The shoplifting epidemic

I live in one of those quieter outer London suburbs, but over the last few months I have noticed that larger shops have introduced higher levels of security. Some supermarkets now have a member of staff apparently on greeting duty, and others have fitted extra barriers and even gates.

A large M&S Food store near me now has gates into and out of the drinks section – I once got stuck in there when the exit gate refused to open and I couldn’t go back out through the entry gate until someone else approached it and triggered the latch. Yes, I know …..

It seems shoplifting has increased dramatically. And part of the reason is because the response rate from the police is so low, and shoplifters know they can get away with it.

Back in September an article in the Guardian carried the troubling headline: ‘It’s organised looting’: UK in grip of a shoplifting epidemic, say store owners.  It claimed that shoplifting had doubled in the last three years.

(The Co-op) 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.

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.

Rob Blackie, the Lib Dem candidate for London Mayor, has been looking into this problem across London. He has discovered that there have been 23,881 calls for shoplifting to the police on 999 since the beginning of the year. That is a massive increase of 49% on the comparable period last year.

Rob says:

Shoplifting is going through the roof because criminals just aren’t worried about the police showing up in time. They are coming back time and again because they think they can get away with it.

The number of Londoners resorting to dialling 999 for shoplifting this year is staggering. It’s looking likely that 2023 will see the highest volume of calls since Khan took office by some distance.

Sadiq Khan is in charge of the police but is taking our crime problems seriously.

London needs a Mayor who will treat crime as a priority and restore trust in the police. I would get police back on the beat, rather than wasting time on trivial offences such as cannabis and laughing gas.

It seems shoplifting is perceived as a low priority crime – and I can quite understand that, if crimes have to be triaged, then it comes way behind violent offences. But as we have seen, ignoring the lower priority crimes not only encourages a greater volume of offences, but also risks an escalation in seriousness as staff are threatened.

There was a time when we enjoyed Neighbourhood Policing, whose principle was that dealing with low level anti-social behaviour prevents more challenging criminality in the future. And it worked – so much that funding for the projects was withdrawn from areas that were now designated “low crime” – but without recognising why!

The shoplifting trend is more worrying because the basic acts are already more than just anti-social behaviour. Not responding to crime actually encourages more crime. And who ends up paying? Well, the beleaguered retailers have no choice but to pass on the costs of extra security, not to mention the value of the stolen goods, to all of us, the customers.

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • Ruth Bright 16th Nov '23 - 9:02pm

    Isn’t formula milk for babies one of the most common things shoplifted?

  • Ruth is, of course, correct. Not that difficult to research why….. Here for starters :

    “Hungry children stealing food as tens of thousands living in poverty. The Independent › UK › Home News
    18 Aug 2023 — The charity, which published its annual State of Child Poverty report on Friday, said: “By extension, the families our frontline workers are …

    Why shoplifting is on the rise amid cost of living crisis.. Big Issue › news › social-justice .
    15 Sept 2023 — Food · food bank · Food poverty · Poverty.

    The House of Commons Library › cbp-9090
    18 Dec 2020 — In the ten years since the Coalition Government’s first Budget in June 2010, a lot has changed in the UK’s social security system. Millions …

    Substantial cuts made, but biggest changes to the benefit …

    Institute for Fiscal Studies › articles › substantial-cuts-made-big…
    28 Jan 2015 — The coalition government has implemented changes to the benefit system that mean spending in 2015–16 will be £16.7 billion (7%) lower than …

  • Chris Moore 17th Nov '23 - 1:49am

    Hello David, agree with the main thrust of your argument. Some shoplifting is clearly related to need.

    The last reference can’t be relevant, however, as Mary is talking about a spike in shoplifting in the last year.

  • Martin Gray 17th Nov '23 - 5:22am

    @David Raw…& Ruth Bright …Do you think those youngsters that descended on Oxford Street via a tik tok video with the intention of mass looting – were in any way deprived ?
    My parents grew up in grinding poverty & would never dream of resorting to that …Yet again some on the left fail to see or understand how much damage antisocial behaviour causes those at the bottom …I’m on the side of the minimum wage shopworker struggling to make a living & having to deal with those that think they are above the law ….

  • Peter Davies 17th Nov '23 - 6:08am

    Could the reduced staff numbers in supermarkets also be having an effect?

  • Barry Lofty 17th Nov '23 - 9:25am

    Shoplifting is not a new phenomenon I should know having spent the majority of my working life in our family retail food business, it plagued us throughout the years we were in business, we were operating in a relatively wealthy area and this problem was not confined to those in need, in fact very little, we never called the police we tried to deal with it in our own way, but it was very stressful knowing many of our customers personally. Perhaps rural businesses are different to those in towns and cities, nevertheless the shoplifting being experienced by some at the moment seems to sum up how our country has become so Ill disciplined and selfish!!

  • Nonconformistradical 17th Nov '23 - 9:36am

    “nevertheless the shoplifting being experienced by some at the moment seems to sum up how our country has become so Ill disciplined and selfish!!”

    Ill-disciplined and selfish – perhaps our so-called leaders could possibly set a better example (than grubbing after tax cuts for the wealthy and whinging about a war on motorists?

  • Barry Lofty 17th Nov '23 - 9:44am

    Nonconformistradical! Hear Hear!!

  • @Chris Moore…
    “Some shoplifting is clearly related to need”…..
    For every shoplifter stealing on the basis of need – there’s thousands upon thousands equally in need that would never resort to that – law abiding citizens…There is no excuse & serious political parties should not be condoning it ….

  • Steve Trevethan 17th Nov '23 - 1:51pm

    Might shoplifting, like many human behaviours, be affected by many factors?

    Might these factors include the following:
    1) Personal disposition?
    2) Family and “within group” influences?
    3) Public/powerful figure influences and imitation/emulation?
    4) Attitudes from societal fashions including advertising?
    5) Physical contexts, not least income and expenditures?
    6) Education?

    Might our party be able to do something about , at lest, some of these?

  • Chris Moore 17th Nov '23 - 2:58pm

    Hi Martin Gray,

    You are of course right.

    Anyway, the LDs definitely don’t condone shoplifting!

    But likewise David Raw does have a serious point.

  • Ruth Bright 17th Nov '23 - 3:11pm

    Hold your horses Martin. Where did I actually say it was OK to steal stuff. Please don’t make assumptions. For your information my Dad served a custodial sentence for robbery and I would not recommend his course in life to anyone. His teenage years were in grinding poverty and he took the wrong path.

    I breastfed my children and rarely needed to buy formula milk and I have compassion for, but do not give permission to, those who resort to stealing it.

    I work with people with dementia for a few pence over the minimum wage.

  • Shoplifting is an awful scourge on our society. It must be especially awful for people struggling to make a living running small independent shops that serve the community to see their businesses being targeted by criminal gangs. It’s good that the LibDems are raising this issue, although we seem to be a bit weak on suggested solutions. I hope more work will be done in that area.

    I think Mary Reid is spot on to call out the lack of police response, and to point out that “as we have seen, ignoring the lower priority crimes not only encourages a greater volume of offences…“: The thing where if you start ignoring minor offences, you start to find people get emboldened to commit worse offences. I therefore find it disappointing to read a couple of paragraphs further back that the LibDem candidate for London Mayor is apparently proposing to make that problem worse by advocating having the police not investigate “trivial offences such as cannabis and laughing gas“. I hope that if Rob Blackie has said that, he’ll rethink. (Anyone who thinks that drugs crimes are irrelevant should consider how much shoplifting-to-order is likely being committed partly to fund drug habits).

  • Martin Gray 18th Nov '23 - 6:09am

    @Ruth Bright…
    My compassion is for the thousands that are struggling equally as much – but don’t resort to crime …& For the shopkeepers & shop workers trying to make ends meet …

  • Are some peo9ple so out of touch that they do not understand or appreciate the problems and difficulties the poor have, especially single women with kids. THE POLICE DO, hence the efforts made to limit sending to court only those who are part of criminal gangs.
    Unfortunately in some areas this involves groups of 3 -4 women who appear to be recent migrants to the country, one recent group organising the theft of baby formula and then organising its transport to Albania where there was an acute shortage.

  • Ruth Bright 19th Nov '23 - 8:10pm

    Formula milk is an essential product for babies under 6 months if they do not have a mother or their mother cannot breastfeed. No-one should steal it. Read what I said Martin.

  • Jenny Barnes 20th Nov '23 - 11:58am

    “(Anyone who thinks that drugs crimes are irrelevant should consider how much shoplifting-to-order is likely being committed partly to fund drug habits)”
    If recreational drugs were legal, their use would no longer be crimes, obviously. They tend to cost a lot because they are illegal, and the harder the state clamps down, the more the price goes up, in the usual economic supply and demand process. If they were legal, firms – for example cigarette companies – would be motivated to provide them as cheaply as possible, perhaps in many flavours, and of consistent quality. Which is not to mention the many people whose lives may have been ruined by short prison sentences for drug use/sale.etc. The prisons would be emptier, a big saving, the police could concentrate on crimes that actually create problems, and the whole Drug prohibition industry would disappear. It won’t happen, ofc. Too convenient to be able to arrest any “known Villain” on drugs charge when it turns out to be impossible to prove whatever villainy they are supposed to have done.

  • Peter Hirst 25th Nov '23 - 4:15pm

    No-one should have to steal to survive. So we need a better raft of support for those tempted to shoplift and more severe punishments and improved detection for those who do. The police should form independent sections whose sole remit is to prevent this action with strict no diversion rules.

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