The thieves are becoming increasingly bold and aggressive - and they come from all walks of life. "There are mothers putting goods into prams, there are pensioners, children and teenagers on wheels," Benedict Selvaratnam, who owns a small supermarket in south London, tells the BBC. He counted up to nine shopliftings a day. "We're seeing a big increase in organized gangs stealing to order, whether it's coffee, honey or meat."
Like Selvaratnam, it's not just the owners of convenience stores, small shops that supply their neighborhoods with food and other everyday goods. The major retail chains in Great Britain are also reporting a significant increase in theft. The boss of department store operator John Lewis, Sharon White, recently spoke of an “epidemic,” and the newspaper “Mirror” called 2023 “the year of the shoplifters.”
Figures from trade association the British Retail Consortium (BRC) show that reported thefts in England and Wales rose by around a quarter (26 percent) in 2022. The BRC estimates the damage at almost a billion pounds (1.16 billion euros) a year. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called the situation “clearly unacceptable.”
The industry primarily blames rising costs of living for the increasing thefts. While previously primarily expensive items were stolen, everyday products are now being stolen more frequently, says Muntazir Dipoti, president of the Federation of Independent Retailers, which represents independent retailers.
But modern phenomena also play a role. There are more and more young people filming themselves stealing and uploading the clips to platforms like Tiktok - others are imitating this. "It's worse than ever," trade expert Scott Dixon told the Mirror. Shoplifters are becoming more and more shameless.
Insults and even attacks from employees are increasing, the PA news agency quoted association leader Dipoti as saying. Dozens of owners have recently given up, and women in particular no longer dare to work alone in the shops. Owner Selvaratnam has installed a glass panel on his counter to protect cashiers and installed dozens of surveillance cameras. But that is still not enough.
“We need a stronger police presence, especially in the evenings,” says Selvaratnam. Whenever he called the police, they never showed up. This is also why many shop owners do not report thefts at all. London police have admitted that they are far from being able to investigate all thefts. As a first step, association boss Dipoti is calling for a one-off payment to all shop owners of £1,500 for safety measures. “The dealers would feel taken seriously and supported, which would give them confidence,” he says.
Small shops and large companies alike also complain about lax penalties. Anyone who steals goods worth up to £200 will usually get away with a small fine. “Shoplifting has effectively been decriminalized,” says retail expert Dixon.
Large retail chains such as Sainsbury's, Tesco and Waitrose are resorting to self-help at their own expense. They have already hired undercover investigators and equipped employees with body cameras. Now they also want to finance the investigation. A total of ten companies pay the equivalent of 700,000 euros. In return, the investigators run the recordings from surveillance cameras through their databases and also use facial recognition software. The police hope that this will give them an overview of the thieves' gangs operating in the country for the first time - and, says the responsible State Secretary Chris Philp, this will benefit all shop owners.
Benedict Selvaratnam is not convinced. He has thought about selling several times, but no offer has been high enough to cover his investments. “It seems like we have to accept that this is the price of running a small business,” he says. “Until the situation improves, we have to move on and try to deal with it ourselves.”