‘We kept him for two hours. But the police never came’: the reality on the shoplifting frontline

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In the back office of his family-run grocers in Croydon, south London, Ben Selvaratnam is reviewing CCTV footage. “This is yesterday’s incident,” he says, looking at a video clip of two men loading a carrier bag with alcohol and laundry detergent. “Some of them are quite brazen; they don’t even run. They’ll just walk out, like, ‘What are you going to do?’” he says. He rewinds and points to the men, who saunter straight to the cabinet containing chilled beers. “He’s just there putting things in his bag. They’re taking their time – they don’t expect to be challenged.”

The recent tide of retail crime started rising post-Covid, he says, beginning with an incident where a shoplifter violently attacked one of his employees in July 2021. “We held [him] down because after being confronted, he hit one of the staff members… I think we kept him there for about two hours.” But the police never came. “[They] said, ‘there’s no one to come see you.’ We asked what to do with him and they said, ‘let him go.’ But he didn’t leave – he just hung around outside being abusive. For the team that was very traumatic. It does feel like we’ve been left on our own.”

There has been an underlying issue with shoplifting since Selvaratnam, 40, bought the business eight years ago, but it has exponentially worsened over the past year and a half. Shoplifting has reached a record high, according to data from the Home Office, which shows that between January and March this year, over 100,000 shoplifting offences were recorded. This equates to 1,100 reported crimes a day – a 37 per cent increase on the previous year and the biggest annual increase ever. Separate figures show that the proportion of shoplifting offences resulting in a sanction have plummeted from 47.5 per cent to 18.7 per cent since 2016.

Selvaratnam is on the front line and sees “minimum two to three incidents a day.” He is proud of his selection of wines, which are neatly presented by region and have been positioned next to the tills to try and deter shoplifters. But still people steal “nine or 10 bottles” at a time. If challenged, he says, some people smash them intentionally. Two of the doors installed in the chilled aisle have been smashed. Another flashpoint is the Post Office concession, where elderly and vulnerable customers often queue up to pay bills or deposit cash, which thieves try to snatch as it is handed over.

And that’s just the start. “We’re seeing all types of criminality,” he says, from “people who genuinely [can’t] afford food… to professional[s] who come in and steal to order.” Thieves target “alcohol, confectionery, razor blades, coffee, meat… Anything that has a resale value.”

Scrolling through more footage, a woman reaches behind the Perspex screen installed to protect till staff and grabs disposable e-cigarettes in full view of the cashier; a group of teenagers saunter in, fill their pockets with confectionery and saunter out again; and in one particularly shocking incident (which took place on Monday last week), a man throws an iron nail at an unsuspecting shop assistant, who then had to go to A&E with a bleeding head.

“We’ve lost a number of staff… at some point people have just said, ‘it’s too risky, we’re getting abuse daily,’” says Selvaratnam. Recent data from the British Retail Consortium found that incidents of violence and abuse against retail staff have worsened considerably, rising from “the pre-Covid high” of 450 per day in 2019-20 to over 850 per day in 2022.

A spokesperson for the Met Police, referring to shoplifting in general, says: “While it is not realistic for the Met to respond to every case of shoplifting in London due to demand, where a crime is being committed, a suspect is on the scene, and the situation has or is likely to become heated or violent, our call handlers will assess this and seek to despatch officers where appropriate. A London-wide roll-out of Op Retail, a successful pilot allowing more effective and streamlined reporting of shoplifting where no offender has been detained or violence occurred, will be taking place in the autumn.”

The map of stores targeted by shoplifters has changed significantly. There used to be a fairly predictable pattern: city centre locations, especially London, were hardest hit by more retail crime. But now it is spreading out nationwide. In a Nisa Local in a small village in Cambridgeshire, owner Amit Puntambekar says he is losing “about £200 a week or thereabouts” in shoplifted stock, which is sometimes stolen so quickly he only realises later that day when the computer says there should be four of a product in stock and there are none left on the shelves. One repeat offender used the tactic of shoving steak down his trousers, which is actually “quite common.”

In the Co-op in suburban Great Baddow, near Chelmsford in Essex, store manager Tatiana Kozomara, 49, says shoplifters are becoming “more and more aggressive.” “One man – who was stealing a box of 10 beers – backed me into the shelf. He was breathing right into my face, spitting on my face,” she says.

It came to a head this summer, Kozomara was slapped and punched by a middle-aged woman who had been caught stealing ice cream. The police took no action. She has always kept a Bic biro tucked behind one ear at work for making notes. “But now I am aware that I’ve got it there as a weapon, if I need to defend myself quickly. It’s horrible that I’ve come to think that way about a pen.”

Laura Gribbon, 49, has been a shop assistant in the mid-sized store for 14 years. She says they have nicknames for some of the shoplifters because they are in so regularly. There’s “Beer Man”, “Scarface” (who will use the in store cash machine to take money from his account before stealing) and “Breakfast Man”. Breakfast Man fills one of the shop’s baskets with everything he needs for a fry up: eggs, bacon, mushrooms, bread and baked beans, and walks out with the whole thing.

“When I first saw him,” says Gribbon, “he dropped some mushrooms on the floor and then picked them up so he seemed a decent bloke… I wasn’t prepared for him to walk off with the lot.” The most commonly stolen items are 10-packs of lager and baby formula (now, they only have one tagged box of each type on display), washing powder and meat.

The impact on Gribbon and the others who work in the store is immense. “I worry about the safety of our lovely elderly customers and the children who come in,” says Gribbon. “I’m always watching the door, nervous about who is coming in next. I used to enjoy the job but now I’m grumpy and tired. It wears you out. I don’t feel safe walking to and from work. One shoplifter came up to me on the pavement outside the shop and threatened to slash my throat. He said he was going to carve me up in front of my children. Dealing with that shouldn’t be part of my job description.”

Employees are not expected to confront shoplifters. “We’re advised to film them on our cameras, but we have to tell them we’re doing it,” says Gribbon. “That usually makes them much more aggressive.” If Selvaratnam himself is in-store and feels it is safe to do so, he intervenes, which has caused further problems. “Because we’re policing [it], now, they’re targeting us,” says Selvaratnam. “We’re not tolerating it. We’ve had it before where we try to turn a blind eye. It never works. It just gets worse and worse.”

Selvaratnam feels he has been forced into taking matters into his own hands

Selvaratnam feels he has been forced into taking matters into his own hands – Rii Schroer for The Telegraph

The rising cost of living is one part of this picture. The saddest cases Selvaratnam sees are people obviously in need who attempt to steal food, such as rice, and hand it back when asked to pay. In Tower Hamlets, one of the city’s poorest boroughs, the number one most shoplifted item isn’t alcohol or e-cigarettes but Calpol. “It shows how much the cost of living crisis is affecting our residents when they cannot afford basic medicines for their children,” told the BBC.

But in Chelmsford, Kozomara says a man once stole a large box of sweets then went to wait for his prescription a few doors down at the pharmacy. She followed him in. He claimed to be homeless and hungry. She says: “If a homeless person comes to me honestly, I will buy them a sandwich. Always. There is no need to steal from my shop.” The meat and baby formula stolen from her store are often spotted later, being sold on at the local pub.

Some insist the rise in retail crime is being driven largely by a new demographic of repeat offenders and career shoplifters. Dame Sharon White, the John Lewis chairwoman, warned that criminals now effectively have a “licence to shoplift.”

“This is not theft for need – it’s not people stealing a sandwich because otherwise they wouldn’t eat,” says Lucy Brown, director of security for the John Lewis Partnership. “Lots of the shoplifting is unfortunately carried out by gangs that are organised. I would politely describe them as ‘brand agnostic’ as they’ll steal from anywhere,” she says. “This is a new thing, and I think it has come because there has been a progressive relaxation of the response to shoplifting. People view it as decriminalised – not only do they not see consequences… there’s also no shame attached to it. People think of it as entirely victimless.”

In John Lewis, thieves tend to target high-value fragrance, wearable tech like headphones – “things that are reasonably small and [have] value in the resale market,” says Brown. In Waitrose, it’s alcohol, meat, tobacco substitutes and electric toothbrushes.

Large retailers, supermarkets and small businesses alike have turned to ever more desperate measures to stem the tide. The Co-op has rolled out the use of empty dummy display packaging to be swapped out at the till after revealing it was dealing with almost 1,000 shoplifting incidents a day in its network of 2,400 shops. It has also doubled its use of undercover “tactical guarding” and installed panic alarms.

As reported by a west London news website, the Chiswick Calendar, the local branch of the womenswear store Whistles has started locking the door; a regular customer stole a shelf-full of products in the beauty retailer Space NK; and the local deli and charity shops are even being targeted. Many complain that the police are slow to respond or take no action. “Basically, we are the police now,” said one shopkeeper. (Whistles says it does not currently operate any formal closed door policy in line with theft management across stores.)

Morrisons has joined Tesco and Co-op in equipping staff with body-worn cameras. The homeware shop Dunelm has resorted to locking higher-end bed linen in PIN-protected cabinets. A 600g tub of Lurpak was pictured encased in security netting in a south-east London branch of Aldi.

“I’ve been in food retail for 25 years, and I’ve never seen crime as it is today,” says Kate McCrae-Graham, the Co-op’s operations director. “I have genuinely never seen anything like it. It’s got so bad because there is no consequence.”

Tesco is just one of the supermarkets that has resorted to equipping its staff with body-cams

Tesco is just one of the supermarkets that has resorted to equipping its staff with body-cams – Shutterstock

The company says that the police are failing to respond to 71 per cent of even the most serious retail crimes, according to figures it obtained following a Freedom of Information request. “I’ve started to see patterns around county lines as well; there was one particular store in a lovely area that kept getting armed robberies, and I couldn’t understand why [that] was, but that’s because it sits on the boundary between two counties and had easy access onto the motorway,” says McCrae-Graham. “In the past 10 days I’ve had three armed robberies in Bristol, as an example… [and] two in Scotland. That’s incredibly unusual. It continues to escalate – you can see that both in the type of crime and also the geographical location.”

Over the past couple of years Co-op has invested £200 million in tackling the problem, and McCrae-Graham says she is “signing off additional funds constantly.” But it makes no difference. “I’m now seeing customers trying to stop shoplifters – like a sort of vigilante approach. And that worries me as well.”

Previously, large supermarkets have been hesitant to discuss shoplifting, but the Co-op decided to take a stand as “there’s a real risk to [employees’] wellbeing – their physical safety and mental health,” says McCrae-Graham. “It cannot continue.” She says the chain is looking at £100 million a year in “leakage” from lost stock. “The standard everyday shoplifting that has always happened continues to happen, but now we’re seeing organised crime, we’re seeing people with addictions sent out with shopping lists to take stuff,” she says. “Every day I’ll get a message about an armed robbery, a kiosk breach, a physical assault… It’s absolutely horrific.”

The sorry state of affairs is laid bare by the fact that 10 of the country’s largest retailers are set to fund a £600k scheme, Project Pegasus, under which CCTV pictures of shoplifters will be run through the police’s national database with facial recognition technology.

Selvaratnam feels he has been forced into taking matters into his own hands. “If you let it go, [a shoplifter] is going to tell his friends and family and they’re going to come and do it more and more,” he says. “I’m prepared to jump in.”

Additional reporting by Ben Butcher

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