Profile of a Shoplifter
Supermarkets throughout the land are grappling with huge increases in shoplifting. The majority are introducing surveillance hitherto unknown in the history of retail. Cameras everywhere, security guards much in evidence, valuable items ‘tagged’ and notices throughout the stores warning of consequences. For customers this can feel like a place of suspicion and unease and for staff a workplace of anxiety because they are on the front line of a war against protagonists who are unpredictable.
Shoplifting offences recorded by police in England and Wales have risen to the highest level since current records began 20 years ago. More than 402,000 offences were recorded in the year to September 2023, up from 304,459 in the previous 12 months according to data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
In terms of costs, it is estimated that British supermarkets lost nearly a billion pounds due to theft in 2021/22. And it is getting worse. Supermarket executives are calling the current trend an ‘epidemic’, with increases of 27% being recorded in the past year throughout the ten largest UK cities.
My local supermarket is Waitrose and they are attempting to tackle shoplifting in the following ways:
* Introducing CCTV cameras across the stores, covering nearly all areas.
* The use of obvious, stand out security staff complete with personal cameras.
* Discrete store detectives posing as shoppers.
* Shelf warning notices advising against shoplifting.
* ‘Love bombing’ (overly helpful employees follow a suspected shoplifter around the store).
What better way to get a feel for how the Waitrose policies are working than to go to my nearest store and talk to a security officer.
‘John’ is six foot six and big with it. He has been walking around the store for some months now, but I’ve never seen him talking to anybody. He walks and stands with a purpose and that purpose is to deter anyone who might be thinking of shoplifting. He wears various tags around his neck and has a small camera which rests on his chest. He always sports what psychologists would call a ‘foe’ face as opposed to a ‘friendly’ face. All of us, whether we are aware of it or not, sport a foe or friend face depending on our environment and the threat we feel we may be under. The foe face harks back to our fight-or-flight response and is a signal that we don’t want to be messed with. All security staff have this expression because they are doing a job that puts them in danger. In order to initiate a discussion with a security person, you have to approach said person with a ‘friend’ face in order to get them to drop their guard so that they will talk to you. This I did and our subsequent discussion went like this:
Hello, I’ve seen you around the shop for a while now and I’ve noticed the increase in cameras and additional security, is stealing a big problem in the store? I’m genuinely interested and was wondering if you could tell me how you’re finding it?
John (with a much more relaxed expression now that he has decided I’m not a threat):
You wouldn’t believe it, I can tell you some stories.
John (warming to this invitation probably because no one has ever approached him in a friendly way before to see things from his point of view):
I’ve been in the security business for many years and long gone are the days when I could catch a suspect in the act, grab his arm and frog-march him into the office to question, search and/or detain him until the police arrive. Now, we cannot touch a suspect, we cannot search his bags or person without permission and we cannot detain them without their agreement.
So how does this work out in practice? Do the police get involved and if they do how does that pan out?
In theory the police will not attend for any incident involving less than £100. Where the theft is above this they are supposed to attend but they rarely do. Even if they do it can be five or six hours after the report before they turn up, which as you can imagine gives us huge problems if trying to keep the suspect in the shop. We are then responsible for their welfare. The suspects can experience panic attacks (both real and feigned), display violent tendencies and cause scenes which can be disruptive to other customers. In short, it is a harrowing experience for both the suspects and the staff and this is now a regular occurrence. More often than not we are pleased just to get rid of them and hope not to see them again.
Who are these people? Is there any one group or type that typifies a shoplifter?
Waitrose is an upmarket shop, but we get all sorts who shoplift. I can tell you that we get gangs coming in who target valuable products like spirits. We get elderly people who target meat and we get those who go for the small high value items like women’s face creams which are in tiny containers and can cost £50. They reach up at these products and flick one into their loose sleeve before transferring it to their pocket or bag. Waitrose are lacking here because they don’t tag these small high value items whilst they do tag things like electric toothbrushes (costing £150) which no one wants to steal anyway, so the tagging system isn’t all it could be.
Does poverty and hardship figure in the stealing and can you tell when you see this?
Certainly. There is no doubt that people generally are feeling the pinch and some are desperate, but it’s not for me to be a social worker and I can’t put the world to rights. I have a job to do and I try to do it to the best of my abilities. But I can tell you this: We have found nurses, teachers, benefit recipients, pensioners and all sorts who shoplift, there isn’t a type you can lay your finger on. We even had a doctor recently who confessed that the reason he was shoplifting was stress. We get the criminal elements who move on around different stores and we have to be on our guard for our safety. Every day presents something different and it’s a constant source of anxiety to work here.
I must say John, thank you very much for talking to me and it certainly gives me a greater understanding of what is happening in this store. Best of luck and no doubt I will see you again.
And with that I shook hands with him and left him to get on with his work and resume his foe face which had been noticeably lacking during our encounter.
Yet another conversation which helped my understanding of the world in which we now live, created for us by a government which is overseeing a moral decay in society and seems intent on making people poorer, more desperate and not having any answers to the resultant crime and hardships that affect all our lives in one way or another. One other point worthy of mention which would be funny if it were not serious; John also mentioned that some shoplifters are wearing masks to evade identification. You couldn’t make it up could you?
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