Shoplifting 'epidemic' hits record high as abuse against shop workers also soars, survey shows

Shoplifting has hit a record high with 16.7 million incidents recorded last year - more than double compared with 2022.

The spate cost retailers about £1.8bn - also a record - and this is the first time it has surpassed the £1bn mark, according to an annual survey by the British Retail Consortium (BRC).

Violence and abuse against shop workers also spiked last year with about 1,300 incidents daily, a rise of 50% from 870 the year before.

About 8,800 of the total across the year resulted in injury.

Retail staff faced a range of incidents including physical violence, threats with weapons, racial abuse and sexual harassment.

Shoplifting and abuse come hand in hand as, in November, it was revealed as many as two in five employees faced mistreatment reported being shouted at, spat on, or hit especially when confronting the criminals.

Many have considered quitting their jobs or leaving retail work altogether.

The industry group - which has thousands of members including more than 200 major chains - surveyed a sample of retailers representing some 1.1 million employees across the country.

Some of the retailers surveyed pointed to the cost of living crisis that had led to shoplifters stealing several items as opposed to one or two.

Inflation hit a peak of 11.1% in October 2022, with people seeing much higher prices for everyday essentials such as food and electricity.

Other retailers said they had seen shoplifters were more prone to resort to violence and abuse, and they felt there was a lack of consequences for offenders.

During COVID, people lashed out at staff due to safety measures implemented in shops, resulting in the number of abuse cases tripling during the period.

BRC said the situation had escalated to a "crisis" and criticised the government's "woefully inadequate" action to combat it.

Firms have attempted to curb the rise of crimes in their stores, spending about £1.2bn on measures like CCTV, increased security personnel, and body cameras.

Criminals given 'a free pass'

Helen Dickinson, the BRC's chief executive, said despite the sums of money invested to prevent crime, violence and abuse against staff was "climbing".

She added: "Criminals are being given a free pass to steal goods and to abuse and assault retail colleagues. No one should have to go to work fearing for their safety.

"This is a crisis that demands action now."

More than 55 leading businesses, including Sainsbury's and Boots, previously signed an open letter to policing minister Chris Philp calling for more police action over the high levels of abuse.

The Co-op said it recorded 300,000 incidents of shoplifting, abuse, violence and anti-social behaviour in 2023 - an increase of more than 40% on the year before.

It urged MPs not to "turn their backs" on shop workers.

Meanwhile, the head of John Lewis said shoplifting had become an "epidemic" with a rise in organised gangs looting stores.

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John Lewis is among 10 of the UK's biggest retailers that have agreed to fund a police operation to crack down on shoplifting, called Project Pegasus.

The companies are expected to pay about £600,000 towards the project, which will use CCTV images and facial recognition software to get a better understanding of shoplifting operations.

The Police Retail Crime Action Plan, launched in October 2023, has also signalled some "hope" for the sector, the BRC said.

It includes a pledge for police to prioritise urgently attending the scene of shoplifting that has involved violence against a worker, or when a shoplifter has been detained.

Henrik Nordvall, who heads H&M in the UK & Ireland, said: "While we welcomed the Retail Crime Action Plan last year, we need to ensure that this is put into practice.

"The introduction of a standalone offence for violent and abusive behaviour toward retail workers will send a clear message that the government does not tolerate such behaviour towards people who are simply doing their jobs.

"The issue of retail crime is not just about the cost to a business, but more importantly the safety of colleagues and customers who have the right to feel safe on their high streets and in their workplaces."