April 2015: Shop theft report

by Mark Rowe

According to the British Retail Consortium (BRC) in their 2013/14 annual retail survey UK Retailers recorded an estimated three million offences against them, directly adding £603m to retailers’ bottom line costs.

The average value of each in store theft also increased by 36% to £241 per incident. Whatever way you view these figures it continues to set the alarm bells ringing. In February 2012 I asked was Britain becoming a nation of shoplifters and were retailers under siege. The evidence being presented year on year certainly seems to suggest we are. A large proportion of those retailers responding to the survey reported more fraud; most of which appears to be online. The explosion of online retailers has meant greater opportunities for those faceless fraudsters who use technology to reap a harvest from online crime. Retailers warn that they now expect fraud to pose the single most significant threat to their business over the next two years.

Comment
The BRC believe, according to their recent report that the current trends are in part as a consequence of retailers being targeted by more organised and sophisticated criminals. This can of course be said of most crime but you can add to this the ineffectual role of the police who suffer on a number of fronts trying to be all things to all people. Despite this the BRC in their naivety have recommended that dedicated strategies to tackle business crime need to be developed by police around the country, in close partnership with business. They state that a fundamental part of this approach is ensuring that data on business crime is properly collected and analysed by the police so that it can be used to inform operational activity. I wonder where they think the funds are going to come from to provide the manpower to achieve this strategy, well intended as this view is. Helen Dickinson, the Director General of the BRC, said: “Criminal activity against UK retailers continues to have wide-ranging consequences for businesses, employees and the vast majority of honest shoppers. It is clear that retailers are facing an increasingly sophisticated criminal. Despite an average investment of £2m per business in crime and loss prevention, retailers need help and support to respond to the threat. Police and Crime Commissioners should follow the lead set by the Mayor of London and work with retailers to develop dedicated business crime strategies to help tackle this growing problem.”

Theresa May view
The BRC position is set against a background outlined by the Home Secretary Theresa May at the end of January where she said that victims should report crime online as it would save police money and free up officers for real front-line work. Already being tested by at least two police forces, Surrey and Sussex, the scheme will cover non-emergency work which includes minor theft. It is expected to go nationwide over the next six months. Where will shoplifters eventually fit into this new strategy? Mrs May says that with the growth in the internet which has transformed other services from shopping to banking it is right to give victims and witnesses greater choice over how they report issues to the police. No mention however of the significant rise in internet crime. She does say that the measure could cut police costs by £3.7m and free up an estimated 180,000 officer hours a year, throwing in the well used political remark ‘potentially putting more bobbies on the beat’. The online crime reports apparently will be studied by police staff who will decide how to respond.

The fact that an estimated 264 police station front counters, who previously dealt with the public have been closed (one in five of the national total) it is not surprising to learn that critics of the new proposals have been lining up. One such person is David Green the Director of the Civitas think-tank who has been quoted as saying: ‘The problem with dealing with a screen rather than talking to a person is that it depersonalises the experience. It feels like you are a crime statistic instead of asking the police to act in defence of the public.’

Some survey findings
Although the actual volume of reported shop theft declined by 4pc the average value of each incident rose from £177 to £241. This is against a background of declining retail prices. At Cifas, the Fraud prevention trade body, its Chief Executive Simon Dukes has been quoted as stating that the rise in retail fraud is unsurprising: ‘we know that fraudsters constantly adapt their methods and online shopping has added to the rise of cyber fraud. Retailers are not alone in experiencing increasing levels of fraud. But more than ever before, companies also need to be aware of the risks of insider fraud. We know that organised crime gangs will often try to gain access to companies from the inside as well as the outside through duping unsuspecting and honest staff using methods like phishing to gain sensitive information, as well as recruiting or planting dishonest employees. The more data we have about the scale and type of fraud the better we can unite to fight it.”

Under siege
Despite spending significant money on security staff, CCTV, electronic technology and other measures our retailers appear to be engaged iagainst a rising tide of shoplifters and those doing online crime who view retailers as fair game. Mainly I believe because they consider the chances of detection are low, balanced against the gains to be had. One of the reasons put forward for the increase in shoplifting especially in supermarkets is the introduction of self service tills. A percentage of the public also see it as the low end of the crime scale and whilst they would never consider burgling a house or robbing a post office they might just be tempted to slip something into their bag especially if there is an absence of shop staff who act as a deterrent. They also know that first time offenders usually get off with a caution at worst, so on the surface it all looks pretty easy. Add to this the non-prosecution policy adopted by some retailers and reported cutbacks to store security staff, it is not too difficult to understand why shop crime continues to increase. Thieves now adopt ingenious ways to get around electronic technology and use the internet to dispose of their so-called liberated goods. Expensive luxury goods now form the prime target for organised gangs working in towns and cities. They continue to develop increased methods of creativity to overcome security measures whilst Retailers play catch up.

Shop staff survey
Meanwhile the shop workers’ trade union Usdaw brought out its Freedom from Fear survey, which tracks violence, threats and abuse against shop staff. John Hannett – Usdaw General Secretary says: “Our survey shows that life on the frontline of retail can be pretty tough for many shop workers and there is still a lot to do to help protect them. We have released our survey results on the same day that the British Retail Consortium has published their Retail Crime Survey. Both show the levels of offences have remained pretty steady from last year, which is little comfort for our members on the receiving end of violence and abuse. A worrying aspect of the BRC report is the increase in the value of shop theft, because all too often these incidents can lead to the criminal assaulting or abusing shop staff.

“Both surveys show that retail crime remains too high and there needs to be action to protect shop workers. On four occasions, in the current Parliament, the Government has defeated amendments to their own legislation that would have provided stiffer penalties for those who assault shop workers. It is time for the Government to act. Crime in shops remains steady and is not coming down in line with the overall levels crime. Retail staff have a crucial role in our communities and that role must be valued and respected.”

While John Hannett makes reference to the alleged drop in overall levels of crime these statistics are in my view still a long way from the reality of the overall crime picture in the UK and well adrift of the real picture on retail shop crime.

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