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Shop Theft Has Been Building For Years – Here’s How To Tackle Retail Crime And Keep Workers Safe

The Oasis Reporters

October 16, 2023








Retailers want police to respond more to shop theft reports.
Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock

Emmeline Taylor, City, University of London

Retail giants like Boots, Tesco and Primark are pushing for Home Office action after violent incidents and abuse against shop staff almost doubled since the COVID pandemic. Retail crime cost UK shops £1.76 billion in the year to April 2023, according to the British Retail Consortium.


The increase in theft from UK grocery and convenience shops is often blamed on the cost of living crisis. But this situation has been building for many years because overburdened policing and criminal justice systems can’t cope with a rise in organised crime and drug-fuelled stealing.


I interviewed a shop manager who had been threatened by a customer for a 2019 report. He said:


Unless he comes back and does what he said he was going to do (slit my throat) then the police wouldn’t bat an eyelid so I didn’t report it. The police force in our area, well, it’s pointless even having a police force if I’m honest. All the time we report things and they don’t respond. They say they are so stretched that there is nothing they can do.


Retail crime is woefully under-reported, which makes challenging it even more difficult. In the year to March 2023, the police recorded just 339,206 cases of shoplifting across England and Wales. But other sources including the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and the Home Office estimates it’s closer to 8 million incidents per year. UK supermarket Co-op saw almost 1,000 crime-related incidents each day in the six months to June 2023.


Incidents reported to the police halved last year “largely due to lack of confidence in any police reponse”, according to the BRC’s latest crime report. But the resulting lack of police data also makes it difficult to identify who exactly is committing theft and where.


The term “shoplifting” prompts images of someone sneaking a chocolate bar into their pocket – it seems relatively trivial and victimless. But industry reports indicate that what is occurring in city centres is far from trivial, it’s organised and systematic looting.


Entire shelves of stock are being loaded into suitcases and wheelie bins. Violence, threats and verbal abuse are also becoming more common. Encountering a thief is the number one trigger for violence in a store. There are now around 850 violent or abusive incidents a day against shop workers. Weapons such as knives, broken glass bottles and hypodermic needles are often threatened or used against workers.


Relatively high-value items that can be quickly resold for profit are the obvious choice for shop theft. This can include fresh meat, baby formula and hygiene products. Many shops now tag these items, lock them in protective cases or replace them with dummy packaging to defend their stock.


Is the cost of living crisis to blame?


There are several motivations for regular stealing. Research shows 70% of shop theft is committed by frequent users of class A drugs. Those using shop theft to support a drug addiction report they typically generate around one third to a half of retail price when they sell stolen goods. So they may need to steal double or triple the approximately £19,000 reported annual spend of someone using both heroin and crack – that’s a possible £38,000-£57,000 of stolen goods per year.


Organised criminals stealing in bulk to sell on for profit are also driving up retail crime. These enterprises consist of those who steal and their “fences” – people who will sell goods using the anonymity of online marketplaces. Retailers Against Crime estimate there could be 40 organised crime groups targeting retailers across Scotland alone. Some offenders describe “stealing to order” from shopping lists.


Where the cost of living crisis might be contributing to the uplift in theft is in people’s willingness to buy stolen goods, particularly through online marketplaces, or at car boot sales, pubs, clubs and even in other shops.


Woman in a apron holding a device, taking stock, supermarket.

Supermarkets want to protect staff from threats or violence at work.
Jacob Lund/Shutterstock


Systems in crisis


Under-funding of both the police and the criminal justice system in recent years has only fuelled the UK’s shoplifting problem.


Co-op found police failed to respond to 71% of serious retail crimes reported. For offenders that are caught, the average custodial sentence for a shop theft is two months (automatic release means half of this is served in prison). Adults released from custodial sentences of less than or equal to 6 months have a proven reoffending rate of 56.5%.


Although the causes of prolific and persistent offending are complex and far reaching, there are some simple solutions. Retailers are calling for new offences and for police to prioritise retail crime more.


But demand and ready markets for stolen goods should also be tackled. Businesses known to be in receipt of stolen goods need to be investigated and online marketplaces better regulated. In the USA, the recent Inform Consumers Act requires online marketplaces to gather information about high-volume, US-based sellers in an attempt to combat online sales of stolen goods.


Shops and retailers can also take action:


    • collect data on trends or new and emerging theft-related issues that can be shared with other retailers and police


    • invest in training and equipment like wireless headphones so staff can alert each other to suspicious situations


    • technology like CCTV can help detect repeat offenders, but data analysis tools can also track sales to spot where and when theft is most common


    • security guards can help but a community outreach worker could also assist with incidents involving people with social issues


    • partnering with nearby shops, law enforcement and the wider community could also help.


Retailers must make sure awareness of the risk of shop theft is company-wide. But they should also accept that approaches might have to differ at store level, depending on location. Regardless, taking action to protect staff and products should be their top concern.The Conversation


Emmeline Taylor, Professor of Criminology, City, University of London


This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Greg Abolo

Blogger at The Oasis Reporters.

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