Big Brother is watching your weekly shop

Tesco and other large retailers are cracking down on shoplifting by investing in high-tech security. But will it scare off customers?

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Written and reviewed by:
Helena Young

In response to a surge in store thefts, retailers on the UK’s struggling high street are rolling out new security systems to stamp down on criminal behaviour.

Shoplifting solutions range from light-touch, to military-grade. This week, Tesco was spotted adding security tags to customer baskets. Meanwhile, the Co-op and Sainsbury’s have both deployed AI at the till to make it harder for shoppers to dupe self-checkout machines.

Customers may feel uncomfortable with the added measures, but the mission is not without cause. On Monday, a report by Deloitte showed that retail losses are up by 33% from pre-COVID levels, with theft at a 20-year high.

New reality for UK retail

Images shared on social media show the fallout of today’s retail rampage. In every region, security tags are being slapped onto butter, cheese, and even – depressingly – baby milk.

This week, a Tesco store in Essex began tying tags directly to shopping baskets, while a Co-op store in Codsall was caught boxing up a £2 bar of chocolate. Other actions, like receipt scanners at exits, are adding further friction to the checkout process for customers.

Other tactics used to combat shoplifting: Every Little Helps!

As well as traditional measures, advanced surveillance technologies have also been pedalled out to combat the rise – turning the weekly shop into something out of 1984.

Last September, ten of the UK’s biggest retailers enrolled in a police initiative known as Project Pegasus. Brands like Primark, Next, and six major supermarkets began handing over CCTV images to police databases for facial recognition checks.

Now, the government announced at the start of this month that it would invest £55m into AI facial recognition cameras for installation across key UK shopping centres.

Commenting on the investment, Home Secretary James Cleverly said, “while I want to see more people face consequences for their actions, our plan is designed to help put a stop to these crimes happening in the first place.”

Critics say the government has been too slow to react to the problem, however. Last week the Labour Party reported that prosecutions for shoplifting had fallen by 16% since 2018.

How shoplifting is crippling small retailers

Large corporations are forming a line of defence. The Co-op alone has spent £200m on new security measures. But the group still reported a 48% rise in burglaries and assaults on staff this February, rising to almost 298,000 incidents in just one year.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC), an advocacy group representing retailers, estimates that shoplifting costs businesses a staggering £953 million annually. This comes despite retailers spending over £700 million on crime prevention measures in the year to April.

Experts blame the rising cost of living for the spate of thefts. Food inflation has raised the cost of everyday goods like oil and bread to unaffordable levels for consumers and retailers. The latter have had to raise prices to avoid losing money on sales.

Big brands like Tesco, which reported record profits this month, are able to absorb the impact. However, small retailers lack the resources and cash to address the problem. According to the ACS’ 2024 Crime Report, 5.6m shoplifting offences were committed in corner shops last year – equating to ten thefts every minute.

Coupled with labour shortages, and the new Living Wage introduced this April, the threat of shoplifting is now a much bigger concern for small business budgets.

Balancing theft prevention with customer loyalty

Small firms wanting to combat the rise in criminal consumers might feel inspired by the efforts of large retailers like Tesco and Co-op. Still, anti-theft action will require a nuanced approach from SMEs given the specific challenges they face today.

Big-name grocers have a monopoly over the UK high street. Customers might be dismayed at heightened security and its impact on checkout, but they will likely put up with it to avoid losing access to the conveniently-located Tesco Express at the end of the road.

Smaller firms, for whom local customer loyalty can be make or break, must exercise caution. In Startups’ 2023 business survey, 54% of firms said strong customer relationships were the biggest contributor to their success last year – surpassing AI adoption and hiring right.

Unlike the Co-op, small firms can’t just lock their products in a glass case. In conjunction with effective government policy, SMEs must balance the drive to protect goods and staff with a customer-centric approach that builds trust and discourages bad actors.

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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