Notes on fashion, style and culture

Sunday, 19 February 2012

The rise of the middle-class shoplifter

A few weeks ago, the British nation was shocked by the news that Antony Worrall Thompson, the portly celebrity chef and nemesis of the slightly edgier Gordon Ramsay, was caught up in a shoplifting scandal. Worrall Thompson was caught on CCTV stealing from a Tesco supermarket store in upmarket Henley in Oxfordshire. The chef’s embarrassing predicament was front page news as he stared, shame-faced from newsstands and TV channels across the country apologising to the store, his family, friends and the country at large, for his ‘stupid and irresponsible’ actions. Despite the fulsome apology, the reaction of the public was scathing. The Daily Mail ran several articles on the incident and its readers were unsurprisingly disgusted – despite the relatively sympathetic, if sensationalist, tone of the article.

Antony Worrall Thompson, the Henley’s branch of Tesco
Many reporters suggested that perhaps some kind of mental anguish was to blame and noted that Mr Worrall Thompson’s restaurant empire was struggling in the recession. He had recently closed several restaurants losing valued members of staff and millions in revenue in the process. In the Daily Mail, Middle England’s citizens were unrepentant in their calls to not only bring him to justice, but it would also appear, to cut him down to size. Over 500 mainly hostile comments were left at the end of the article, typified by ‘Stuart’ from Seaton who called him ‘an overpaid cook who has got onto the BBC gravy train. As to his apology, he is only sorry he got found out or else he would have stopped thieving after the first time. He should have been made an example of and received a maximum penalty to be an example to others’.

So why the lack of public sympathy? When the actress Wynona Ryder was arrested back in 2001 at a Saks Fifth Avenue department store for stealing several thousand dollars worth of designer clothes and accessories, public sympathy was generally in her favour. In fact, when it was publicised that several of the clothing items stolen were by the designer Marc Jacobs, the designer ‘rewarded’ her not only with bag-loads of free gear for her troubles, but went so far as to have her front an upcoming advertising campaign (a clever move making the most out of the notoriety brought about by the situation). But can we see Tesco sending Antony Worrall Thompson a free hamper and asking him to front their next ad? It would appear unlikely.

Winona Ryder in court
Like Worrall Thompson, Winona Ryder’s lawyers stressed she was going through psychological hardship at the time of the incident: she was suffering from depression and addicted to prescription pills. But is her situation really that different to Antony Worrall Thompson’s? They are both millionaires and both more than capable of paying for the items they took. Granted Worrall Thompson is no Wynona – in that he is not a beautiful Hollywood movie star. In fact, when we’ve seen him being himself such as on his brief stint in the jungle on I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, he came across as a bit of a pompous bore. He’s also a fundraiser for the Tory party and his ongoing spat with the more popular Gordon Ramsay only serves to make him appear petty and bitter.

Ultimately, he’s not the most sympathetic character. But surely that shouldn’t matter. If both were suffering from some mental illness which manifested itself in a compulsive urge to steal (kleptomania) then should we not have the same sympathy for Antony Worrall Thompson that we did for Winona Ryder? We should note that although Winona Ryder had public sympathy, she was heavily punished by the courts (some felt extra harshly to be made an example of) unlike Antony Worrall Thompson who was only cautioned. Winona Ryder was sentenced to three years’ probation, 480 hours of community service, $3,700 in fines, $6,355 in restitution to the Saks Fifth Avenue store, and ordered to attend psychological and drug counseling.

Perhaps as some of Worrall Thompson’s harshest critics at the Daily Mail have noted, we have become cynical to the ‘I’m going to seek help’ card which celebrities seem to play at the first sign of a night in a cell or a criminal charge. Lindsay Lohan seems to have cashed in more than her fair share of these, and perhaps the public feel ‘wise’ to crying mental illness at the first sign of a night in the clink. But what if he really is unwell? Many objected to his lack of a conviction being based on his celebrity status, declaring ‘one rule for them (celebrities, the wealthy) and one for us’.

However, the very nature of his shoplifting would suggest that there are underlying psychological troubles at the root of his actions. The root causes of his shoplifting would appear to lie in mental instability rather than straightforward criminality. If we look at the details of the incident more closely, we see that Worrall Thompson had been caught stealing relatively low-value items of food from the self-service checkouts five times in a sixteen day period. His modus operandi was to go to a self-service till, pass some of his shopping through the checkout normally, and to pocket other items by putting them straight into his bag.

Oddly enough, the items he paid for were the higher-priced items (we are told he paid for champagne). Whereas lower cost items – cheese and wine – he stole. So it would appear he wasn’t trying to steal expensive items. He had also apparently been questioned on several occasions by store security. They understandably wanted to be sure, considering the fact that he was relatively well-known. Each time when confronted, Mr Worrall Thompson would apologise, insist it was an honest mistake and pay for the items he’d apparently put in his bag without passing through the till. On the fifth occasion, however, it was clear that this couldn’t be another accident. He’d pulled the same trick one time too many and, to the security staff, his actions were suggestive of premeditated stealing. Worrall Thompson was apprehended and the police were called.

Middle-class shoplifters target cheese and meats
We can only wonder what was going through his head as he was led into a backroom to wait for the police to arrive, past all the whispering locals who probably couldn’t believe their luck at being present at the most exciting moment Henley’s Tesco store had probably ever witnessed. As for Worrall Thomspon, surely the question he was asking, as we do now, is why? Why would he do this to himself? Why would he take the risk?

For all intents and purposes, it was a strange, intensive period of shoplifting that he embarked on. Constantly going back to the same store even after being caught and quizzed by security. Surely a seasoned shoplifter wouldn’t do this? His actions don’t add up. It suggests he was acting compulsively, not thinking things through, and even that perhaps he wanted to get caught.

So what kind of shoplifter is he? He’s clearly not on the breadline, or stealing to fund a drug habit. Worrall Thompson, did not appear to be stealing for profit or resale. It was nothing to do with a straightforward need for the product. With these cases there appears to be much more going on psychologically. Worrall Thompson would appear to fit into what psychologists describe as a ‘non-professional shoplifter’. His stealing fits the pattern of the ‘middle-class shoplifter’ of which there has been a steep rise since the beginning of the UK recession.

According to the Telegraph in an article in October 2011, thefts of cheese, cold meats and seafood have risen sharply over the previous year. The study by the Centre for Retail Research found that the unusual choice of goods was driven by a new wave of middle-class shoplifters who steal to maintain their expensive lifestyles. Similarly, beauty products such as lipstick and mascara – small luxury items – have been popular with the middle-class shoplifter.

Russell Holland, marketing director at Checkpoint Systems, which compiled the report, said that there had been a direct correlation with the state of the economy and the rise of the middle-class shoplifter: ‘You might have a good income and lifestyle and want to maintain it,’ he said. ‘There is no typical shoplifter any more. It’s a broad profile across age, ethnic group, gender and income bands.’

The new face of shoplifting?
As well as wanting to maintain a certain lifestyle, it is important to look at the link between compulsive shoplifting and the psychology of loss. As with compulsive shopping and in fact, most compulsive behaviours, the two are closely linked. Antony Worrall Thompson had recently suffered a blow to his business – a financial loss in his case. But any loss such as the loss of a loved one, a job, self-respect can instigate feelings of loss that end up manifesting themselves in compulsive behaviours. When loss manifests itself in compulsive shoplifting, the act of stealing makes the shoplifter feel as if they are filling the hole made by the loss. Shoplifting addiction is a symptom that there are deep-rooted feelings one is trying to avoid facing. An addict indulges themselves in shoplifting to help numb those troubling feelings – for a while.

In Worrall Thompson’s case his sense of loss might be based on his lost restaurant business, resulting not only in lost earnings, but a loss of pride and standing in his profession. It’s interesting that he wasn’t stealing clothes or shoes or any other product he could choose to take. Worrall Thompson stole food – ironically, the basis of his bread and butter as it were.

Similar to other compulsive behaviours, sufferers of compulsive shoplifting often experience the highs and lows associated with addiction. People who feel compelled to shoplift, find themselves caught in a cycle of anxiety: endorphin-fuelled highs and guilt-ridden lows. The euphoria, excitement, and ‘high’ felt at the time of shoplifting seems to give their life meaning while letting them forget about their troubles; but there is usually a feeling of disappointment afterwards, followed by guilt. Once leaving the environment where the shoplifting has taken place, the feeling of excitement quickly dissipates, so to compensate the addicted person goes shoplifting again in a cycle of repetitive impulse stealing. To the shoplifter, compulsive stealing acts as a form of self-medication.

Undoubtedly Worrall Thompson, like many others, has been a victim of the recession. The question is has it left him with a sense of victimhood and thus a feeling of entitlement? Ultimately, did Worrall Thompson feel that Tesco’s owed him? Or was his stealing compulsive? A way of dealing with anxiety? A question that his newly-acquired therapist will no doubt be looking to help him answer.


  1. It's quite a confusing event, since he did pay for the higher priced items. That does seem as though he had some anxiety issues with regards to his behavior. As for the public reaction, perhaps it's linked to the reason why some people are more embarrassed to be caught shoplifting:

    -Harvey Shepherd

  2. You may not really believe it that there are well-off people who shoplift. In most cases, these people really have personality disorders, wherein they have difficulty with their impulsiveness and cannot control themselves from doing things like stealing.

    Fernando Severns