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 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.
May annoy shoppersThough not new, shopdropping has grown in popularity in recent years, especially as artists have gathered to swap tactics at Web sites like shopdropping.net; groups like the Anti-Advertising Agency, a political art collective, do training workshops open to the public; and even some marketing companies and blogs have tried to draw traffic to their Web sites by running videos or discussions about the topic.
Retailers fear the practice may annoy shoppers and raise legal or safety concerns, particularly when it involves 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.
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 Jennings, 37, whose action figure comes with tiny accessories including a gas mask, bolt cutters, 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 or as they interact with store clerks, 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.
For pet stores, the holidays usher in a form of shopdropping with a touch of buyer's remorse. What seemed like a cute gift idea at the time can end up being dumped back at a store, left discretely to roam the aisles.
"After Easter, there's a wave of bunnies; after Halloween, it's black cats; after Christmas, it's puppies," said Don Cowan, a spokesman for the chain Petco.
Battle of the booksBookstores are popular for self-promotion and religious types of shopdropping. At BookPeople in Austin, local authors are putting bookmarks advertising their own works in books on similar topics.
At Mac's Backs Paperbacks, a used bookstore in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, employees are dealing with the influx of shopdropped works by local poets and playwrights by putting a price tag on them and leaving them on the shelves.
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.