Opinion: Stealing to become the new buying – Is shoplifting set to go mass market?

Consistent with urban myth, Nottingham is not oblivious to terms like “eat the rich,” says Jaymes Russell.

For most of us, our very own Robin Hood and his Merry Men of Sherwood Forest were our very first memories of social activism and the otherwise illicit idea that theft can be excused under the circumstances that constitute it.

Nine hundred years later, the heroic actions of Robin have been calculated and systemised into the Retail Price Index, which is measured by both the items we buy and the items we don’t. This year saw our consumer habits go from cigarettes and doughnuts to avocados and LA-styled sports bras. Unfortunately in this day and age, healthy living is costly – the CPI (Consumer Price Index) has risen by 10.1 per cent within the year – the highest recorded annual inflation rate since 2006.

However, all is not lost. The CPI does not take into account the modern-day merry men. A title sadly forced on many whose only option now is to rifle and pilfer, to prepare themselves for the coming months and the ‘harsh winter’ ahead of them.

There isn’t really a more profitable endeavour that exceeds shoplifting. It’s the perfect transaction for…at least one of the participants. A high-stakes, risk-all kind of deal. Coming out on top and two-three-four times richer than before or sitting before a judge, preparing yourself for the worst case scenario, a seven-year sentence.

Of course, this is nothing new. More recently though, the charity sector has been hurting. Food banks which provided resources to individuals and families on their last legs have taken a hit. Inflation has dramatically damaged the poverty scale, diminishing the financially able who would have had the facilities to donate. This, almost ironically, has caused a soar in demand for food banks and relief charities. With help becoming more and more scarce, those most vulnerable have no other choice and resort to the…almost perfect transaction.

The comparison between the current and ever-rising cost-of-living crisis and an increase in stealing is very much apparent, as food prices spike by 4.3 per cent. A yearly increase of 21 per cent in shoplifting has many retail shop unions and alliances calling for retail crime to be taken more seriously.

Since January, newspapers and media companies have warned that shoplifting is becoming an ever-increasing ‘daily’ occurrence. But does this hold true? Or is what we’re seeing just sensationalist poverty porn.

Like most forms of crime, shoplifting will only increase as the economy deteriorates. Supermarkets are seemingly prepared to go to war against the hungry and desperate with security tags popping up on the ‘cheap and cheerful’. Once retained for pricey alcohol and AirPods, supermarkets are locking up butter and cheese, a scary insight into an economic disaster quickly running off the rails, reflecting these intense price rises and the growing scarcity of intrinsic retail products.

A Wall Street Journal opinions page that commented on the April 2022 edition titled ‘A New Cost of Doing Business” said: “Now that those who covet feel their position is one of moral superiority, they feel justified in shoplifting, as that gives them what they believe is their rightful claim on additional wealth.”

‘War’ indicates retaliation, so while retail corporations put dairy isles into lockdown, anti-capitalist and anarchist, socialist thinkers have declared shoplifting as a new-wave form of social activism that fights back against the major corporations and the profiteers at the top.

Harsh times bring harsher liberals. Since the cost-of-living crisis became apparent, new-generation activists are self-described as “the last frontline” against the mass insolvency including The Don’t Pay UK movement. Sparked by the rise in energy bills, the strike has scooped almost 200,000 people to protest the current state of living.

Of course, shoplifting as a form of social revolution is nothing new, stemming all the way back to 1971 when Abbie Hoffman published Steal this Book, written in the form of a guide to the youth, that offered advice on shoplifting and invited activists to challenge what was deemed the ‘status quo’. Surprisingly Hoffman’s fans and mentees appear to be none other than 21st century teenage girls.

Northumbria University conducted a study on the Liftblr community, an online group of teenage shoplifters who swap tips and share pics of their hauls on Tumblr. One girl who went by the handle @Princessklepto wrote “being a teen girl is hard—you have to be skinny, attractive, put together, well dressed, etc. Society teaches girls through the media and the beauty industry that they need to be perfect. I’m sick of handing my money over to corporations that profit on this bullshit…so if I have to put up with this kind of stuff, I’m certainly not going to pay for it.”

Two years ago, anti-capitalist teens were sharing shoplifting tips on TikTok. Known as the “borrowing” community, it was an anonymous-styled group of teens disguised in masks and voice changer effects, bonding over the art of theft. Using how-to videos and share hauls, all the while remaining covert under the banner of “borrowing”. If you searched for the community’s most prominent members now, @ferretsborrowing or @borrowingguid3, you would find their accounts have since been banned or deactivated.

Shoplifting as a form of activism only works when targeting the large chain stores that regulate trade and squash local and independent businesses, the TikTok community catchphrase: “If it’s a chain, it’s free reign” has radical teens evaluating a company’s political ideals and excessive, expendable products and denouncing how steal-worthy they are.

In Bristol, a more “experienced” activist, Rachael Clerke, ran an art project back in March called Transactionland. It encouraged locals to partake in recreational challenges themed around consumer culture. One of the features was ‘shoplift-o-clock’ which entailed “an hour each day where shoplifting was allowed as long as you weren’t caught by Transactionland staff”.

Including ‘shoplift-o-clock’ “was a way of having a conversation about theft in the context of the wider economy” and “how we might understand it as part of the bigger picture”. Just like the TikTok Teens, Clerke noticed how her project encouraged people to share tips and work together to steal from her.

But how far is this protest going to go? How long until it unequivocally stands that it’s doing more harm than good? The 2020 YouGov report revealed that shoplifting at a large retail chain is generally viewed as more acceptable than from a small or independent shop. For younger people, two in five 18 to 24 year olds say that “it’s sometimes ok” to steal.

Terrence Shulman, founder of The Shulman Centre for Compulsive Theft, Spending and Hoarding, in his book Biting The Hand That Feeds claims that the premise of stealing to oppose the system is understandable but stores will actually just bump up the prices of all items to account for shoplifting losses. “What really scares me is a lot of these people are going to end up actually making the prices higher,” he said.

Does shoplifting even align with these teens’ ‘apparent’ values – occasionally engaging in Robin Hood-style shoplifting, where the stolen goods are donated to those who actually need it? Most of the time the pilfered goods consist of non-essential items of luxury like jewellery and beauty products. Can it then be argued that they are instead engaging in the sort of fast-fashion consumerism that is at the forefront of capitalist damage?

There has always been a fine line between a march and a misdemeanour, Shulman warns how easy it is to get addicted to shoplifting, not as an act of protest, but for the adrenaline rush. “It might start off as a thrill, it might start off as a drive to make a point or to get back at the system, but actions can spread like wildfire, all of a sudden you are stealing from a small store.”

So can shoplifting be activism? Supermarkets definitely have a fight on their hands and it doesn’t look like it’s stopping anytime soon. Growing uneasiness and now the cost-of-living crisis has created a growing feeling that the system is cheating us all. The online communities that keynote theft and expansive campaigns like Don’t Pay have made that apparent to us.

With the coming months looking like the Game of Thrones Winter is Coming advert, it’s worthwhile to review all of the various forms that civil disobedience can take. Now is the time for change, both mentally and physically. Maybe it’s time to examine the obvious stereotypes of shoplifting and the cultural response to its impact. Perhaps it’s time for a Robin-Hood reboot.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not represent Platform Magazine’s views as a whole

Lead image: Viki Mohamad on Unsplash

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