Inside the mind of a pathological shoplifter

retail security shoplifting

By Adam Eley
BBC Victoria Derbyshire programme

The thought of shoplifting may well conjure up images of teenagers trying to impress friends, but for one woman – who has been shoplifting for over 20 years – it has become a compulsion that is dominating her life.

For Laura – not her real name – it all began at the age of seven, when a friend’s parent asked her to hide items in her pocket while out shopping.

Within months it had progressed to stealing classmates’ toys at primary school and pinching items from a friend’s house – a hair band or crayon.

“I did it mainly because I wanted the item. I would ask my parents to buy me certain things and they wouldn’t, so I would then just take them.”

Laura says it was these experiences that formed the basis of her addiction, which is now “out of control”.

She shoplifts practically every day, taking anything from cosmetics and clothes to jam and nappies, often while her two young children are with her.

Before she left her job to take care of them, she would steal “money out of the till, money out of people’s bags or purses” at work.

“If I can take it, I will take it. It’s basically an urge. There’s something in my brain that’s just telling me ‘you want it, so take it’.

“Recently I was at my friend’s house and I saw a skirt that really caught my eye. I didn’t take it that day initially, because I couldn’t. But it played on my mind, so I arranged a time to go back to the house and made a plan of how I could get it – and I just took it.”

She believes none of her friends or family know of her addiction, and has no plans to tell her husband.

“I don’t think he would understand. It’s quite embarrassing, I’m ashamed of it.”

Simon Stephens, a lead counsellor at Addictions UK, is not surprised by this reaction. He says it is comparable to the experiences of many other people going through addictions.

He believes this pathological need to shoplift is far more common than people realise.

“It is a genuine addiction that stems from the same issue as a gambling or drinking addiction. These people shoplift because they feel compelled to act by their subconscious, rather than for financial gain.

“They experience an emotional urge to experience the rush of adrenaline – and consequently dopamine – they receive from shoplifting, and the only way to suppress that is by giving in.