Shoplifting is out of control. Forget the police – stores need to up their game

Within corner-shops and supermarkets and department stores, a new mood of lawlessness circulates. Owners of small shops have long complained that they are being treated as larders; now the owners of large ones have joined them.

Co-op despairs that shoplifting is “out of control”; along with antisocial behaviour incidents, the crime has increased by a third in the first half of this year. Meanwhile, John Lewis has taken to offering free coffees to passing officers. “Just having a police car parked outside can make people think twice about shoplifting from our branches,” the head of security for the John Lewis Partnership has said, with more than a hint of desperation. Earlier this month, there was the “TikTok looting” of Oxford Street, where teens ran amok around stores after a thread urging people to “rob JD Sports” went viral. The trend has a longer sweep: in the past six years, shop thefts in Britain have more than doubled.

What to do about shoplifting? It’s a delicate subject. Shoplifting is not quite like other crimes. Pilfering, purloining, filching, snaffling – it is by nature relatively trivial, the sort of thing children try their hands at without necessarily graduating to car heists and bank jobs. No punishment quite fits (the collapse of Winona Ryder’s career for a few designer gowns stands as a sort of parable for the shoplifter: it’s hardly ever worth it). But most of all, shoplifting is a crime that seems to reflect social need: it rises when the economy dips. The current spate seems partly fuelled by the cost of living crisis. Starving your population and then “cracking down” on it for nicking baby formula or a can of soup can start to make a government look rather unreasonable.

Literature reflects some of our moral feelings about shoplifting – quite often we are on the side of the light-fingered lifter. Dickens is full of desperate characters driven to theft and punished for it by a hypocritical elite. Not for nothing did Daniel Defoe make the heroine of Moll Flanders a shoplifter. And the opportunistic thief is not only a vehicle for social comment but for social defiance, too. In his book Do It, 60s activist Jerry Rubin proffers the following advice. “Don’t buy. Steal. If you act like it’s yours, no one will ask you to pay for it.”

But if the root causes of shoplifting are economic and social these are fairly large problems to solve, not to mention slow ones. In the meantime, we need a few shorter-term solutions. This is not a victimless crime: costs are eventually transferred to the customer, and staff are put at risk. And when it comes to small businesses, shoplifting is hard to justify as a response to rising prices. Stealing is not always the best way, after all, to address inequality. In her book The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting, Rachel Shteir quotes a chastened Rubin after a thief burgles his apartment. “In advocating stealing as a revolutionary act,” he says, “I guess I didn’t make clear the difference between stealing from General Motors and stealing from me.”

Related: ‘We’ll just keep an eye on her’: Inside Britain’s retail centres where facial recognition cameras now spy on shoplifters

So, what can be done to address shoplifting (or “shop theft”, as outlets have tried to rebrand it, in a plea for it to be taken more seriously)? The instinct of politicians has been to ramp up deterrents – a Tory minister recently suggested more jail time is needed for repeat offenders – but this, according to Tim Newburn, professor of criminology at the London School of Economics, is exactly the wrong approach.

More bobbies on the beat – another part of Labour’s response – won’t help

“There are decades of evidence to show that increasing punishment is useless,” says Newburn. Not only is it expensive, it “compounds the social problem by sticking vulnerable people in prison”. But the key sticking point is that the vast majority of offenders do not get caught in the first place. Which makes Labour’s policy – making more use of community sentences – unlikely to work very well either.

More bobbies on the beat – another part of Labour’s response – won’t help. Shops are private spaces, and shoplifters can wait until a policeman passes outside before they commit their crime. The number of extra police needed to adequately guard every shop from thieves, Newburn says, would border on the absurd. Labour wants specially trained patrollers to plug into local knowledge, which might catch the odd repeat offender but would also absorb a lot of resources. Meanwhile, forces are currently so stretched that some can no longer respond to serious mental health crises.

Not only does “cracking down” on shoplifters through the criminal justice system raise difficult moral problems, it doesn’t even work.

So what can be done? Well, there is another approach to the problem. Criminologists call it “situational prevention”. “Literally all crime over the last 30 years has dropped significantly,” says Gloria Laycock, emeritus professor at University College London’s centre for security and crime science. “This includes shop theft, which is now increasing but from a low base.”

The reason for this drop-off? Technology has made breaking the law much harder. The use of deadlocks has decimated car theft; domestic burglary has diminished as double-glazing and alarm systems have thrown up hurdles to burglars.

Yet in many modern shops, we have the opposite phenomenon. Although some security measures have increased, with door alarms and beeping tags, in other ways theft has become easier. Once goods were kept behind counters, but since the birth of large supermarkets they have been laid out near the door, ready for the taking. Automated self check-out means the customer in effect monitors their own behaviour. Staff levels have dropped precipitously. Some shops have responded by employing security guards, but these are effectively middlemen for an overstretched police service. They do little to stop the crime happening in the first place.

“A radical policy might be to decriminalise shop theft,” says Laycock, tongue only half in cheek. “This would put the onus directly on the shops, which could employ the measures that actually work, like putting goods back behind counters.”

She captures the problem: automation has led to lawlessness to which there is no ready solution in the justice system. And it’s not just shops where this is happening. Slowly, gradually, we are removing “secondary social control mechanisms” – shop staff, train ticket collectors, park keepers and bus conductors. Part of their job – an overlooked fact – was to maintain order. A bigger social problem may be looming.

• Martha Gill is an Observer columnist