Record levels of shoplifting show signs of falling

Woman putting clothing in her handbagImage source, Getty Images
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Fewer shopkeepers reported thefts by customers last year, according to official figures – despite widespread reports of a spike in shoplifting.

A survey by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggests 26% of retailers experienced customer theft in 2023, down from a record high of 28% in 2022.

In recent years retailers and shop staff have reported a sharp rise in theft and abuse from customers.

Reports have even suggested that organised crime gangs are trafficking vulnerable people to the UK to steal from stores.

A separate ONS report, using police crime figures, showed reports of shoplifting were at their highest level in 20 years last year, with police forces logging 430,000 instances of the crime.

But the Commercial Victimisation Survey (CVS) showed a two percentage point fall in thefts.

The CVS is regarded as a more reliable measure because it surveys businesses on their experiences of crime, while the police data is skewed by whether or not businesses choose to report an incident.

Smaller retailers say that the recent increase in shoplifting is putting a strain on their finances. Fiona Malone, who owns a convenience store and Post Office in Tenby, south Wales told the BBC that she had lost £26,000 worth of stock last year.

“The impact on our profits was quite significant,” she said. “People think ‘I’ll just take that, I’ll put it in my pocket, it’s only a fiver, it doesn’t matter’> But it has a huge impact on our business.”

As reports of theft have risen, retailers have sought ways to address it.

Last year a group of 10 major retailers, including John Lewis, Tesco and Co-op, announced plans to spend £600,000 on a police operation using CCTV images and data to crack down on shoplifting.

Shop staff have also reported a rise in abuse and incidents of violence: the CVS figures showed that more than three-quarters of supermarkets said that they had experienced theft by a customer, while 43% said their staff had been threatened or assaulted.

The CVS data also showed that 45% of businesses which had been the victim of crime did not bother reporting it to police, suggesting that the actual number of crimes is higher than the police figures indicate.

About a third of businesses that did report a crime said they were satisfied with the police response, while 41% said they were dissatisfied. Of those who weren’t satisfied, 63% said the police either didn’t do anything to help or didn’t turn up.

Graham Wynn, the assistant director of business and regulation at the British Retail Consortium (BRC), said £1.8bn a year was lost to shop theft.

“Shoplifting is not a victimless crime," he said.

“Retailers are forced to spend £1.2bn a year on anti-crime measures such as CCTV, security personnel, and anti-theft devices.”