As shoplifting surges, retailers shore up their defences

The rise in shoplifting in the UK over the past year has prompted retailers to try a range of methods to safeguard their stores. How effective are these proving?

On 9 August, a dramatic call went out on social media, with a handful of influencers urging their young followers to head into central London to loot the JD Sports store on Oxford Street at 3pm. Hundreds of teenagers duly descended on the area, where the police were already waiting, and chaotic scenes ensued. The Met later reported that it had arrested nine people and issued 34 dispersal orders.

This admittedly extreme case is symptomatic of a growing problem facing UK retailers. Stores nationwide are reporting that they’re suffering more thefts than ever. 

Shoplifting in the UK’s 10 largest cities has increased by an average of 27% year on year, according to a survey published in July by the British Retail Consortium (BRC).

“There are various possible factors behind this: increased organised crime activity, a general uptick in crime and the perception that the police won’t act if someone is caught stealing,” explains a BRC spokesperson. “Thieves have become bolder, often targeting the same stores several times in one week.”

Paul Gerrard, director of public affairs at the Co-op Group, attributes much of the trend to an increase in coordinated attacks by criminal gangs. “They are targeting stores to steal large volumes of high-value products for resale,” he reports. “They’ll go behind the counter and take out all the spirits and all the vapes – probably between £4,000 and £5,000 worth of products.”

How tech and training can deter shoplifters

In response to this heightened threat, many retailers have been adopting a range of anti-theft measures. Some of these involve sophisticated technology. Sports Direct, for instance, is using a facial recognition system to keep tabs on known offenders. Others, including a Nisa convenience store in London, are experimenting with machine learning in conjunction with CCTV to detect suspicious behaviour, such as shoppers putting items in their pockets. Sainsbury’s, meanwhile, is requiring users of self-service tills in some stores to scan their receipts before leaving.

But many of the most successful measures are less technological in nature, according to the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS). 

It turns out that the more attentive we are, the less likely people are to steal

An ACS spokesperson has the following advice for store managers: “Do think about what systems – CCTV, tags and alarms – will be most effective for you, but also think about processes and operations. What are your sightlines from the till to where high-value items are stocked? Are you greeting customers to ensure that they know you’ve seen them?”

Understanding the importance of this last point, the John Lewis Partnership (JLP) has been applying a technique known as love-bombing. Staff at its John Lewis and Waitrose stores are already well known for their friendly customer service, but they have been encouraged to become even more attentive to deter potential shoplifters. JLP reports that this has been a particularly successful ploy at self-service tills, discouraging shoppers from using them fraudulently.

“It turns out that the more attentive we are, the less likely people are to steal,” says Nicki Juniper, head of security and shrinkage at JLP. “It’s a win-win: our customers get a great shopping experience, with partners visibly on hand to help them, while the would-be shoplifters are deterred.”

The business is even offering free hot drinks to police with the aim of strengthening relationships – and, no doubt, of letting thieves know that they’re being watched.

Why it pays to mix and match your deterrence methods

Gerrard reports that Co-op has been taking several measures to combat shoplifting. These include remote monitored CCTV, body-worn cameras and headsets enabling staff to alert colleagues instantly to suspicious behaviour in the shop.

High-value items such as steak and wine are also being placed in cases. While this doesn’t make them impossible to steal, it does add an extra layer of hassle for thieves. The company is also looking into using dummy products, so that customers have to ask for the genuine items to be retrieved from storage. 

Gerrard accepts that the fact that “only the bigger businesses can afford security guards, body-worn cameras and so on doesn’t mean that the problem disappears. It’s simply pushed down the street to smaller retailers.”

Effective training, on the other hand, costs little and can make a big difference when it comes to resolving potentially dangerous situations. 

We don’t want to turn stores into fortresses

“We don’t want any colleague to go and start grappling with an individual who may be armed,” he stresses. “De-escalation can sometimes be as simple as saying: ‘Is there anything I can help you with? Do you need a basket?’ That can be enough to change someone’s behaviour.”

Given that much shoplifting is fuelled by drug addiction, the Co-op is also taking the unusual step of tackling the problem at source, teaming up with the police in certain areas to offer rehabilitation for prolific offenders.

Are the police doing enough to help retailers?

That said, there’s a strong feeling across the industry that the police could and should be doing more, with research indicating that forces around the country are failing to respond to more than 70% of cases of serious retail crime.

The ACS is calling for the introduction of a most-wanted list of shoplifters in each constabulary, enabling them to be banned from retail centres and/or referred to rehabilitation programmes. It also wants police forces to make more effective use of the tools they have available to deal with antisocial behaviour, such as their community trigger and remedy powers.

“We understand that some retailers have had negative experiences when reporting crimes to the police, so this may mean that they’re less likely to do so in future,” says the ACS spokesperson. “But it really is important for every incident to be reported so that we can ensure that our sector’s voice is heard and we get the support we need.”

Given the industry’s continuing dissatisfaction with the police response, then, most retailers are introducing more and more preventive measures of their own. 

In so doing, it’s important to ensure that the retail environment remains welcoming to genuine customers, Gerrard stresses. “We don’t want to turn stores into fortresses,” he says. “What we try to do is become part of the community. We must continue to be places where people can come and want to come.”