Theft is a growing problem for retailers – and not just because of the cost.

Theft is a growing problem for retailers - and not just because of the cost.

Retailers have a column marked ‘shrinkage’ on their profit & loss account. For many, the numbers in that column are getting bigger, creating a headache not just for accountants but for frontline retail staff too.

Shrinkage is shorthand for theft. A degree of pragmatism comes into play when considering these losses, with retailers accepting that some customers – or staff – will steal from them and get away with it. A certain level of theft is the price of doing business. That level is being pushed to the limit now.


The Guardian: “One guy uses us like a larder: the British shoplifting crisis – as seen from the tills”<


While it is common to hear bosses complain about a lack of creativity among staff, they must surely acknowledge that people are unfailingly creative when it comes to stealing things. It doesn’t take much experience of shop work to learn some of the ways people invent to get products out of stores without paying.

Old ladies with frozen chickens under their hats, parents getting their children to carry stolen items and – a personal favourite – the man who used a self-checkout scale to weigh all of his purchases as loose mushrooms, are just some of the tales shared during tea breaks.

With reports of shoplifting rising fast, retailers have to respond. Shoplifters may not have much sympathy with retail shareholders, but stealing from shops is not a victimless crime: independent shopkeepers suffer directly, as do those people who work in shops and feel their safety is at risk due to the rising tide of lawlessness. Even big corporations cannot afford to give their products away.

As has often been the case lately, a stopgap solution has been applied that undoes much of the effort retailers make to create attractive, well-merchandised stores.


The BBC: “Steak, coffee and cheese locked up as shoplifting rises”.


Reports include cases of Boots stores where cosmetics are hidden behind a counter to stop them being stolen; M&S stores with just one steak on display; dummy coffee jars in supermarkets, and cheese with security tags. Imagine owning a brand that has invested hugely in packaging and marketing, and struggled to get a listing in a major retailer, only to see your products locked in a cupboard.

This coping strategy echoes the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Retailers which had spent huge sums on designing efficient store interiors had to erect temporary barriers that ruined the whole effect. Some of them were only recently taken down. The world moves on, and now they are hiding the products to stop them being stolen.

But the situation is far more complex than just one party stealing from another. This wave of shoplifting is not about greedy shoppers who don’t want to pay. Increasingly, it is about desperate people unable to pay. 

The cost of living crisis is biting so deeply in some quarters that people have little choice but to cut their bills by simply stealing the products they need. Prices of basic items – and of rent and energy – have risen so sharply that people are struggling to feed themselves. As with inflation, retailers are left to deal with a problem they did not create.

Some shoplifters even claim to be stealing products to give to food banks for redistribution.


Novara Media: “Meet the Robin Hood-Style Activists ‘Shoplifting’ for Food Banks”.


In Tower Hamlets, the most-stolen item is reportedly Calpol. That parents will risk arrest to alleviate their child’s high temperature is a frightening state of affairs. Retailers are not heartless, and this places them in a difficult position. 


Evening Standard: “Calpol is most shoplifted item in London borough amid cost-of-living crisis”.


Retailers have every right to crack down on the growing problem of theft, with increased security and some high profile prosecutions to show their resolve. But will any of them be willing to play the role of a Dickensian villain in media coverage that focuses on parents stealing to feed their children?

It is easy to forget that retailers are at the sharp end of society’s problems. The growing rise of theft from their stores just illustrates the difficult choices they have to make.