Shoplifters R US: retailers’ initiatives to fight the current crime wave

Shoplifting has been running rampant lately due to the cost of living crisis. Here's what the top UK retailers are doing to combat this.

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Bosses at the Co-operative have warned that its stores are descending into anarchy while the leader of John Lewis has suggested there is an epidemic taking place in its outlets and across the retail sector generally. They are talking about retail crime and the fight against it has garnered rare universal unanimity across the industry. 

The cost of crime

According to the British Retailing Consortium (BRC) there were around eight million reported incidents of shoplifting in the year to March 2023 within the UK, which represents a 27% increase in the country’s top 10 largest cities. In some locations the rise has been as high as an incredible 68%. This wave of crime washing over the industry is costing retailers nearly £1 billion, according to calculations from the BRC.

For Primark the impact has been a hit on margins, with a warning from management that they were likely to fall from 8.3% to 8% in the second half of the year. Meanwhile at John Lewis there has been a £12 million year-on-year increase in ‘shrinkage’ of which most was attributed to shoplifting, and the rise of the criminal customer.

Convenience stores in communities have also been particularly hard hit. At the Co-op there have been as many as 175,000 incidents in the first six months of the year, which is an increase of 35% on the same period last year. Over the past 12 months the company has reported an increase of 30% in physical assaults while anti-social behaviour and verbal abuse has jumped 20% as the ongoing cost-of-living crisis begins to affect a growing number of people.

Fighting back

Like virtually every retailer the Co-op has been forced to undertake various initiatives in order to bolster its defences against the crime wave and defend its employees’ wellbeing. Among the many measures being undertaken is the introduction of security barriers, bag checking procedures, staff-worn body cameras, security tags, ‘dummy’ packaging being used on shelves, and in some cases facial recognition software to identify serial perpetrators.

An interesting approach was taken by Waitrose and John Lewis that announced they would offer free coffees and discounted food to on-duty police officers in a move to attract them into its stores and deter shoplifting. 

Tesco and Morrison’s both recently announced their decisions to provide body cameras to frontline workers. For Tesco this represents part of its ongoing investment in security measures that has reached £44 million over the past four years. Along with the body cameras it has included door access systems, protection screens, and digital radios.

The supermarket chain has also been placing security tags on lower value foodstuffs whereas previously these would have been reserved for the likes of high value meats and premium alcoholic goods. In the US, Walgreens has also made it more difficult for criminals to get their hands on goods.

In June, it opened a trial store in Chicago that has just two aisles where customers can browse items themselves, while everything else must be ordered from a counter. Low level shelving has also been introduced for better visibility across the whole shop-floor.

Sainsbury’s has also been re-jigging its in-store layouts to deter shoplifting. It has introduced gates after its self-scan tills at certain stores that require customers to scan their receipts in order to open the barriers. Such gates are not uncommon in some other European countries, and Morrison’s is understood to be looking at the use of a similar solution. 

At Sainsbury’s the store staff have also been instructed to scrutinise a larger number of customers going through the gates to identify individuals who have missed items from their scans. There has also been a policy introduced at ALDI to look into shoppers’ bags to check their contents.

This sort of activity should not be a great surprise amid the ongoing crime wave because self-checkouts account for 23% of what retailers describe as ‘unknown store losses’, according to research from ECR Retail Loss. Since the use of such technology is growing as major retailers continue to roll-out self-checkouts it is sensible to introduce measures to deter theft

Tech tools

Such has been the concern over crime and the wellbeing of its employees over recent years that Southern Co-op has been using facial recognition software solution from Facewatch that scans the faces of shoppers as they enter its stores and uses biometric data to search for matches of known offenders in its database, which then alerts the store employees if there is positive identification. 

The use of such technology has certainly been very controversial but Southern Co-op has defended its use because it has enabled it to successfully protect its business and employees. Other retailers have been incredibly sensitive about using such tools but maybe with crime and shoplifting becoming such an important issue they might reconsider experimenting with facial recognition technology.

One interesting by-product of retailers introducing various crime prevention tools and initiatives is that it has the potential to disrupt their ongoing desire to move towards offering customers more seamless shopping experiences in stores. This includes the check-out, which has been seeing more experimentation in recent years including checkout-free stores as pioneered by Amazon with its Just Walk Out technology solution that it uses in its own food store and sells the solution to other retailers. 

Final thoughts

As the cost-of-living crisis looks set to be with us for some time, it seems likely that retailers will have to be increasingly pro-active in how they deal with the rise in criminal activity and this will involve a greater array of technology solutions and security personnel in stores that will unfortunately impact the experience for the majority of law-abiding customers.

Head shot of freelance business journalist Glynn Davis.
Glynn Davis

Glynn Davis is a business journalist specialising in the retail and food and drink sectors. As well as writing for publications including Retail Week, Ecommerce Age, Propel, Caterer and Retail Bulletin, he’s also the founder and editor of Retail Insider and Beer Insider.

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