London November 19 2022: The bright yellow security labels and products boxed up in hard-to-conceal packaging on Britain’s supermarket shelves have a story to tell: theft is on the rise along with the soaring cost of living.
Incidents of shoplifting in the UK increased 18% in the 12 months through June as the highest inflation in more than four decades has pushed up prices on items ranging from bread to pasta, making it more difficult for consumers to afford basics.
With more inflation set to come, theft may spread further, and retailers have become more vigilant over shoplifting or “shrink,” as the industry calls it. Stores that used to attach anti-theft devices to pricey items like alcohol have shifted to also protect unlikely products -- butter, cheese, washing detergent and protein bars, some of them retailing at just £2 ($2.37).
“It has been a theme this year, there’s no two ways about it,” Marks & Spencer Group Plc Chief Financial and Strategy Officer Eoin Tonge said in a phone interview. “When the inflationary period hit, we saw shrink increasing as did the rest of the market place. There have been more measures put in place by pretty much all of the retailers, whether it be guards or tagging.”
Tesco Plc and J Sainsbury Plc are among more than 100 retailers that called on British police in August to focus on retail crime as the cost of living weighs heavily on shoppers. Tesco ramped up security measures earlier this year including in-store personnel, Chairman John Allan told Times Radio.
“I don’t sympathize with people who shoplift, but I can understand desperate people taking desperate measures,” Allan said at the time.
Grocery price inflation hit a record 14.7% last month, adding an extra £682 to the average annual shopping bill. More than a quarter of UK households say they’re struggling financially -- twice as many as last year -- and the vast majority say that higher prices on food and drink is a major concern.
To be sure, store theft does often increase in times of financial hardship, with many retailers noting more cases during the financial crisis. The spike in energy bills and upcoming rises in mortgage rates are expected to put a serious strain on consumers across the country. About 16% of households reported in April they were already having to skip meals, and many have turned to food banks for support.
“There’s pressure on families and personal budgets and also pressure over Christmas in terms of having to give gifts,” said Richard Lim, chief executive officer at research consultancy Retail Economics. “All of these are factors which could see shoplifting rise in the near future.”
The return of shopping at bricks-and-mortar stores after lockdowns and social distancing is also a contributing factor to more shoplifting.
Regional department store Morleys Group recently invested about £750,000 at its Upminster department store, including refitting the perfumery department to keep products in locked cabinets and drawers, while leaving testers easily accessible. The company’s Brixton store, which has just been refurbished for £4 million, also uses locked drawers for brands like Dior and Jo Malone.
“Shop-theft certainly is on the increase,” said Bernard Dreesmann, chairman of Morleys. “Money is tighter.”