Recent research has suggested that inflation is a better indicator of rising crime levels than general economic hardship and unemployment. The UK has been struck by both inflationary pressures and a rise in criminal activity.

According to the British Retail Consortium (BRS), retail thefts increased by up to 68% across ten of the UK’s largest cities, with almost eight million incidents predicted to have been reported between March 2023 and March 2024, costing retailers shy of £1bn ($1.2bn).

The BRS noted that incidents of violence towards retail staff have almost doubled from approximately 450 incidents recorded in a day during 2019 and 2020 to more than 850 incidents recorded in a day last year. The reported types of abuse included racial, sexual and weapons.

A worldwide trend

The rise in shoplifting and violence is not only impacting retailers in the UK but also across Europe and the US. Several news outlets have reported how thieves are using social media platforms like TikTok to share strategies for stealing items from stores such as Walgreens, Walmart and Dollar Tree.

This surge is fueled by organised criminal groups stealing high-value goods, including electronic goods, steaks and alcohol, which are then sold on the black market. Andrew Goodacre, CEO of the British Independent Retailers Association, notes that criminals now see theft as a low-risk, high-reward crime, meaning that shoplifters have become more brazen. He states that thieves no longer discreetly take one item but rather swiftly gather multiple items into a bag and walk out.

John Lewis’ chair Sharon White has also highlighted that the UK is currently facing a shoplifting crisis, as the company has faced a £12m ($14.6m) increase in shoplifting. However, the head of security at John Lewis urges that this is due to organised criminal gangs and not the cost-of-living crisis. The rise in theft has led to a higher demand for security guards, according to Adam Smith, Managing Director of Total Security Services, as more observant and active guards are required to stop crime.

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Fighting back

As a result of the increase in shoplifting, retailers have been forced to employ tactics including decoy boxes, undercover security wandering the shop floor, and staff wearing body cameras to combat the escalating thefts, which have hit unprecedented levels.

British grocery store Co-op has taken additional steps to bolster its security systems, including employing undercover security guards from Mitie Group to patrol aisles and catch shoplifters. It is also using dummy cases to discourage bulk-shoplifting, where criminals sweep products off shelves for resale. Meanwhile, pharmacy chain Boots has introduced body cameras for store workers and is collaborating with the police to identify organised criminal groups.

Major retailers in Britain have agreed to fund a new police operation to crack down on shoplifting. This includes creating a national database of CCTV images using facial recognition software.

More retailers are proactively addressing the issue, with brands like Sainsbury’s and Morrisons installing barriers in self-scan areas, requiring a receipt before shoppers can exit. In some stores in Cambridge, locked cabinets are being installed to protect higher-priced items. Security system provider Mackay predicts that shops may go one step further and move expensive goods behind the counter to keep them out of reach of shoplifters.