Retailers have warned Britain’s shoplifting epidemic will lead to businesses closing and livelihoods (Image: GETTY)
Organised crime gangs are targeting shops near train stations and major roads as they look for getaway routes.
And supermarket bosses warned some stores are being targeted “every day, others several times a day”.
They blamed career criminals who are treating theft like a normal nine-to-five job, warning it is “one of the most significant issues facing UK communities”.
Matt Hood, the managing director of Co-op Food, said: “A rise in shop looting and retail crime perpetrated by repeat, prolific offenders and organised criminal gangs is becoming genuinely one of the most significant issues facing UK communities.
“One of the things that makes me most angry is those that claim this is a victimless crime – it is fundamentally not, as my store colleagues who have been verbally abused, or have had knives or syringes pulled on them, can all vouch for.
“But the frustration is that it does come across as a seemingly consequence-less crime.”
Mr Hood said police officers attend about two in 10 thefts – meaning offenders have to be let go in the vast majority of cases.
The group has invested more than £200 million over the past few years to improve security in stores and the safety of staff – including body cameras, CCTV and even artificial intelligence cameras.
The retail chain is urging police to take shoplifting more seriously and to go after prolific offenders.
‘Shop theft is not a victim-less crime’ (Image: Getty)
Co-op recorded 175,000 incidents of shoplifting and violence against its staff during the first half of the year, an increase of 35pc.
It lost £33m in the first half specifically due to shoplifting, an increase of 30pc year-on-year.
Lucy Brown, director of security for the John Lewis Partnership, said organised crime gangs were behind the rise in shoplifting.
Ms Brown, who oversees security at both Waitrose and John Lewis, said: “Some shops are targeted every day, others several times a day. And we’re fortunate because we’re not the worst hit,’
“We’ve seen a real increase post-Covid. We don’t believe it’s linked to the cost of living. You have people living chaotic lives with substance abuse who are stealing to fund their habits.
“Another major problem – which is new – are organised criminal gangs. They spend as much time shoplifting as we do on our normal jobs. They will target Tube routes, road networks and steal to order.
“There have been gangs operating across north London going from shop to shop and threatening teams with violence.
“The stuff they target tends to be whatever has the highest retail value on the black market.
“That includes alcohol in Waitrose, and in John Lewis portable tech and high-value dental products like [electric] toothbrushes.
“It’s high value, easy to carry and easy to dispose of. Another thing is high-value fragrances like Tom Ford.”
Co-op recorded 175,000 incidents of shoplifting and violence against its staff (Image: Getty)
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The Daily Express understands the Home Office is working with police forces to “urgently develop a zero tolerance plan” to shoplifting.
Ministers want more retailers to sign up to the Facewatch Live Facial Recognition system, which spots prolific shoplifters as they walk into a shop and alerts staff.
They also want police to arrive at the scene more quickly and chase every lead.
Tina McKenzie, Policy Chair at the Federation of Small Businesses, said: “Retail crime needs to be taken seriously due to the financial hardship and emotional distress it causes, not to mention the physical risk to sales assistants and shop owners.
“It’s really frustrating when clear evidence isn’t followed up by police, and while we understand that police budgets aren’t unlimited, business crime should be considered a priority for the police as well as the Police and Crime Commissioners.”
Andrew Goodacre, CEO of British Independent Retailers Association said: “There has been an alarming increase in shop theft across the United Kingdom. We are deeply troubled by the impact this surge in theft is having on our independent retailers. It not only threatens the livelihoods of hardworking shop owners but also undermines the sense of security within our communities.
“Shop theft is not a victimless crime. It places an unjust burden on businesses that are already navigating economic challenges. We call upon the government, law enforcement agencies, and the public to work together to combat this issue. Greater awareness, improved security measures, and stricter penalties for offenders are essential steps in addressing the rising tide of shop theft.”
Retail expert Scott Dixon said the problem is mainly down to shoplifters becoming more shameless. He said: “It is worse than ever. Shoplifters know the odds are stacked in their favour and are becoming bolder. Shoplifting has effectively been decriminalised.
“More must be done to protect retailers and staff. We need tougher laws backed up by the police and courts. Smaller retailers cannot afford to take the hit and are giving up their livelihoods, which has repercussions on communities. We may also see larger retailers closing stores in key locations.”
Police forces should be working with retailers to tackle shoplifting, says James Lowman, Chief Executive of the Association of Convenience Stores In the last two years shop theft has gone through the roof, from being relatively low as everyone was opening up after the pandemic, to now being at record highs never seen before by local shops.
When we ask convenience store retailers who is committing these offences, their responses are always consistent – it’s primarily prolific, repeat offenders that are known in the community and stealing to then sell on, either to fund a drug addiction or as part of organised criminal gangs.
The cost-of-living crisis is often blamed for the rise in shop theft, with the suggestion being that people struggling to make ends meet are stealing to feed their families.
Our members tell us this is actually very rare.
The reality is that there’s a growing black market in higher value products like coffee, meat, cheese and alcohol, where gangs are stealing these products to order and selling them on social media or in the pub to people that might be more willing to take a risk on products that are coming from questionable sources.
We know from talking to retailers and shopworkers that only a tiny proportion of the theft that takes place ends up getting reported to the police, partly because of the time that it takes to make a report and follow it through all the way to court, but partly because the response from police forces has often been lacking – retailers take the time to report incidents committed by repeat offenders and they’re greeted with nothing more than a crime number and a thanks very much.
So how do we break this awful cycle of shop theft and send a message to thieves that their crimes won’t go unnoticed?
Firstly, police forces should be working with retailers on ‘most wanted’ lists, sharing intelligence about repeat offenders and building a case that’s strong enough to get them off the streets.
Secondly, we know that theft all to often leads to abuse when offenders are challenged by shop staff, so we need a review of the recently introduced aggravated offence for attacking a shopworker to ensure that it’s working to properly punish offenders.
And finally, it’s not just about fines and prison time, we need proper investment in rehabilitation programmes for offenders that genuinely need help to turn their lives around. Together, these measures will take a big step forward in winning the fight against retail crime.