Inside the World of Britain's Professional Shoplifters
I spoke to a seasoned shoplifter and one of the "store detectives" tasked with catching people like her in the act.
Plenty of people have indulged in some sort of shoplifting. The onion scam at a supermarket checkout, a drunken dine-and-dash, a felt jester hat nabbed from one of those shops at Glastonbury made out of metal poles, bunting and dreamcatchers – it all counts. But while most amateurs tend to pack it in at puberty, or at least once they're old enough to pay their own bills, for others it can become a full-time career. And around Christmas time, those professional shoplifters are known to considerably step up their game.
Throughout her 45-year stint as a shoplifter, 54-year-old Kim Farry says she made £2 million and took home an average of £50,000 a year. "Because you're not a shoplifter, you couldn't imagine that I could go into a shop and take two grand's worth at a time," she tells me. "It was a living, it was my job. I didn't look at it like I was doing anything wrong, and I think that's why I got away with it."
Nicknamed Britain's "Shoplifting Queen" by the tabloids, Farry first got into five-finger discounts at the age of nine. "I got caught and cautioned for a Marc Bolan badge when I was 11," she tells me. "My dad used to say, 'You want to give it up, you're no good at it, stop thieving,' and I used to think, 'You should look after mum and I wouldn't have to.'"
Shoplifting is a crime as old as retail itself. From ancient Egypt to the Roman Empire, where the punishment for stealing could – in the worst cases – be a death sentence, through to the scammers and pickpockets of 16th century London – who risked being hanged if they were caught – people have always stolen goods from shops, whether out of necessity or just for the thrill of it.
By the early 19th century, shoplifting was no longer a crime punishable by death in the UK and had, according to Kerry Segrave's Shoplifting: A Social History, largely become as popular with women as it had been with men. South London's all-female shoplifting gang the Forty Thieves, founded in 1865, were responsible for the largest shoplifting operation the UK has ever seen, fleecing shops out of thousands of pounds by hiding goods in clothes specifically designed for thievery.
By the 1960s, shoplifting had been rechristened as a political act. In 1971's The Anarchist Cookbook, William Powell wrote that "shoplifting can get you high", while in 1970's Steal This Book Abbie Hoffman declared that "ripping off is an act of revolutionary love". You get the idea; shoplifting was seen as a fuck you to the capitalist system – an ethically-defendable crime. Contemporary counter-cultural groups like the Spanish anarchist collective YomangoYomango (which translates as "I Steal") continue this tradition of ideological shoplifting, distributing their pickings from global corporations to wider society.
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These days, in order to keep shoplifters at bay, retail stores adopt a range of security measures. One of these is the store detective. While you're probably never further than half a mile from one of these plain-clothed patrollers in any British city, most will never be aware of their presence.
John Wilson* has first-hand experience of the ins and outs of the role. "I worked as a store detective for over eight-and-a-half years. I worked everywhere from low-end to high-end. Armani, Louis Vuitton, Versace, Calvin Klein, all the blue chip names," he tells me. "I also worked all over South London. Brixton, Streatham, Lewisham, Camberwell, Tooting, Balham, Malden, Sutton."
According to Wilson, detectives are often expected to catch a daily quota of shoplifters. "A good store detective would have an arrest rate of one every one-and-a-half hours, but in Brixton, if you didn't have one within the first 10 minutes of starting, then it was going to be a bad day," he recalls. "People would be nicking drug-related stuff like duvet covers. We used to have a pub on the corner in Brixton, and if it said 'roast beef' on the menu, then I knew what had been nicked. The druggies would take it [and sell it to] the landlords."
Money is an obvious motive for many shoplifters – but, for some, the act of stealing itself is seemingly the main attraction. According to a study cited in Rachel Shteir's 2011 book The Steal, Americans with incomes of over $70,000 (£46,000) shoplift 30 percent more than those who earn up to $20,000 (£13,000). Wealthy celebrities have been charged for shoplifting. There are plenty of accounts online from people who definitely could have afforded to pay for something, but simply chose to nick it instead.
A range of counselling services are available for those with shoplifting compulsions, though little research has been conducted into their effectiveness. As for why these compulsions develop, Barbara Staib of the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention in the US told the BBC, "Some people are trying to find solace in shoplifting. It gives them the 'rush', a 'high' – it can be a relief, if only a temporary one, as they suffer remorse afterward, when they get caught." Conversely, in the same BBC article, Canadian psychologist Dr Will Cupchik argues that shoplifting has nothing to do with a "rush", but more the need to fill a void in the subject's personal life.
Whatever the explanation, Farry can relate. "I was addicted to it," she says. "As soon as the shops were open, I was out there until they shut, driving from one town to the other. People used to say to me, 'How the fuck do you do it?' And I'd say, 'I taught myself; I'm not about to tell you.' It's an art; it's not just about going in and throwing it in your bag."
To counter pros like Farry, Wilson employed a gamut of tactics to blend in with the general public. "If customers were coming in wet because it was raining, you'd disappear outside the store to get yourself wet," he explains, adding that once he'd detected a suspect he'd follow them around the store, careful to observe their every move. "You've seen them approach, collect and conceal the item, then you'll let them wander out. One step outside the door and you introduce yourself as the store detective," he tells me. "It can be dangerous; I never used to run off down the street unless I had backup with me."
According to Wilson – and perhaps unsurprisingly – it was the professional shoplifters who were the most difficult to deal with. "The hardest ones to catch are the ones that come [into the shop] in groups. Obviously a store detective working on their own can only observe one person," he explains. "A lot of people are using de-taggers these days, but if you catch them with that, they're obviously going equipped to steal – that's a bigger deal."
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Depending on the severity of your shoplifting, and how many times you've been caught, punishments can vary. Best outcome: you'll get a slap on the wrist and banned from the shop; worst: a custodial sentence. After a total of 30 convictions for theft and five spells in prison, Farry tells me she's finally decided to put a stop to the shoplifting.
"This year has been the longest time I haven't done it, apart from when I've been in prison," she says. "I feel like a big weight's been lifted off my shoulders, but I've still got a long way to go yet with the addiction. I've got six kids and five grandchildren. I've got no money or presents for Christmas, but the kids say, 'We don't care, mum, we're just so happy that you're doing what you're doing.'"
Despite the "Shoplifting Queen" hanging up her specially-designed stealing stockings, it's clear it's a crime that's not going anywhere; last year, offences were up 6 percent from 2013, and police nationwide have recently issued warnings about the imminent rise of shoplifting incidents in the run up to Christmas. It's something people from all walks of life do, because it's about the most immediate, accessible crime there is: walk into a shop, find something you like, pocket it and walk out.
Of course, that doesn't mean it's without its consequences. John Wilson may have called it a day on the store detective front, but there are many others out there like him. Plus, just because he's no longer being paid to nab shoplifters, doesn't mean he can't do the odd bit of freelance work when it presents itself. "Every now and then," he says, "I nick someone just for the fun of nicking someone."
* John Wilson's name has been changed to protect his identity.
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