Northern Irish retailers on 'brazen' shoplifting and staff assaults now at 'epidemic level'

Retailers have said they are losing thousands of pounds every year due to shoplifting thefts while their staff face threats and assaults just for trying to do their jobs.

Retail NI unveiled its 'Working Together' report at the Long Gallery at Stormont on Tuesday morning, which set out plans to tackle increasing retail crime, which it says has now reached an epidemic level.

Shop owners told Belfast Live that shoplifting and threats of violence have almost become a daily occurrence for them in some areas and that people from all walks of life are carrying out the offences.

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While high value thefts have become common, such as people entering their store and filling bags up with meat and expensive washing and laundry products, there is also an issue with customers stealing lower value items on a regular basis with people walking off without paying for coffees or taking chocolate bars whenever they believe nobody is looking.

They believe that more needs to be done to stop repeat offenders who are targeting their businesses and have highlighted the lengths they have had to go in order to reduce retail crime, including investing in facial recognition technology.

Chris O'Reilly, who owns a number of shops across Belfast, said: "At the moment it is harder to be a retailer than it was during the coronavirus pandemic and the significant increase in shoplifting and other offences is only making the situation even more difficult.

"There are some people who will brazenly walk into our shops and empty the shelves of some items into their bags and then just walk out the door and due to the threats of violence they have received in the past, a lot of shop staff are worried about confronting them in case they are assaulted.

"At the moment there are people who specifically go after meat and washing products, as they are easy to sell on the street, and while police are very good at responding to these, very little seems to be done afterwards in order to deter these people from stealing. Recently we had a person who had stolen from one of our shops and ended up in court, but just a few hours later they were back in the area stealing again.

"I have had staff who have been assaulted on a number of occasions by certain individuals and no matter what is done to try and keep them away, it just doesn't seem to work and there needs to be more protections in place to stop this kind of offending and keep shop staff safe who are just trying to do their jobs."

Andy Davis of 77 Retail said: "We have a very good relationship with our local policing teams and luckily around 95% of the offences that take place in our shops are dealt with, but I don't think people realise the hidden costs that we face when we have to deal with thefts and threats.

"Every time it means that a staff member is having to spend time working with the police and looking through CCTV to acquire evidence, which takes them away from the job they are supposed to be doing."

Helen Wall of the Wall Group, who run a number of stores in North Belfast said: "I would love to know when people heard about the free coffee with every sandwich offer that we are meant to do, because I don't remember every advertising it.

"It is heartbreaking when you see regular customers, who could be in your shop two or three times a day, stealing from you right in front of your eyes and while they may seem like small items, it all adds up and has a big impact on our business.

"There are even TikToks going around that are telling people how they can steal coffees from a shop and how many flat whites will fit into a large or medium cup so that they are able to cheat shops."

The Retail NI report on retail crime gathered evidence and responses from over 300 of its members who highlighted the extent of the offences they are dealing with.

Survey results of Retail NI members showed:

  • 67% of retail staff victim of violence and threats.

  • 51% have staff who have left because of assault and verbal abuse.

  • 91% have experienced shoplifting on a regular basis.

  • 72% are pleased with police response but 91% of those responded were disappointed with follow up.

  • 80% have never had any contact with Police and Community Safety Partnerships (PCSP) with 35% of those surveyed didn’t even know what a PCSP was.

Retail NI Chief Executives Glyn Roberts said: “Our report highlights the huge impact that crime is having on our members business, their staff, and the wider economy. It is a startling statistic that 67% of those surveyed reported that their staff have been victims of assault and threats and 51% were losing staff as a result.

“Our members are extremely frustrated with the criminal justice system and feel let down by the punishments, or the lack of, for offenders. Confidence building measures are urgently needed and visible action taken against those who are found guilty of theft and intimate shop staff.

“While we highlight how serious this problem is, our focus is on solutions. We want to reinforce the message that a more effective partnership between business, police, Department of Justice, and the public is the only way in which we can improve this situation.

“Northern Ireland is now the only part of the UK not to have assault of shop workers as a specific criminal offence. This is top of our list of priorities for the Justice Minister to help deter criminals and to protect shop staff.

“Retail NI also want to see the PSNI Neighbourhood Teams properly funded and resourced to ensure our town and city centres are safe places for staff and shoppers alike.

“Technology has key role to play, and we want to see enhanced rate relief for independent retailers who invest in instore systems such as facial recognition."

The Justice Minister Naomi Long MLA said: “I welcome this report, which provides an opportunity for us all to take stock, review and consider the views and the range of issues facing business owners and staff in our society.

“The Department of Justice is fully committed to working with all partners, including businesses, the community and voluntary sector, PSNI, as well as other Departments and organisations to ensure that we have a community where we all feel safe to live and work.

“I condemn all abuse and violence directed at any frontline workers. No-one should face mistreatment whilst doing their job and serving the public and such attacks are wholly unacceptable and must not be tolerated. Such abuse or violence can be prosecuted under existing laws designed to protect any member of the public from harm. The introduction of further protections for these workers is something to which I am giving further consideration.”

PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Chris Todd said: “This report provides valuable focus to our ongoing work to address the impact of crime on our business community. We recognise this impact can be severe and, as a Service, we dedicate considerable effort to working with local businesses and partner organisations to tackle retail-related crime.

“The recommendations of this report will be considered in line with our existing proactive work on business crime which includes Safer Business Action Days and our first-in-the-UK Safe Shop staff-training initiative. However, our difficult funding environment is having a very real impact on the scope of our work including our neighbourhood policing teams. And - although the majority of those surveyed are satisfied with police response and Northern Ireland’s crime rates compare favourably to the rest of the UK - sustaining this level of focus will be increasingly challenging unless the Police Service is properly and sustainably funded.

“Working Together is key; partnership working is a resource multiplier. Within the wider Business Crime Partnership, we will continue working to ensure that Northern Ireland remains a safe, attractive and prosperous place to live and do business.”

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