Insight 3 June 2024

Four steps to overcoming the retail crime epidemic

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Recent statistics on retail theft and related crime demonstrate the shocking extent of the problem.

According to the British Retail Consortium’s Crime Survey 2024 Report, the cost of theft doubled to £1.8bn during 2022/23 with over 45,000 incidents a day.

The toll on retail workers is huge; there’s been a 50% rise in levels of retail violence and abuse.

“Enough is enough,” says Mitie’s Director of Crime and Intelligence: Retail & Shopping Centres, John Unsworth.

For the third instalment in the Mitie Perspectives series, John shares his opinion on how to stem the rise in retail crime.

The headlines pull no punches. In recent weeks, coverage of UK retail crime has included:

  • Store bosses call for legal action to tackle shop crime crisis
  • Theft and violence in UK’s small shops soars to record levels
  • Shoplifting explosion as convenience store theft soars

I’ve been considering what needs to be done to bring the surge in shop theft under control. There is no silver bullet for the crime on our streets, but I believe the following four steps would improve a desperate situation. And as you’ll see, the wording of one of the headlines is part of the problem.

1. Stop referring to ‘shoplifting’ – it’s crime

Ask someone to explain what is meant by retail crime and in most cases they’ll use the term ‘shoplifting’. This terminology plays down what is essentially a theft, fraud or robbery. Just because the crime has occurred in a retail environment doesn’t mean it’s any less serious than one that takes place on the street, in a home or elsewhere. Likewise, the perpetrator shouldn’t be referred to as a shoplifter. They are criminals, plain and simple.

When it comes to tackling retail crime, I believe it’s important to ‘call a spade a spade’. The British Retail Consortium’s most recent crime report shows retail workers are facing 1,300 violent or abusive incidents a day. So, there is nothing minor about retail crime. It has a massive human and financial cost, and we can’t overlook the physical and mental impact retail crime has on shopworkers.

While every criminal has their own motivations, it’s worth noting that many operate as part of organised criminal groups. When crime is coordinated on a large scale, the people at the top of the tree can make millions of pounds. Again, this is not insignificant. It’s premeditated crime and must be treated as such.

A close up of a person shoplifting an item into their bag

2. Recognise the important role retail plays within the community

I’m always amazed by the tendency to view the retail environment as somehow exempt from the usual courtesies and norms that apply in other spaces. Every member of the public is invited into shops and supermarkets. The expectation of decency and respect shouldn’t be abandoned when someone walks in off the street. Sadly, the statistics for theft, violence and abuse suggest a growing number of people see retail as an opportunity rather than an important component of the community.

Since beginning a Youth Training Scheme with Greater Manchester Police in 1995, I’ve worked in and led intelligence units operating locally, regionally and nationally, before joining Mitie in 2020.

I know from experience that a community-based approach is most effective in fighting retail crime. At Mitie, this means sharing intelligence on offenders and offending between partners like Sainsbury’s, M&S and Co-op, with whom we have a data sharing agreement. If we’re part of a business crime reduction partnership (BCRP), we share with other organisations locally, trade bodies and the Police. This ‘beyond the threshold’ approach means crime isn’t simply displaced from one location to the next. We’re creating a partnership that tackles crime against these businesses. We make sure there’s a cohesive strategy to protect shops, places and the public.

3. Work in partnership to fight crime

Offenders often target multiple retailers and are responsible for crime in sectors beyond retail. An effective response requires a range of organisations and services working hand-in-hand to identify those responsible, understand their impact right across society and to implement an appropriate plan. Public / private sector partnerships are essential for reversing the growing crime trend and to manage offenders effectively.

There are two main offender motivations: funding an addiction and funding a lifestyle. In order to positively intervene and prevent future offending, it’s essential to understand this motivation. Offenders with addiction problems will usually steal for the entire duration of their addictions, which means support to break their behaviours is essential. Meanwhile criminals motivated by lifestyle and status must be stripped of assets obtained through crime so they cannot benefit.

Neither approach can be achieved by working in isolation and nor is it the sole responsibility of any single organisation. There is no one-size-fits-all method. Effective solutions are multi-faceted and require open and honest dialogue between all parties, with clear accountability around who is responsible for what. Preventing crime is a team effort and we need to recognise the challenges we all face, plus the opportunities that a clearly defined partnership provides.

Mitie employee at a computer in the Security Operations Centre, with Sainsbury's branding on the walls

4. Use technology, data and intelligence to fight retail crime

In my role at Mitie, I work with our retail partners building an intelligence community that enables us to communicate about common threats and security issues. We can do so thanks to technology, data and intelligence. These are essential for winning the fight against retail crime.

As an example scenario of our processes in action, let’s say a suspected offender enters a store. Mitie’s security officer will input relevant information into the internal system, which relays this to our Security Operations Centre (SOC). If there is proof of a previous offence, a package containing names, photographs and other details can be created to alert Police to an active criminal in the area. Organisations that are part of a crime reduction network can then take preventative steps to make sure no crime is committed.

Mitie’s SOC remotely monitors 3,000 locations and we have expert crime intelligence teams assessing and analysing national data. We have the ability to produce quality evidence that the Police uses to build a case – hopefully leading to a successful prosecution.

To conclude, retail crime is a massive problem that won’t go away unless we all play our part in tackling it. Taking a zero tolerance approach might be seen as petty, but a £1bn problem and thousands of traumatised retail workers is not a situation to be taken lightly.

We know how to solve this problem. We need the resolve to do so.

John Unsworth, Director of Crime and Intelligence at Mitie Security

Do you agree with John? Let us know by emailing [email protected].

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