Retail crime in the UK has risen by a staggering 25% in the past year, according to data from the Office for National Statistics.
Analysts estimate combating crime in shops and distribution centres across Britain will cost £7.9 billion in 2024, including the value of stolen products and the cost of stepping up security.
Now the government is coming under increasing pressure to take action against the increase in shop theft, which is being blamed on both organised crime and desperate needs due to the cost-of-living crisis.
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UK shoplifting statistics
The number of shoplifting offences in 2023 makes disturbing reading. According to the ONS, police recorded 365,164 shop theft crimes – an increase of 25% in just 12 months.
Shoppers and thieves posing as customers make up 60% of the offences. The remaining 40% of thefts are perpetrated by employees, especially in distribution centres.
Some retail stores have dealt with petty shoplifters themselves, rather than reporting them to police. This means the figure of 25% could be just the tip of the iceberg in real terms, as some crimes are going unreported.
A survey of 100 managers and directors responsible for retail loss prevention across the UK revealed the types of products being stolen had changed in 2023, with a shift towards household essentials, such as food and clothing, as shoppers struggled to buy even the basics during the current economic crisis.
There has also been a surge in the theft of small but valuable electrical products that organised gangs can sell on more easily, according to the study by Retail Economics and Thruvision.
Two-thirds of managers believed the big increase had been caused by the cost-of-living crisis.
High street food retailer The Co-op said it had lost £33 million due to shoplifting between January and June 2023 alone. However, bosses have discounted the theory that it’s just ordinary people who can’t afford to eat – believing the majority of its losses are due to organised crime.
They say “prolific and repeat offenders and local criminal gangs” are becoming bolder and more violent.
Shocking social media crime
Perhaps the most shocking mass shoplifting incident occurred on 9th August 2023, when criminals coordinated an assault on London retail stores through social media.
A series of social media posts encouraged people to gather on Oxford Street with one aim: looting as many stores as they could, in as short a time as possible, before making their getaway. The criminal campaign was actually urging people to commit robbery, rather than simply shoplifting.
One sportswear store, JD Sports, was targeted by hundreds of mainly young people after a criminal campaign on different social media platforms urged them to gather there under the banner, “Oxford Circus JD robbery”.
Police had been anticipating trouble and arrived in force at Oxford Street to face the gangs head-on. However, there were violent scenes as the police struggled to regain control of the capital’s busiest shopping street.
Onlookers caught up in the frightening drama panicked and screamed and crowds swarmed around, making it difficult to restore order.
Shoppers and staff were locked inside retail stores for their own safety. Police issued dozens of dispersal orders and arrested nine people.
New security measures
The growing threat towards retailers has led to stores investing in new crime-fighting measures.
With the aim of creating a retail environment that not only deters shoplifters and criminal gangs, but also still offers a warm welcome to law-abiding customers; the simpler measures include attaching electronic tags on items to deter shoplifters or to trigger an alarm if they try to leave the store with a tagged item. Security personnel are on hand to ask any shoppers who have triggered the alarm to produce a receipt proving they have paid for their goods.
The latest security solutions include facial recognition systems, with technology that will scan customers’ faces and check if their biometric data matches the data of known shoplifters. If any customers are under suspicion, security personnel in the store can secretly follow them via CCTV to check what they are doing while in the shop.
A new security measure that has taken off in retail in the United States is the use of AI technology that can detect “suspicious behaviour” among customers.
The key areas for theft in UK supermarkets include alcoholic beverages, fresh foods such as beef and pork, cosmetics and household goods, including washing powder.
Self-scan checkouts are also targeted by shoplifters, who try to put cheaper barcode labels on more expensive goods or attempt to put smaller items in the bag without scanning them. While the weighted scale on the self-scan checkout largely prevents major theft in this area, it doesn’t prevent would-be shoplifters from trying their luck.
Retailers in the UK, including major supermarkets, are said to be interested in the latest technology that recognises suspicious behaviour.
Can automatic doors help?
The role that automatic doors play in the battle against shoplifters is an important one.
Thanks to modern technology, automatic doors can be programmed so they can’t be forced open – unlike manual doors, which need to be physically closed in the event of a crime.
Automatic doors can also be fitted with an electronic lock to prevent users from forcing them open. This enables cashiers to switch the door to “locked” instantly, either to keep an assailant in the custody of security staff, or to prevent troublesome groups and known criminals from entering the store if they are outside threatening to cause trouble. The doors can be kept locked until the police arrive to deal with the situation.
With retail crime in the UK adding to the current backdrop of increasing operating costs, shopkeepers are suffering further in terms of profits. This is leading many to consider the latest technology to help keep their business, staff and customers safe. Worst-case scenario, some of them are shutting up shop.