‘One guy uses us like a larder’: the British shoplifting crisis – as seen from the tills

<span>Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Chorlton is one of Manchester’s most aspirational suburbs. Its handsome red-brick semis regularly sell for £700,000 or more. It has a worker-owned, vegetarian cooperative that sells locally grown fruit and vegetables, several reiki studios and an artisanal off-licence where one of the bestselling lagers – locally brewed, of course – costs £4 a can.

But Chorlton has a less wholesome side that is best illustrated by its branch of Boots, tucked inside a dismal 70s precinct earmarked for demolition at the end of the year. Want some makeup? You will have to ask for it. Every lipstick, eyeliner, mascara, blusher – everything – is kept in the stockroom, out of public sight and reach. Why? “It keeps getting stolen,” shrugs a shop assistant. “We’ve not had it out for months now.” The thieves had learned when deliveries arrived and would clear them out within minutes.

This small corner of Manchester is no anomaly. The British Retail Consortium (BRC) estimates that there were 8m “theft incidents” in British shops last year, costing £953m. The BRC says shop theft is a “long-term rising trend”, with incidents more than doubling since 2016-17. Meanwhile, reports abound of increasing desperation among customers stealing to feed their children – claims promoted by opposition politicians, but strongly contested by many retailers.

To investigate the scale of the problem, I take a stroll down Chorlton’s main thoroughfare, Barlow Moor Road. The stories I hear en route may seem surprising for a suburb with a knit-your-own-yoghurt reputation: the vintner who keeps a baseball bat behind the counter; the stolen joints of meat hawked around the breakfast tables at the local chain pub; the mini-mart manager who says the police don’t want to deal with the man who lives opposite and comes in every day to steal breakfast, lunch and dinner.

I start at the southern end, near the graveyard that inspired Morrissey to write the lyrics to Cemetry Gates (“A dreaded sunny day …”). Sitting behind protective screens at Progress convenience store, Lena Rowe is immediately keen to talk. She hands over an A4 sheet of paper she has laminated overnight. It is a printout from her CCTV cameras, purportedly showing two teenage boys stealing drinks after she refused to sell them vapes. She plans to put it up in the window, “just so they know that I know”. She hasn’t decided yet whether to ring the police: “Do you think I should?”

Lena Rowe at Progress convenience store.
Lena Rowe at Progress convenience store. She posts supposedly incriminating images of thefts in the shop in the hope of deterring crime. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Further down the road, Claire Liu, who runs a DIY and household store, has also been busy with her laminator. “THIEVES,” reads the sign in her window, above a photograph of a man with glasses and gelled hair and the message: “How pathetic to steal a pod of fish food worth £1.49. I hope your fishes are all doing well.” Liu does report thieves to the police, but complains that only the most prolific seem to face justice. She is still smarting from an incident last year when a woman came in and stole a box of vapes worth £70 – “a whole day’s wage for me or my partner”.

Shoplifting offences recorded by UK police have remained more or less static over the past decade, at about 300,000 each year. The gulf between those numbers and the 8m incidents logged by retailers suggests not even 4% of shoplifting crimes are reported to the police. Prosecutions are plummeting. In the year to June 2022, 21,279 people were prosecuted in England and Wales for shoplifting, down from 80,352 a decade earlier.

“There remains a perception among some retailers that some police forces do not regard shop theft as a ‘real’ crime, particularly if it is under £200 in value (often perceived as the lower limit before action is taken),” says the BRC’s 2023 crime survey. “A perception that nothing will happen is probably held not just among retail staff but among repeat offenders, who are a significant proportion of the total, and who are willing to take the risk. There is a strong belief among some of them – supported by ad hoc reports – that even if they appear in court multiple times, the sentence will be so light it will hardly make a difference.”

Should any of Chorlton’s shopkeepers pop into Manchester magistrates court, they are unlikely to emerge in an optimistic frame of mind. I sit in the district judge Bernard Begley’s court for a day as he rattles through dozens of cases, from cannabis cultivation to voyeurism with plenty of shoplifting in between.

There is a weariness to him as he sees who has been led into the dock of court 16 just after lunch. The bearded man behind the bulletproof glass appears ragged in his prison-issue grey tracksuit, as if he has just woken up.

Stephen, the 32-year-old defendant, is back in court because the night before he had gone to the Shell filling station on Barlow Moor Road and stolen six packets of bacon. A clerk reads out the charge, which includes the value of the goods: £18.54. Stephen pleads guilty and then the prosecutor explains that Stephen was “trapped” in the garage by a police community support officer. He tried to avoid arrest by pleading: “Can you just let me go? It’s only bacon.”

Stephen’s lawyer stands up and confirms the judge’s suspicions: his client was in Begley’s court only the previous week on charges of stealing food from Aldi. He is banned from all branches of Aldi and Iceland nationwide. As he is awaiting sentencing for other offences, Begley lets him out on bail so the crimes can be dealt with together: “But if you come across me again before then, there’s only one place for you – understand?” Stephen seems delighted. “Is that it? Oh, top! See you in a bit!” he shouts from behind the glass as he is led off by the dock officers to fetch his belongings.

The next defendant, Lisa, is also no stranger to the court, with 24 convictions, including one for not taking her child to school for almost a year. She is 43, but, like all the shoplifters in court, looks much older, diminished after decades of addiction – alcohol, in her case. Accused of stealing washing powder and chocolate from Morrisons, she had been arrested and kept in the cells overnight after missing her first court date.

Her tale is typically miserable. She steals not just to buy booze, but also to clear her “considerable debts”, her solicitor tells the court, racked up partly as a result of having to pay the bedroom tax on her council flat. She was recently evicted and is now sofa surfing with a friend. Begley decides to give her one more chance, releasing her on the condition that she doesn’t darken the door of any Morrisons in the country.

Court 16 is a depressing place to sit. I watch Sabrina, a sunken-cheeked 25-year-old serial shoplifter, admit to stealing £50 of goods from the budget variety store B&M. Her solicitor says she missed her last court date because she was in hospital with an ectopic pregnancy, had recently taken an overdose and was in a controlling and coercive relationship. Then there is Anthony, who pleads guilty to stealing £128-worth of makeup from House of Fraser. “I’m homeless!” he apparently told the security guards. “What else do you expect me to do?” After him comes Wayne, 40, also of no fixed abode, who says he stole £110 of angling equipment from Decathlon to sell to feed himself.


There have been many media reports of “ordinary” people stealing because of the cost of living crisis. This idea is rejected by many retail experts. The Association of Convenience Stores (ACS), the voice of more than 33,500 shops, regularly surveys its members and thinks shoplifting rates are at their highest since they began collecting data in 2012. But, contrary to many media reports, the rise is not due to people stealing “because they are desperate for food to feed their families”, says Chris Noice, ACS’s head of communications.

He highlights a story about baby formula kept behind tills at some branches of Co-op to stop them being stolen, which was seized upon by various campaign groups as evidence that the cost of living crisis was forcing parents to steal to nourish their babies. “Baby formula is targeted because it’s a high-value item, along with coffee, meat, cheese and alcohol,” says Noice. “It’s stolen to sell on, whether that’s in pubs or on Facebook. Typically, people are stealing to fund their drug or alcohol habits, and organised crime groups are often involved, too.”

There is a further benefit to stealing baby formula, according to another retail expert: it is used to cut, or bulk out, drugs before they are sold. Talking on the condition of anonymity, she rejects the idea that the cost of living crisis has turned decent people into thieves. “There’s this idea that good people turn bad over night and that’s just not how it works. When people are challenged, they go to food banks, they go to community pantries, they ask for help from friends and family. They don’t suddenly start shoplifting.”

The cost of living crisis may not push many “normal” people into thieving, but it may well make them more likely to buy knocked-off goods at a bargain price without asking too many questions. Plus, inflation has caused a spike in the price of many illegal drugs, as well as everything else, so addicts are stealing more to feed their habits.

Back in Chorlton, the manager of Quality Save, a low-price convenience store next to Boots, is fighting a losing battle against an ever-more-brazen band of shoplifters. “They’re in and out all day, every day, and it’s definitely got worse since Covid,” says the manager with a sigh, her eyes darting down the aisles. The day before, she caught four – an average tally.

She divides shoplifters into three categories. Most problematic are the “prolific thieves” – the regulars who waltz in and out taking the highest-value items to sell on to fund their drug or alcohol habits. “We know their names. They are all banned, but they don’t care,” she says. They go for laundry capsules, coffee, protein powder, booze, meat; anything they can fence quickly and lucratively. Expensive but light is the ideal steal.

There’s a guy who comes in every day, pinching whatever he fancies for every single meal. Police don’t want to know

Then there are the “compulsive shoplifters”. One was caught the previous day with a random collection of loot in her bag, including a gold-plated figurine of Rodney from Only Fools and Horses (£8.99). “She was incredibly upset – she didn’t even know why she had taken it,” says the manager. “I can imagine her living in a house piled high with stuff. A hoarder.”

The saddest group, the newest cohort, are the “regular” shoppers who simply can’t afford everything they need: “They’re the ones who only put half their goods in their basket and hide the rest in their coats or bags.” They are mortified to be caught, telling staff they can’t make ends meet. The manager insists their number is rising, contrary to the views of the retail experts. She recalls an “older gentleman” who was rumbled the week before for stealing coffee. “But not a big jar, like the drug addicts take. It was the very smallest jar – clearly for himself.”

She points at the shelf. Her middle finger has an odd bend in it, a wound from a tussle with another shoplifter. Not too long ago, another staff member was knocked unconscious. Next month, a 33-year-old woman is going on trial for assaulting two people after being caught allegedly stealing toiletries. “We’ve had staff leave because they can’t cope with the aggression,” says the manager, who has worked at the store for 19 years.

All of the employees to whom I speak, who work for chains in Chorlton, say they are instructed not to chase after shoplifters and certainly not to intervene physically. At the Shell garage, one worker says they could theoretically lock someone in the shop, but that carries its own dangers. The bigger stores rely on CCTV to catch thieves retrospectively, handing footage to the police if and when they have time, in the hope it will help officers identify serial offenders.

Empty makeup displays at Boots the chemist, where items have been removed to prevent shoplifting.
Empty makeup displays at Boots the chemist, where items have been removed to prevent shoplifting. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

At a branch of one of the major supermarkets on Barlow Moor Road, workers seem at the end of their tether. They have resorted to starting a WhatsApp group to share intelligence with other traders. Shoplifting is constant and blatant, complains one. “See that flat over there?” he says, pointing across the road. “There’s a guy in there who comes in here literally every day and just treats the shop like his own personal larder, pinching whatever he fancies for every single meal. Police don’t want to know.”

His colleague recalls going into a nearby pub for a mid-morning breakfast, only to be offered joints of meat – stolen from his own store that morning – from a succession of people going from table to table. Meat is a big target for supermarket thieves. “There’s been times when we put out a delivery, turn our backs and literally the whole chiller has been emptied,” he says. There were reports this week that some Marks & Spencer food stores are now displaying a single steak at a time. Despite most shops telling me that they have noticed a rise in shoplifting in Chorlton, Greater Manchester police says reported incidents are down. In the first five months of 2023, the force recorded 73 shoplifting offences in Chorlton, compared with 101 in the same period last year.

“Shoplifting remains a priority across our district,” says Sgt Jade Wells, from the Chorlton neighbourhood policing team. “In the past three months, 10 prolific offenders have been arrested – three of these have received custodial sentences and will be subject to criminal behaviour orders upon release, and one is awaiting sentence.”

Among the tactics she says they use to tackle the problem, she lists visible patrols and plainclothes observation. “We work with shopkeepers not only to identify offenders, but also to offer support and advice. The traders also have a direct line of communication with the Chorlton neighbourhood policing team and we will continue to work hard on their behalf.” When the lipsticks are back out at Boots, you will know they have cracked it.

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