As Caroline Parker pushes her shopping trolley out of the supermarket, she experiences a frisson of excitement. An electrifying buzz, if you will.
It might seem an odd feeling to elicit from a mundane weekly chore, but in fact it has nothing to do with the act of buying groceries. No, it is because Caroline has a guilty secret.
Only she knows that hidden beneath the carefully packed bags in her trolley are a few loose items – cheese, bags of pasta, chocolate – all of them stolen.
‘The thrill lies in getting away with it, I certainly don’t do it for financial gain because I don’t need to,’ says Caroline, 53, who is married with two children in their 20s.
Dressed in tailored trousers, heels and a jacket, with immaculately styled hair and make-up, she hardly fits the stereotypical image of a thief, but neither is she alone.
Welcome to the world of the middle-class, middle-aged shoplifter – women with zero financial reasons to steal, but for whom doing so appears to be a reaction to feeling unfulfilled
According to statistics released earlier this month by the British Retail Consortium, shop thefts have more than doubled in the past three years
Welcome to the world of the middle-class, middle-aged shoplifter – women with zero financial reasons to steal, but for whom doing so appears to be a reaction to feeling unfulfilled in their 40s and 50s.
This year, shoplifting has become the curse of the High Street. Dame Sharon White – chair of John Lewis Partnership, which owns John Lewis and Waitrose, both temples to middle-class retail – has described it as an ‘epidemic’ and every day brings new cries for help from Britain’s supermarket bosses.
That’s why the Mail on Sunday recently launched its End The Shoplifting Epidemic campaign.
According to statistics released earlier this month by the British Retail Consortium, shop thefts have more than doubled in the past three years, and currently cost retailers some £953 million a year. About 70 per cent of this figure is for crime prevention costs including security, and the remaining 30 per cent direct losses due to theft.
The Co-op said recently it had recorded its highest-ever levels of retail crime, shoplifting and anti-social behaviour in the six months to June, with almost 1,000 incidents each day.
The trend isn’t limited to larger department stores and supermarkets. The Association of Convenience Stores, the voice of more than 33,500 shops, has also recorded its highest-ever levels of shoplifting over the last year, with 1.1 million incidents reported to the police.
And while most of this is down to the usual suspects – those in need, teenage chancers or criminal gangs – hidden in plain sight is a secret subculture of affluent women for whom shoplifting has become a surprising compulsion.
A retired executive office manager who owns a small portfolio of rental properties close to her home in Gloucestershire, Caroline says it all began for her one day in 2021 in a well-known DIY superstore.
Hidden in plain sight is a secret subculture of affluent women for whom shoplifting has become a surprising compulsion
‘I’d gone to collect some pre-ordered items but I also needed to buy a £150 power drill on the day,’ she explains. ‘I suddenly had this compulsion to peel the ‘already paid for’ sticker from one of my pre-ordered items and put it onto the power drill instead. To avert suspicion, I picked up a few bedding plants costing around £5, which I put through the till.
‘My heart was hammering, and I fully expected to feel the hand of a security guard on my shoulder. But by the time I got to the car, I felt such a buzz. I couldn’t believe I’d got away with it. I can explain it only as a sudden, impetuous two fingers up to the fact that life was – and still is – very stressful.’
Many a middle-aged woman will empathise with Caroline’s emotional burdens: an empty nest, elderly parents, a major health scare and, to top it all, the menopause. Her tipping point came when tenants in one of her rental properties caused damage costing over £10,000 when they were evicted by bailiffs for non-payment of rent.
‘As soon as I got home, I confessed I’d stolen something to my husband, who thought I was joking, as I’ve never been one to break the rules in that way before,’ she adds. ‘But despite his horror, he just shook his head, probably because there were bigger worries for us at the time.
‘Since that first time I’ve continued to shoplift sporadically. It’s wrong, but it gives me a sense of being in control when everything else in my life feels anything but.’
Not surprisingly, most shoplifters try to justify their actions by arguing that they steal through necessity. But with what psychologists describe as ‘non-professional shoplifters’ – those, like Caroline, who don’t steal for profit or resale, or to feed a drug or alcohol addiction – there is something much more unusual going on.
Bhavna Jani-Negandhi, a clinical psychologist and spokesperson for the British Psychological Society, says midlife can be such a melting pot of emotional change and upheaval for women that it can lead them to behave in ways that are out of character.
‘Too much stress – which can be accompanied by anxiety and depression – coupled with boredom and lack of fulfilment can cause women to try to find something that gives them some excitement,’ she explains.
‘Shoplifting can be very easy, and this can be thrilling. Research monitoring chemical levels in the brain concluded that shoplifters experience a high, with a release of adrenaline and dopamine, meaning they can experience an addictive compulsion to steal, like some people are addicted to alcohol or drugs.’
As Caroline is quick to point out, part of the power she feels is that nobody would ever have her down as a shoplifter. She’s bright, articulate, well-spoken, takes pride in her appearance and makes a point of chatting to shop staff as she goes about her business.
A retired executive office manager who owns a small portfolio of rental properties close to her home in Gloucestershire, Caroline says the shoplifting all began for her one day in 2021 in a well-known DIY superstore (stock image)
‘Non-professional shoplifters’ those who don’t steal for profit or resale, or to feed a drug or alcohol addiction
‘I’ve witnessed shoplifters running out of the supermarkets with staff chasing after them,’ she adds. ‘I get away with it because I’m the calm, middle-aged, middle-class woman who looks so normal and respectable. I’ve seen other women like me fill up their trolleys and walk brazenly past security staff without paying for a thing.’
She tends, however, to keep her thoughts on this middle-class underworld — and her own part in it — to herself. ‘I know that admitting it to friends or family would leave some of them shocked. But shoplifting has become something I do just for me.
‘I only take small, fairly inexpensive items of food, stationery and make-up, such as the odd lipstick or mascara, and I don’t sell the stuff on, I’m not a career criminal.
‘I’ve learned to be alert but not too alert, otherwise I’ll get picked up on the cameras.
‘You have to appear confident and be prepared to act your socks off if you get caught.
‘I’ve rehearsed my response if ever I do: ‘Oh my God, I’m so sorry, I didn’t realise, I’ve got so much in my head at the moment, I’ll go and pay for them now’.’
Most law-abiding people would feel disgust at her actions. Caroline knows what she is doing is wrong and she does sometimes feel guilty at the stress she causes the shop staff.
‘Of course, I feel morally conflicted by my own behaviour as it goes against the way I’ve always been and the way I’ve raised my children — if they ever shoplifted, I’d be a complete hypocrite and bawl them out. I’m certain it wouldn’t have happened at all if I hadn’t been perimenopausal and stressed to the hilt — but that’s still no excuse.’
Shoplifting is an offence under the Theft Act 1968, punishable under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, with a maximum sentence of six months’ custody if the goods are worth less than £200, and up to seven years if the value is more.
Last March, Nina Tiara, thought to be Britain’s most prolific middle-class shoplifter, was sentenced to two years and nine months in jail at Gloucester Crown Court.
Police tend not to prosecute in cases involving goods worth less than £200
To her neighbours Tiara, 53, seemed the picture of respectability. She drove a gleaming Mercedes and lived in a neat, £550,000 detached house in a Wiltshire hamlet – but much of her lifestyle was funded by crime.
Though Tiara was ultimately caught and punished, the reality is that many, less ambitious shoplifters get away with it.
Police tend not to prosecute in cases involving goods worth less than £200. A change in the law in 2014 redesignated such cases as antisocial behaviour.
Such thefts are therefore more likely to be punished by a fine than a court appearance — which many people believe has effectively ‘decriminalised’ shoplifting.
Even so, just being stopped by security and accused of theft is a matter for shame and embarrassment, so why — with the means to afford holidays, meals out and lovely homes — do women like Caroline take the risk?
‘I do ask myself that question, and it makes me realise I couldn’t cope with the stress if I did actually get caught,’ she says.
‘With shoplifting in the news, I’ve had to curb the temptation as I’ve noticed staff in the supermarkets I visit randomly checking trolleys. But I’ll definitely shoplift again. I’m ageing, nobody’s looking at me any more and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed tricking all those people who look straight past me in the supermarket. I should join MI5, nobody would notice me.’
Though not vastly different in age to Caroline, Lucy Collins is at a different stage of life with a young child and a high-flying career in senior management. Yet she has a similar urge to shoplift.
‘I just take a few items every time I go food shopping, such as toiletries, fruit, veg, magazines and toddler paraphernalia,’ says Lucy, 45, who lives in Hertfordshire with her insurance broker husband.
These barriers block customers from leaving Sainsbury’s stores until they scan their receipts
‘It’s a doddle as I’ve always got the pushchair with me so I just put loose items in the storage underneath and only pay for things I put in a basket. It’s become a thrill because I’ve never been caught.’
Lucy’s habit began during an extended maternity leave.
‘Like lots of new mums I felt resentful that my income nosedived during maternity leave, despite all those years working so hard. I’d always wanted to be a mum, and I love it, but hadn’t realised how much my self-esteem is wrapped up in my career, nor that my independence would evaporate with motherhood.
‘Shoplifting began in those early months as my way of retaining a bit of control, although I’m shocked to even hear myself say this.
‘We have a good life and own a lovely four-bedroom home, but we moved out of London after having our child so my social life and circle of friends have dramatically altered. Shoplifting has become my thrill.
‘Other than my husband – who pleads with me to stop – I haven’t told anyone what I do because I know people would be shocked and I dread getting caught.
‘I’d play the “baby brain” card, saying I’d innocently popped the items into the bottom of the pram because I couldn’t carry everything, then forgotten to pay for them.’
Lucy targets items priced under £10, including make-up and food, but never clothes, alcohol or electrical items.
She sometimes selects supermarkets based on how easy it is to shoplift and has also ‘forgotten to pay’ for items such as candles and napkins in Ikea.
‘There’s no chance of stealing anything in Aldi, as that’s where I do the big weekly shop, so I have to go through the till rather than the self-service checkouts.
‘Stealing at self-service checkouts is so much easier — you can also put pricier items such as salmon fillets through as onions. I just walk past the security guards and smile. I do feel ashamed, but I know it’s not just me.’
Fellow midlife shoplifter Claire Johnson confides she has sleepless nights about her light-fingeredness since it began during the first lockdown in 2020.
It was a habit which was triggered by the stresses most people felt at the time, though most didn’t turn to crime.
‘I took advantage of the chaos in the supermarkets, with people pushing and shoving to stockpile essentials, not knowing how long lockdown and supplies would last,’ says Claire, 47, an executive PA who’s married with two children and lives in Surrey.
‘It started out with herbs and spices, then progressed to toilet paper and washing tablets. Part of my decision to shoplift was the pure thrill of taking the risk and getting away with it.
‘At the same time, I was scared of losing my income during Covid and, recently, when the cost of living rocketed, shoplifting was my way of sticking two fingers up to the government.
‘I have never stolen from local small businesses, it has only been the larger stores, such as Tesco and Asda, not that this makes it any less immoral.’
Claire is well aware that her feelings about shoplifting are contradictory: a deep sense of shame is offset by elation every time she gets away with it.
‘At a time when — like most people — our family finances have been increasingly stretched, it feels embarrassing, but also slightly empowering, to get away with it,’ she says, adding that she believes the perimenopause has contributed to her behaviour, as mood swings and the general stresses of midlife skewed her behaviour.
Claire has stolen bread, fruit, vegetables, cleaning products and dog food. Her university lecturer husband knows nothing of her secret.
‘Shame prevents me from telling him,’ she explains.
She has recently had a six-month hiatus from shoplifting: ‘I was petrified of getting caught and increasingly aware that my luck may run out,’ she says.
And she’s not just scared of the law enforcement. She suspects that being branded a thief might blow up her family life and career.
Even so, she can’t say for sure she won’t be tempted again next time she’s feeling stressed — such is the lure of the high, even if it means risking everything.
n All names have been changed.