‘It’s organised looting’: UK in grip of a shoplifting epidemic, say store owners – The Guardian

Shop thefts have more than doubled in the past three years, costing retailers £953m a year, according to the British Retail Consortium
In recent months, David, the manager of a Leeds Co-op store, and his staff have been threatened with razors, knives, screwdrivers, needles and hammers by shoplifters who have become more brazen and aggressive.
“It feels like these offenders can simply come in and take what they want, and do what they want,” the 36-year-old said. “Not one or two items – they come in with bags, sacks or clothing, which can conceal hundreds of pounds’ worth of stock – coffee, meat, wine, laundry gel, anything that can be re-sold. It is looting. They are known in the city centre as repeat offenders … They know the police don’t have the resources or can’t attend quickly enough.”
Co-op said it had recorded its highest-ever levels of retail crime, shoplifting and antisocial behaviour in the six months to June, with almost 1,000 incidents each day. It claimed that police failed to respond to 71% of serious retail crimes, and that bosses were considering whether it was safe and commercially viable to keep some branches open.
Paul Gerrard, the chain’s director of public affairs and a former customs officer, described some of the shoplifting as “organised looting”, saying gangs would climb over kiosks and brazenly empty shelves into rucksacks, construction bags and even wheelie bins.
“We’ve had people come in with trolleys that they fill up with product and walk out. This is akin to organised looting on the high streets of the UK,” he said.
“I think there’s a real danger that businesses – I don’t just mean a couple, I mean all businesses – will look at some shops and think that is not commercially viable, because we’re spending so much to keep colleagues safe, to try to keep the product safe, that actually, whatever profit that we do make is being spent on that.”
The rise in shoplifting comes amid a cost of living crisis – and poverty campaigners say some theft is born of desperation.
Earlier this week, Laurence Guinness, the chief executive of the Childhood Trust, told the Big Issue: “I have spoken to many children, some as young as seven, who have resorted to taking food from shops because they are hungry.”
But supermarket bosses and retail experts claim the organised criminal gangs are also taking advantage of threadbare policing.
Earlier this week Dame Sharon White, the chair of John Lewis Partnership (JLP), which owns John Lewis and Waitrose, described shoplifting in the UK as an “epidemic”. Writing in the Telegraph on Sunday, she said high streets in some areas had already become “shells of their former selves”.
Shop thefts have more than doubled in the past three years, reaching 8m in 2022 and costing retailers £953m, according to the British Retail Consortium (BRC). The trend has not been limited to Co-op or larger supermarkets. The Association of Convenience Stores (ACS), the voice of more than 33,500 shops, said it has recorded its highest-ever levels of shoplifting over the last year, with 1.1m incidents reported to the police.
In Cambridge, Ronnie, a convenience store owner, said in the last week alone shoplifters had stolen five £7.99 steaks, 15 packets of chicken and lamb, 25 chocolate bars and fruit chews, 15 cans of energy drink and six bottles of wine. The 38-year-old said shoplifters terrorised his small business every other day, costing him about £300 a week.
“There’s not enough powers for us to stop them so it’s an ongoing battle,” he said. “We have a business to run, and if everyone starts stealing, then we won’t be profitable to survive and then there won’t be a shop in the community.”
He said his staff were faced with abuse “day in, day out”, especially if they confronted shoplifters. The BRC reported that more than 850 incidents of violence or abuse against staff were recorded each day, while the ACS said 87% of convenience store workers had experienced verbal abuse over the past year.
Co-op has claimed that even when staff apprehend shoplifters, officers attend only 20% of incidents. According to an FoI request submitted by the chain, which has a portfolio of more than 2,000 stores, some forces do not respond to almost nine out of 10 serious incidents.
The company said it had been forced to spend more than £200m to counter criminal behaviour, with measures such as body-worn cameras and headsets for staff and “dummy” packaging for items such as £6 boxes of Ferrero Rocher chocolates and £6 jars of Kenco coffee to deter thieves from looting or “bulk-shoplifting”.
It has also hired undercover guards, often former police officers, who can detain shoplifters until police arrive. But Gerrard often feels their efforts are in vain because officers don’t always attend.
“We then have to let the shoplifters go, which actually is worse than intervening in the first place because that means they know, and they’ll tell all their mates, that even if they catch you the police don’t turn out. The point here is that the risk for an offender is minimal,” he said.
“You tell colleagues not to intervene because we know that’s a trigger for violence and abuse. Some of these stores are now becoming… not commercially viable.”
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Gerrard said one store in London had been hit two or three times a day by the same gang of three men, who come back as soon as stock is replenished. “When my colleague reported one of the incidents as it was happening, they were told by the police operator: ‘We won’t get there in time so in future just ring 101.’ And this is an armed robbery taking place because they had weapons.”
Lucy Brown, JLP’s director of security, said: “UK retailers spend around £1bn a year in lost stock, plus a further £700m a year in measures to prevent crime.
“Not only is that driving up prices for genuine customers, it’s money that’d be better spent on things like product innovation, or supporting British farmers and suppliers.
“Criminals will target items that are easy to conceal, and that are quick and easy to resell on the black market.”
For Waitrose, that included alcohol, meat, tobacco substitutes and health and beauty products such as razor blades and toothbrush heads, she said. At John Lewis, it was wearable tech, fragrances and branded fashion.
Gerrard said there had been a 41% rise in incidents in Co-op stores in the first eight months of this year, which he believed was linked to reselling.
“While individuals who are stealing are not stealing for their own consumption, they’re stealing for resale, I think it must be true that the cost of living crisis has created a bigger potential market to sell stolen goods into, in particular food goods.”
James Lowman, the chief executive of the ACS, described the levels of theft as “unprecedented” and said official crime figures “barely scratch the surface” due to underreporting.
Gerrard said goods were resold at car boot sales, pubs, clubs and even in other shops. He refused to elaborate but added: “That product that is being stolen from us and Tesco and others is being resold in both informal and formal settings.”
Back in Leeds, Co-op manager David, who has worked for the chain for 20 years, said he had witnessed shoplifters flogging goods in plain sight. “They will take that stock and go only 200 yards down the road, sit on a bench and start selling it. It’s blatant.”
In recent weeks, a gang of four men looted his store, with each offender ransacking a different aisle. “At that point, there’s nothing our teams can do, they feel powerless,” he said.
On that occasion, the men got away with 40 boxes of laundry detergent, 20 jars of coffee, and up to 35 steaks and packets of lamb and pork. A fourth man who climbed behind the kiosk grabbed 20 bottles of spirits. The police attended days later to review CCTV.
David said he felt protected by Co-op’s safety measures, but that there were days he felt frightened and demoralised by the police’s ineffectiveness against the gangs.
“They’re hitting us, they’re hitting Tesco, Sainsbury’s, John Lewis. Some of them have Facebook groups saying: ‘I’m off to Matalan today, what do you want?’ These people are dangerous, they’re a menace to society, but they also make the working experience for our colleagues just not very nice.”


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