Shoplifting addiction is at an all-time high. And white middle-class women are to blame

By Abby Amoakuh

Updated Jan 5, 2024 at 03:24 PM

Reading time: 3 minutes

Shop thefts have more than doubled in the past three years in the UK, reaching eight million in 2022, at an annual cost of £953 million to retailers. Surprisingly, however, thieves aren’t targeting high-end high-street shops like Adidas, Dr. Martens, Lush and Levi’s anymore. They aren’t stuffing their bags with £90 designer jeans, £10 bath bombs, and £30 makeup foundations like they used to. Instead, it seems like most shoplifters have their eye on living essentials now.

Hot ticket items now include toilet paper from the household section, leeks from the vegetable aisle, and maybe some lamb steaks while they’re at it. As a consequence, supermarkets and grocery giants like M&S are reporting a shoplifting epidemic, and attributing the issue in part to the rise of ‘middle-class shoplifting.’

The reasons for this increase in theft at supermarkets seem pretty clear: an economic downturn, food inflation, food poverty, food inequality and the cost of living crisis. As costs started to rise and our weekly trips to Tesco became more and more unaffordable, people needed to take measures to decrease household spending. Even I am regularly checking my receipts now because I seem to be buying less, yet I am somehow spending more.

As a consequence, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that some people feel motivated to just take the things they need to survive, even if that means stealing them. The rise of self-service tilts and the reduction in actual service staff has only made this easier.

The term ‘middle-class shoplifting’ has seemingly got people confused though. “A thief is a thief. Class doesn’t come into it” one X user responded to The Guardian article. The confusion was shared by many others, who discussed the increase in shoplifting on social media. The way in which “middle class” is frequently stressed in articles and comments on the subject makes it feel like coded language is being used. And as the cultural savant that I am, I’m more than happy to translate: This new wave of shoplifting is being spearheaded by white people. Middle-class, middle-aged white people to be precise.

In 2008, research by the US National Library of Medicine revealed that around 76 per cent of shoplifters are white. Further, 95 per cent of them are born in the US, which contradicts popular (and ridiculous) beliefs that the craft is dominated by people of colour and immigrants.

Other research also indicates that around 25 per cent of shoplifters are underage. This combined revelation outlines the premise of a viral TikTok video, which hypothesised that upper-middle-class teenage white girls are shoplifting-addicted kleptos security should actually be looking out for, as influencer @alyssacardib framed it:

@alyssacardib

Its me, hi

♬ original sound - Lyss Lyss

“I will say this once and I will say it f*cking again, but upper-middle-class teenage white girls are some of the biggest kleptos around,” the creator stated. “Why do you think there are so many cameras in the makeup sections at Target and Walmart? It’s not because a bunch of Black men are going to hit licks on all of the blush palettes. Victoria’s Secret may as well be called ‘Five Finger Discount’. At this point, they should just rebrand,” Alyssa stated.

The video continued: “I transferred schools in high school and I joined the cheer squad. These girls invited me out shopping with them and I was trying to impress them. I was trying to make new friends. So I spent over $80 on underwear. And as soon as we walked out of the store, they were like, ‘Hey, can we see your bag for a second?’ And then they just unloaded underwear from their pockets. I’m talking about each girl who almost had 20 pairs of underwear that they stole. And I was pretty innocent so this scared the sh*t out of me. But I started seeing it everywhere.”

People in the clip’s comments section were pretty aligned with Alyssa’s views. And the clip has been gaining pretty persistent traction since it was posted, with it now having over one million likes.

“The cheerleader I was friends with in high school was that upper-middle-class klepto. I was terrified every time we went shopping,” one netizen shared. “As a dirt poor girl I was always so shocked when my ‘rich’ girlfriends would steal stuff from the mall,” another user stated. Someone else noted: “Omg I used to work in retail and quickly learned this. Lol facts.”

This isn’t to say that all middle or upper-middle-class white women steal. That’s certainly not the case. Instead, I am trying to critique the fascination and surprise that ensue every time people realise the extent to which it happens. It reveals a racial and classist bias that is attached to our perception of thieving and who are the primary perpetrators.

On Tuesday 28 November 2023, Zoe Williams, one of my favourite columnists for The Guardian, wrote her own piece on middle-class shoplifting titled: It’s no surprise middle-class shoplifting is on the rise—no one ever checks my bag. In her column, Williams explores this phenomenon and why she believes she’d be easily able to “get away” with stealing.

The journalist wrote: “There is an assumption of middle-class probity and obedience, mingled with a whole load of assumptions about middle-aged white women. We are thought to exist at the high point of prosocial behaviour, and also to be quite bossy, so full-time engaged in telling other people off that we would never need to be told off or monitored in any way.”

Couple this with staff that are increasingly overworked due to staff reductions and more willing to turn a blind eye when they see an unidentified item in the bagging area and you have a perfect storm that is costing retailers millions of pounds each year.

@jordan_the_stallion8

#stitch with @nicolemarie706 #fypシ

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The cost of living crisis is a growing monster that eats away at every part of our society, the mainly white middle class included. A lot of the privileges they have previously taken for granted, like being able to afford £8 almond butter, are suddenly appearing out of reach. So why are people surprised about them being just as capable of stealing? Why are the public struggling to accept that this is not some new revelation, but rather acknowledgment of something that’s always existed?

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