Shoplifting has always been divisive. It prompts moral judgement and outrage from some, and defence from others, who might point out that – for many people – shoplifting is a necessity, a means to survive. Of course, the "debate" is context-driven: whether someone is stealing from a corporation or an independent retailer might influence the discussion, just as whether someone is doing it out of necessity, anticapitalist sentiment or for the adrenaline rush.
For example, just recently, an Australian student newspaper came under widespread criticism for publishing an article on how to shoplift. Some commenters were upset about the endorsement of illegal behaviour, others irate at the story’s "pseudo-intellectual arguments" for stealing. Whatever your stance (and it may be murky), a flurry of headlines have noted a "shoplifting boom" in the UK in recent months and supermarket bosses describe shoplifting as at an all-time high, with big UK stores losing as much as £50,000 in stock a week.
This makes sense when you consider that a YouGov survey conducted in April by the Food Foundation found that 15.5% of all UK households were struggling to access affordable, nutritious food. In such a dark climate, it’s hardly surprising that shops like Aldi have pre-empted a rise in shoplifting by putting security tags on individual food items like blocks of cheese. Elsewhere a scheme is being piloted which briefs security guards to send shoplifters to food banks rather than arrest them.
While the cost of living crisis likely will lead to further increases in shoplifting, it may also be changing the demographic of who shoplifts. From October, when the energy price cap rises, energy bills will become unaffordable for 25% of UK households, forcing an almost unprecedented number of people into stretched or even desperate financial situations.
It’s always been the case that some people shoplift because they have to and others because they want to. But along with these groups, there’s now a widening group in the middle who are shoplifting to save money for essentials or bills, or as one of many ways to stick two fingers up to what they see as a broken Britain.
We talked to three women who have started shoplifting or are shoplifting more due to the cost of living crisis about why they do it, and whether attitudes to shoplifting are changing.
Tara*, 29, homeless shelter employee in north London
"I am 29 and I live in London. I work at a homeless shelter and make art but that’s not really something I make income from. I do some community organising, too, which is also unpaid.
Shoplifting has been something I’ve done at various odd times in my life due to not having money to buy lunch every day. Recently I stopped because I got a secure job for the first time, even if the wages were low. But then, suddenly, having a job and an income was completely countered by the increase in cost of living. Going to Tesco and seeing the prices I’ve been thinking, I just can’t do this every day.
So I do shoplift food from big shops. For me, it’s about taking the chances I can get because I know I need to. There are times when I literally can’t afford something I need, like medicine (in fact, I was recently caught stealing verruca cream, which was quite embarrassing). I also try to get out of paying train tickets, because my partner lives in another city and it’s too expensive to visit otherwise.
It’s not like I revel in shoplifting and I do feel shame if someone sees me. I would moralise if someone was doing it from someone else who is in need, but I don’t feel too bad. And I think the moral question is beside the point when you just can’t afford something. People don’t talk about shoplifting much at the homeless centre I work at, probably because of the shame, but it’s clear from how many people come when we have free meals that it’s rare and needed for them to get a free meal.
In this country, class is used to beat people back if they ask for anything more than the merest thing they need – meals or travelling to see their partner are seen as an indulgence. My mum volunteers at the food bank and she is confused about how lots of people have not just one job but multiple jobs, often because of zero-hour contracts… But it shows that people can be doing all the 'right things' and still not be able to pay. We still have this vision of the perfect British person who works hard and doesn’t spend money on 'frivolous' things. I think it shows this perfect subject doesn’t exist – you can follow all the rules and be fucked over.
I am trans and many people believe that trans healthcare isn't a need, that it’s one of these 'frivolous' things. But trans people are more likely to be in precarious employment on benefits or not receive benefits – or can't receive benefits because of documents. Then we do have to spend exorbitant amounts on healthcare, getting laser, hormones. People have to self-medicate because of how terrible the Gender Identity Clinic system is.
It’s similar to how disabled people have to pay for their own wheelchairs or carers because those things are not always seen as needs. The cost of living crisis means people will have to choose not between a need and a want but between two needs – hunger against dysphoria or mobility versus electricity, for example. That’s why in my household we have joined the Don't Pay campaign. I don’t see that as stealing because we’re being stolen from already by the energy companies who make huge profits."
Jess*, 26, volunteer and writer in Derby
"I started stealing a few years ago when I was living in quite a deprived area and having £400 a month to live off after my rent. I did it because I had to. I earn more than that now and I’m not below the breadline but I’m very worried about bills. I live in a big shared house that costs a lot to heat; bills have tripled in cost, my rent is going up and I don’t have parents that I could move in with in the UK, so there is not somewhere to go back to. You can’t steal your energy (well, you can, I know people doing that in certain ways) but it’s easier to steal your food so you can pay for your energy.
Often I’ll put half the shopping in my bag and half in the trolley. Usually there’s only one security guard and they’re not earning that much money so I think they don't care or are just looking for routine people. I would only ever do it from big supermarkets or chains where most of the stock is insured anyway. I don’t care for supermarkets, especially after the pandemic – everyone was praising supermarkets' essential workers but now most supermarkets have got self-service machines so they obviously don’t really value workers, do they?
And I kind of think, the more I save in the supermarket, the more I can spend in small businesses. It went from a need to [sticking] a finger up [to big businesses]. I feel powerless against big companies right now and there’s only so many complaints I can make, petitions I can sign. They’re all doing it, they’re stealing from us – look how much supermarkets made over the pandemic, how much energy companies are making.
There’s always going to be people needing to steal – in between situations, undocumented, on benefits that aren’t enough to live off – and as long as you’ve got these harsh austerity measures, what else are people meant to do? I’m sure it’s going to get worse now for those people. I think over the last few years there has been an increase in people you wouldn't expect to shoplift, too, who are doing it through opportunity."
Rose*, 33, producer in south London
"I know that I don’t come under the banner of someone shoplifting through need but I’ve started doing it over the last year because I’ve realised I can (after doing it a few times as a teenager). Not for the thrill but just because it feels like getting something back when you give so much money to big companies and when prices have gone up so much. My criteria is a food chain where I think that it’s factored into profit margins. I can’t justify smaller companies.
Often I will walk into Pret and just sit down and eat something and then walk out. I steal from Boots a lot too because it has become so insanely expensive compared to what it used to be. At Boots or the supermarket I just put things in my bag at the checkout. Sometimes I steal more expensive things, like £7 olive oil or beauty products, to save money for essentials. I’m not scared of getting caught because I’ve done it so much now and they kind of know that it happens and are just sort of too busy to monitor everyone. And in supermarkets or Boots, if they’re not employing anyone to man the tills, they surely must have factored it in as a risk.
I’ve never been caught (which shows why I think they factor it in or expect it) but I recognise that I have privileges that mean that I might not be under scrutiny in the same way other people would. I don’t know how to reconcile my shoplifting with the fact that profiling goes on. I’m not sure I can justify it and wonder whether I shouldn’t be doing it. But on the other hand, I’ve lost a lot of work because of the pandemic so now with the cost of living it just keeps my expenses and outgoings down to what they were before.
People are generally shocked when I tell them and I have had friends judge me or they don’t understand why you would take the risk. But now people are feeling the pinch and inflation feels extremely real so I think attitudes are changing. I’ve had a few more conversations with people over the last few months who started doing it as a ‘fuck you’ to the system, or people who are middle class and were once shocked who are now just like ‘fuck it’ and sometimes don’t scan stuff. It’s the ‘steal as much as you can’ attitude: take back stuff from the people in power in whatever way you can. I think that’s why I’ve become so brazen."
*Name changed to protect anonymity