a store in my entire life, but I could never take anything valuable out of a store without paying for it. A five finger discount just wouldn't be worth it in the long run.

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