By IAN URBINA
December 24, 2007 New York Times
This is the season of frenetic shopping, but for a devious few people it’s also the season of spirited shopdropping.
Otherwise known as reverse shoplifting, shopdropping involves surreptitiously putting things in stores, rather than illegally taking them out, and the motivations vary.
Anti-consumerist artists slip replica products packaged with political messages onto shelves while religious proselytizers insert pamphlets between the pages of gay-and-lesbian readings at book stores.
Self-published authors sneak their works into the “new releases” section, while personal trainers put their business cards into weight-loss books, and aspiring professional photographers make homemade cards — their Web site address included, of course — and covertly plant them into stationery-store racks.
“Everyone else is pushing their product, so why shouldn’t we?” said Jeff Eyrich, a producer for several independent bands, who puts stacks of his bands’ CDs — marked “free” — on music racks at Starbucks whenever the cashiers look away.
Though not new, shopdropping has grown in popularity in recent years, especially as artists have gathered to swap tactics at Web sites like Shopdropping.net, and groups like the Anti-Advertising Agency, a political art collective, do training workshops open to the public.
Retailers fear the practice may annoy shoppers and raise legal or safety concerns, particularly when it involves children’s toys or trademarked products.
“Our goal at all times is to provide comfortable and distraction-free shopping,” said Bethany Zucco, a spokeswoman for Target. “We think this type of activity would certainly not contribute to that goal.” She said she did not know of any shopdropping at Target stores.
But Packard Jennings does. An artist who lives in Oakland, Calif., he said that for the last seven months he had been working on a new batch of his Anarchist action figure that he began shopdropping this week at Target and Wal-Mart stores in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“When better than Christmas to make a point about hyper-consumerism?” asked Mr. Jennings, 37, whose action figure comes with tiny accessories including a gas mask, bolt cutter, and two Molotov cocktails, and looks convincingly like any other doll on most toy-store shelves. Putting it in stores and filming people as they try to buy it as they interact with store clerks, Mr. Jennings said he hoped to show that even radical ideology gets commercialized. He said for safety reasons he retrieves the figures before customers take them home.
At Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., religious groups have been hitting the magazines in the science section with fliers featuring Christian cartoons, while their adversaries have been moving Bibles from the religion section to the fantasy/science-fiction section.
This week an arts group in Oakland, the Center for Tactical Magic, began shopdropping neatly folded stacks of homemade T-shirts into Wal-Mart and Target stores in the San Francisco Bay Area. The shirts feature radical images and slogans like one with the faces of Karl Marx, Che Guevara and Mikhail Bakunin, a Russian anarchist. It says, “Peace on Earth. After we overthrow capitalism.”
“Our point is to put a message, not a price tag, on them,” said Aaron Gach, 33, a spokesman for the group.
Mr. Jennings’s anarchist action figure met with a befuddled reaction from a Target store manager on Wednesday in El Cerrito, Calif.
“I don’t think this is a product that we sell,” the manager said as Mr. Jennings pretended to be a customer trying to buy it. “It’s definitely antifamily, which is not what Target is about.”
One of the first reports of shopdropping was in 1989, when a group called the Barbie Liberation Organization sought to make a point about sexism in children’s toys by swapping the voice hardware of Barbie dolls with those in GI Joe figures before putting the dolls back on store shelves.
Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, said he was not sure if shopdropping was illegal but that some forms of it could raise safety concerns because the items left on store shelves might not abide by labeling requirements and federal safety standards.
Ryan Watkins-Hughes, 28, a photographer from Brooklyn, teamed up with four other artists to shopdrop canned goods with altered labels at Whole Foods stores in New York City this week. “In the holidays, people get into this head-down, plow-through-the-shopping autopilot mode,” Mr. Watkins-Hughes said “‘I got to get a dress for Cindy, get a stereo for Uncle John, go buy canned goods for the charity drive and get back home.’”
“Warhol took the can into the gallery. We bring the art to the can,” he said, adding that the labels consisted of photographs of places he had traveled combined with the can’s original bar code so that people could still buy them.
“What we do is try to inject a brief moment of wonder that helps wake them up from that rushed stupor,” he said, pausing to add, “That’s the true holiday spirit, isn’t it?”
Christopher Maag contributed reporting.