Shoplifting has surged to unprecedented levels in the past year as the ‘middle-class shoplifter’ turns to crime to fund luxury lifestyles in the recession.

Retail crime in the UK has soared nearly 20% in the last 12 months, costing retailers a record £4.88bn – a £750m increase on last year.

According to the 2009 Retail Global Theft Barometer, the UK tops the retail crime league table in Europe.

Clothing and accessories experienced one of the steepest increases, rising 8.8%, with branded and designer clothing, football shirts, lingerie and leather goods proving particularly popular among shoplifters.

Theft in DIY and hardware stores rose 4%, while at speciality food and convenience stores it rose 8.4%.

Neil Matthews, vice president of Checkpoint Systems NCE, which conducted the survey, said: “The UK’s retail industry has seen its largest ever increase in shoplifting over the last 12 months, and it comes at a time when the industry can least afford it.

“But what is perhaps as surprising as the figures themselves is that we are not simply looking at your traditional shoplifters here. We are seeing more instances of amateur thieves stealing goods for their own personal use rather than to sell-on than before. This is epitomised in the recent uprising of the middle-class shoplifter, someone who has turned to theft to sustain their standard of living.”

The report, which surveyed more than 1,000 retailers worldwide finds that 43.5% of all stock going missing is down to external theft - opportunistic shoplifters and organised gangs, while employee theft is on the rise.