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Shoplifting: not just a vice of the lower-classes

Shoplifting is often attributed as a vice of the lower classes: poor, misguided souls who have fallen into a trap. This trap will see Miss Lower-Class hiding clothes in her baby’s buggy and casually strolling out of a shop or stealing a flat screen TV to sell on. But the recent financial recession has seen a rise in a new kind of thief, with shopkeepers and security guards now increasingly on the lookout for Miss Upper-Class. Keen to hold on to their luxurious champagne and chocolates lifestyle, this unique brand of thief is eager to keep up appearances of grandeur.

According to a report from Checkpoint Systems, the UK is the worst culprit for the crime out of all other European countries, with a staggering increase in shoplifting of 20 per cent in the past year, and goods worth an estimated £4.88bn stolen from retail outlets. Popular stolen items included luxury foods such as meats and cheeses, high fashion clothing, perfumes, face creams and electrical goods such as mobile phones and digital cameras. The middle- class shoplifter is ultimately a different type of thief: stealing for personal use rather than lifting goods in order to sell on for profit.

However, just as all lower-class individuals do not resort to stealing in order to survive, neither do all middle-class consumers consider it necessary to shoplift in order to fuel their love of luxury. Middle-class shoplifting is not a crime of necessity; rather one of empowerment and compulsion.

Remember when, in 2001, Winona Ryder was arrested for shoplifting from Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverley Hills? The actress, who can reportedly earn up to £5 million per movie, was found to have taken a number of items of clothing and accessories by designers such as Marc Jacobs and Gucci. Ryder was subsequently found guilty of stealing £3,500 worth of goods by cutting the security tags off and walking out of the store.

There is an extensive list of high-powered celebrities who have fallen into the shop-lifting trap, and the concept of wealthy kleptomaniacs is not a new one.  Back in 1945, the first Jewish Miss America, Bess Myerson swiped $44.07 worth of goods from a small department store in Pennsylvania. The items included nail varnish, earrings, packets of flashlight batteries and a pair of shoes. A champion for civil rights, Myerson’s habit certainly appeared to be out-of-character. More recently, Hollywood ‘It’ girl and some-time actress, Lindsay Lohan has been accused of stealing a set of pricey jewels from a magazine shoot, a stranger’s $11,000 blond mink coat and even a top-secret formula for spray tan. So why would a wealthy young female put her reputation at stake by shoplifting items she could buy herself?

The psychology of shoplifting means that there is a certain degree of empowerment achieved by taking something which you either can afford (in Ryder’s case) or which you feel that you need (in the case of middle-class shoplifters). Middle-class thieves may feel a certain sense of shame in not being able to keep up their expensive lifestyles, but the thrill that comes with simply taking those items, which have long defined their personalities, can prove to be addictive.

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The consequences of shoplifting

Shoplifters often gain a rush of adrenalin after ‘getting away’ with theft. This chemical reaction can make the thief feel exhilarated, somehow justifying the action and intensifying the need to steal again. Middle-class shoplifters may feel that they are entitled to the items they are stealing, and having become so used to ‘having it all’, may feel a compulsion to hang onto an unattainable dream of perfection.

According to Checkpoint Systems, this surge in consumers who are increasingly taking expensive items and ‘forgetting to pay’ has led to UK retailers investing £926 million in order to better protect their goods from opportunist shoplifters. Shopkeepers are being urged to keep an eye-out for ‘unlikely’ shoplifters such as well-dressed females who may be wearing a heavy coat or carrying a large bag in order to store goods in.  Training staff to identify suspicious customer activity and deal with the outcome appropriately is also high on the list of ways to avoid theft.

However, it may take more than a few security tags and extra CCTV cameras in order to stop persistent middle-class shoplifters from stealing. When life-as-you-know-it consists of extravagant dinners of caviar or a penchant for Chloe handbags, shoplifting may prove to be one habit that’s too hard to shake.