“What has the situation come to, where I can’t afford butter?” asked John, a father-of-two living in London. In recent months, the arts-sector worker and his partner Anna, a student, have started shoplifting “just over half” of their food, as well as other essentials like school uniforms.
“Both of us shoplifted before, but not loads,” said Anna – now, due to the cost of living crisis, she says they are “dependent on it”.
Grocery price inflation reached unprecedented highs in March, with the average UK household’s annual food spending now £1000 more than it was a year ago. Meanwhile, the UK’s three biggest supermarkets – Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda – made £3.2bn in profits in the 2021-22 tax year – a shocking 97% more than in the twelve months before.
Given the dire economic climate, it’s no wonder shoplifting is on the rise. Last year, food industry magazine The Grocer reported that shoplifting levels – especially of everyday essentials – were “off the charts”, and prices have only climbed since then. Statistics compiled by Kent Police show shoplifting offences rose by 28% in the county last year.
Shoplifters who spoke to Novara Media said the cost of living crisis had pushed them to steal more of life’s essentials. “A couple of times I’ve been on the verge of crying when I go to buy Sainsbury’s Basics apple and blackcurrant squash and realise the price has doubled in the past three months,” said John.
Lara, a culture worker from London, has started shoplifting groceries more frequently; she said it has become more socially acceptable in her circles. “I know that other people do it, and I’ve seen how other people do it, and that really helped,” she said. Previously, she avoided stealing because her upbringing and wider moralism had convinced her it was “a shameful thing” to do.
“Before, I would have described stealing as this really anti-Islamic thing to do,” she said. Shoplifting is also especially frowned-upon by “parents who come from a working-class or lower middle-class background,” she said, because of how classist ‘scrounger’ stereotypes “trickle down to how we surveil and shame each other.”
Nowadays however, Lara sees shoplifting as “one of the few guerrilla tactics we have available to us.”
Alan, a construction worker from London, who, like John and Anna, has been shoplifting around half his groceries in recent months, has “no moral qualms” about stealing from supermarkets. “I just think that the stuff in the world is ours, all of ours,” he said, “and that we’ve invented a really stupid system for the distribution of resources which doesn’t treat them as ours, and treats them as things that can be used for capitalists to make profit.”
He wouldn’t steal things if it meant that “someone’s labour went unrewarded”, he said, but all shoplifting affects is “the profits of shareholders” he said. “[I have] no concerns about that at all.”
Alan does have concerns about getting caught, however. As someone who volunteers with youth services, he needs to do disclosure and barring service (DBS) checks, which would show shoplifting convictions.
Supermarkets are responding to increased shoplifting by tightening security – including employing more guards and requiring workers to wear body cameras. John has noticed this at his local Sainsbury’s. “In the last six months, [the supermarket] has massively upped their security systems,” he said, including employing “undercover security guards”.
As a low-wage worker himself, Cambridge-based retail worker Hunter understands why people shoplift. “I don’t really blame people if they shoplift, times are hard,” he said. “I’m not paid enough to chase around shoplifters […] At the end of the day the ones taking a hit are the higher ups of the company.”
Peter, who has worked in a Dorset Sainsbury’s for three years, also understands why people shoplift. They believe it’s essentially a victimless crime, with little impact even on supermarket’s profit margins. “We were flat out told the shop had insurance for thefts and we also believed – but never confirmed – that the shop budgeted [for] thefts,” they said.
But all shoplifters don’t have the same opportunity to steal. Racism, classism and discrimination against homeless people means shoplifting can be most difficult for those most in need. Anna, who is white, recalled an occasion when the security alarm went off as she left the supermarket, and the staff did nothing. By contrast, she said, “I see police being called for Black people shoplifting all the time.”
Alan is also aware that as a white person who dresses “a certain way” he has “a very low risk profile” when shoplifting. He said that he’s “clocked times when the security guard is keeping more of an eye on someone who they’ve identified as poor,” than on him. In this respect alone, he said, he has some “complicated feelings” about shoplifting, including worrying that it might be “capitalising on a privilege that I have”.
Seth Wheeler, contributing editor to In and Against the State, told Novara Media that “racial profiling as well a generalised ‘anti-rough sleeper’ sentiment informs the decisions many security staff make when deciding who it is that will be monitored.” This reality – along with the cost of living crisis more generally – is not something we can “address individually”, he said. Instead it requires “a collective response.”
While, for many, shoplifting feels like a form of resistance to untenable living conditions, no one who spoke to Novara Media was sure how to build solidarity between shoplifters. Alan shoplifts food for rough sleepers, but wishes there were more organised approaches to shoplifting – like the mass stealing and redistribution of food that occurred in Greece following the 2008 financial crisis.
Lara believes shoplifting could be “revolutionary” if it could be “more of an organised operation” that involved “getting workers on side”.
“I think it would be really radical if there would be a widespread recognition and acceptance of stealing as a necessary mechanism for resistance,” she says. “If you can’t afford the things that you have to buy, then the logic should be that you just take them.”
Seth Wheeler is speaking at ‘The Cost Of Living Meets Popular Expropriation: Proletarian Shopping from 50s London to 2020s Berlin’ at MayDay Rooms in London on 21 April.