Businesses pay the price of theft

17th of January 2024
Businesses pay the price of theft

Hard-up Europeans are turning not only to food banks but also to food theft, triggering a shoplifting epidemic across much of the continent. And it is retail businesses and their legitimate customers who are paying the price, writes Hartley Milner.

TWO MIDDLE-AGED women wearing baggy ankle-length skirts enter a busy convenience store in north London. Each grabs a basket and proceeds to pass casually up and down the aisles, acting to all appearances like normal customers.

On completing their shop, the pair make their way to the checkout with less-than-full baskets. But it is their curious, slightly comical waddling gait that catches the eye of the store owner. He allows them to pay for the basket items before challenging them about other goods he suspects are concealed in their clothing.

The women protest their innocence and attempt to leave, but are detained by store staff and escorted to a side room. They refuse to be searched but lose their nerve when the police are mentioned and fess up to stealing more than £60 (€69) worth of groceries, including cheese, meat, bread and tinned foods. The thieves reveal their ploy was to take the baskets into the ladies’ loo where they transferred the items to bags strapped between their legs and hidden by their long skirts.

Hidden compartments

“They may have got away with it had they not been so greedy,” store owner Fazal Ashraf told ECJ. “They stuffed so much into the bags it weighed them down and they were barely able to walk. They would have seen there was no CCTV covering the corridor to the loos, and obviously we don’t have cameras inside our loos. It was quite a clever ruse really, just poorly executed.

“Shoplifters will go to any lengths to hide their crimes. We have found items stashed in false compartments in baby strollers and even in a mobility scooter. But I give them no credit for being resourceful. Retail theft is not a victimless crime. Theft is theft, and someone has to pay for it, and it’s the retailer and eventually their law-abiding customers through higher prices.”

Ashraf, who has two stores, estimates his losses from shoplifting at around £2,000 (€2,308) a month. “We’re not a superstore, just an average high street shop struggling to get by like any other business during these desperate times,” he said.

“Having to write off sums like this is not sustainable, especially when you include the cost of CCTV and other security measures we’ve had to install. It is possible to get insured against shoplifting as an add-on, but it comes with strict requirements that make it too expensive on top of everything else. We’re continually reviewing our security, but we cannot afford to employ professional security guards like the big supermarket chains are able to do.”

Ashraf said he only rarely reports shoplifters to police. “Unless someone has stolen hundreds of pounds worth of items or have been abusive or violent, they aren’t interested,” he continued. “The threat of calling them may deter some offenders, but experienced thieves know they don’t have the resources to attend and shrug off any mention of the police. So we just let them go. The best we can do is ban them from the store and network their CCTV images to alert other retailers in the area.”

In fact, of the eight million incidents of shoplifting committed over the 12 months to March this year, police recorded just 339,206 cases, according to the British Retail Consortium (BRC). Only 48,218 of these resulted in charges. During the same period, levels of customer crime in 10 major cities rose by an average of 27 per cent and by 23 per cent across England and Wales as a whole. The BRC’s 2023 crime survey reveals customer theft cost retailers just short of a billion pounds last year (€1.14 billion), despite the sector spending £715 million (€821 billion) on crime prevention.

And it is not only food that comes within reach of shoplifters’ sticky fingers. Clothing, domestic cleaning products, alcohol, cosmetics, razor blades, children’s toys, baby formulas … all are high on their ‘shopping’ list. A particularly despicable trend is the targeting of charity shops, up by 28.5 per cent in the UK, according to the Charity Retail Association. “It seems almost incomprehensible that people would stoop so low as to behave like this,” said CEO Robin Osterley.

Rise in violence

Most alarming of all is the dramatic rise in violence and abuse against retail workers. In a letter to the UK government demanding decisive action, and signed by 88 retail leaders, the BRC pointed out that serious incidents almost doubled to 867 a day in 2021 and 2022 compared with pre-Covid levels. And it called for a new statutory offence of “assaulting, threatening or abusing a retail worker”, and for police to “prioritise offences and improve their response to incidents”.

“It is vital that action is taken before the scourge of retail crime gets any worse,” said BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson. “We are seeing organised gangs threatening staff with weapons and emptying stores. We are seeing violence against colleagues who are doing their job and asking for age verification. We are seeing a torrent of abuse aimed at hardworking shop staff. It’s simply unacceptable … no one should have to go to work fearing for their safety.”

Ministers are currently drawing up plans that would see mandatory prison sentences for shoplifters who commit repeat offences. The measures will be included in new legislation requiring compulsory jail terms for reoffending in other crime areas such as burglary, theft and common assault. The number of offences triggering a custodial sentence would vary according to the type of crime.

Mandatory prison sentences

Currently, the average term for shop theft handed out at the discretion of the courts is two months, although automatic release means half of this time is actually served in prison. Retail crime is not only a concern for the “nation of shopkeepers”, as Napoleon is reputed to have described the Brits. In countries like Greece, France, Spain and Germany, rising energy prices and the spread of automatic checkout machines have led to a surge in shoplifting as families struggle to pay their bills.

In Athens, a 70-year-old pensioner in dire financial distress was arrested for stealing from a suburban branch of Lidl supermarket. She was found to have €40 worth of meat and cheese in her bag. Her arrest sparked mob fury, leading to several Lidl stores being vandalised and looted. The company ultimately withdrew its complaint against the woman. Food costs in Greece increased 12.35 per cent in July compared to the same month in 2022, having come down from a high of 15.36 per cent in January.

A Parisian shopkeeper found himself being pelted with apples after chasing down and cornering a hooded thief with a backpack stuffed full of groceries. He eventually overpowered the man and marched him back in an armlock to the scene of the crime. After handing him over to police, the retailer returned to pick up the stolen goods, only to find they had gone, along with the backpack … presumably purloined by an opportunist passer-by. The shoplifter was released with a police caution. Retail theft in France has spiralled by more than 14 per cent so far this year. Food inflation in the country rose to 16 per cent in March before falling to 9.6 per cent in September.

Desperate retailers

Now desperate European retailers are recruiting AI sleuths in their war on shoplifters. French start-up Veesion has developed a security program that can be integrated with a store’s CCTV to detect theft in real time. It does this by identifying gestures that indicate a person is trying to steal a product, such as grabbing an item from a shelf and sticking it in their pocket or bag. Store staff then get a video alert that shows the potential theft in progress. It is then up to them to decide whether they want to intervene.

Facial recognition technology is also increasingly being used to spot known shoplifters and to warn other stores they are in the area. But its use by retailers has drawn criticism as a disproportionate solution to a relatively minor crime. Individuals have little way of knowing they are on the watch list or how to appeal a decision to include them. During one contested case, UK civil liberties group Big Brother Watch called the use of the technology in stores as “Orwellian in the extreme”. And in the Netherlands, a supermarket was issued a formal warning over its use.

But what of food prices? Eurostat says grocery inflation across the EU as a whole climbed to 19 per cent in March, but by August had fallen to 10.68 per cent. The data provider forecasts the downward trend will continue through the remainder of 2023 before ending the third quarter of 2024 at 4.5 per cent.

Welcome news … but store owners will likely contain their celebrations until they see an end to hunger-driven plundering of their shelves.


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