Shoplifting Update: 400,000 Incidents a Year in England and Wales is Taking the Biscuit

Supermarket manager and security team member asses stolen groceries recovered from known shoplifter, Hampshire
Supermarket manager and security team member asses stolen groceries recovered from known shoplifter, Hampshire

This year the number of shoplifting offenses recorded by police “has exceeded 400,000” incidents “for the first time since 2002 when records began.” (1)

Who are individual shoplifters?

Men, women and children from any walk of life may take items from a shop and deliberately leave the premises without paying for the item or basket, for a variety of reasons. The reasons for shoplifting are varied and sometimes complex and there are different types of shoplifting.

Recently retail managers across the country report that people want to own or use the products displayed for sale in their local stores and they cannot afford to buy them with cash or card themselves. It is then that sometimes individuals make the bad decision to intentionally steal the shopping instead.

We talked with a security guard in a large traditional supermarket in the borough of Havant in Hampshire that has had a least one shoplifting incident during the last month. We have personally witnessed the professional staff calmly dealing with the shoplifting incident. The security guard told us that “I think cost of living crisis is to mostly to blame, London is worse than Hampshire but it’s a problem all over (England).”

The Guardian also explains that the cost-of-living crisis is one of the biggest driving forces in the change of behaviour in society. (1)

Another aspect leading to the rise in shoplifting is because men and women with addiction problems can be motivated to walk out of any store with stock that they do not pay for but want to sell on, in order to fund their expensive additions. Alcoholism and drug addiction are the most common causes of this type of shoplifting.

They make the morally wrong decision to help themselves, in the hope that they will not get caught by retail security assistants.

In addition, people dealing with mental health problems (who may or may not also have addiction issues) may be motivated to pocket or put into their own shopping bags some specific products or groceries in the full knowledge that it is wrong to then deliberately leave a store without paying.

Who are professional shoplifters?

Professional shoplifters are usually working in teams and they usually have a premeditated system of removing baskets or rails of products from specifically selected stores which is often well planned and coordinated by a criminal gang in advance. The Guardian quotes Sharon White (Retail giant John Lewis CEO until this year) describing “shoplifting to order”. (1)

These large-scale organised attacks on an outlets latest stock displays can significantly affect a retailer’s profit margin for that section of the store for that month or season. This is in addition to the stress and shock that retail assistants may experience dealing with a surprise mob handed invasion into their public workplace.

What is internal theft?

Internal theft is when employees take stock or money from a business that they work for. This is not the same as shoplifting by the public, although it does financially harm a business.  Companies have many systems in place to detect and limit internal theft as it can be very damaging to a company and its culture.

At we have personally worked with retail businesses who have fired both male and female full-time employees for taking stock (and selling it on eBay) and ‘having their fingers in the till. It is never ever right to steal. However, it is particularly sad when the motivation to take from their employer is explained by the desire to top up their low wages, pay for the basic bills and housing and attempt to achieve a basic standard of modern family living.

Retail assistants work long hours over seven days a week and see the customers in their store appear to enjoy a good standard of living effortlessly, with money left over to spend on some extra luxuries. Unfortunately, a very small percentage of workers can then be tempted into becoming dishonest employees by stealing from their employer.

What do companies do to prevent shoplifting?

Increasingly sophisticated techniques are employed by retailers to make it difficult for would be thieves to leave a shop without paying for items in their bags, prams, trolleys or about their person. Initial staff training is combined with the latest in Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) that can film thieves as they take things and leave a store without paying. This can then provide evidence in prosecuting those who break the law.

Security tagging items on everything from vitamins and baby food, designer suits and the latest gadgets can help to alert employees to things that go out of the door which are not paid for. Most retailers are looking to save on personnel costs as they try and bounce back after covid lockdowns and energy hikes affecting their bottom lines. Providing enough staff to consistently oversee all shoppers in a large display area is financially difficult for many supermarkets and boutiques to accomplish at all times, during their long opening hours.

Deceptive and quick fingered shoplifters often take advantage of an ‘empty showroom’ situation. If thieves are working in teams, they can use simple distraction techniques to take a shop team member’s eye of the sales floor for long enough to quickly and slyly remove many costly treats from the shop selling floor.

There are some practical actions that retailers can take in the way they design their stores and stack their produce and luxury goods that makes it more difficult for shoplifters to find cosy spots to take stock unseen. For example: arranging garment hangers to make it more difficult for bad actors to swoop in and grab an armful of the latest garments, can be time well spent by clever visual merchandisers.

Great communication between the police, high street security teams and shop keepers in a local area can make a real difference and deters would be gangs and repeated offenders from bothering to try to go shopping without paying in that locality. Formally banning specific unwanted customers with legal letters is a good way of minimising ongoing problems. These nationwide store bans can work well for deterring some persistent shoplifters from opportunistic stealing.

Why does shoplifting matter?

“British Retail Consortium estimates that retail crime costs businesses £1.7 billion last year.” (1)

Every resident in England and Wales unintentionally pays a premium on their everyday shopping to absorb the cost of stolen stock loss. Each item taken without permission has to be accounted for and factored into the profit and loss figures for the business’s financial year.

The retail selling prices that the shops sell their wares for now and in the next financial quarter need to include extra fees to cover the cost price of purchasing more stock to replace the pieces that are stolen. In addition, the extra money needed for providing a premises and/or warehouse facility (which includes government taxes like ‘rates’) for selling any merchandise that does go missing through the act of shoplifting, has to be accounted for in the expense section of an organisation’s financial figures.

Physical stock loss due to theft affects every business that has commercial displays where the customer hand selects the things they wish to purchase in any public supermarket or boutique. The Guardian have reported that the Co-op admitted that police only attended about two in every ten incidents of shoplifting. Shoplifting incidents are not isolated cases that happen rarely. The Co-op stated that its food business lost £33 million in the first six months of 2023. (2)

Sky news reported warnings from retail executives in October 2023 that “shop looting perpetuated by prolific offenders and organised criminal gangs “is becoming genuinely one of the most significant issues facing UK communities”. (3)

At the end of this year the United Kingdom will vote in the upcoming General Election to decide which party they would like to be in power for the next five years. Reducing crime and delivering justice is bound to be an important issue for citizens to consider, as they choose which party is in charge next year.

Voters will decide which politicians they think will be able to create an action plan, fund and lead the criminal justice system and police forces to be able to reduce shoplifting and crime experienced by shop workers and customers. Shoplifting is a problem that increases costs for everyone during an ongoing cost of living crisis and it is time that social and security services, financial resources and technology are adequately allocated in order to irradicate this unwanted criminal activity currently imbedded in our communities. (4)

Coming soon: more articles about UK retail crime and what can be done about it this season.


(1) ‘Shoplifting rate in England and Wales hits highest level in more than 20 years.’ Jack Simpson, The Guardian, 25 Jan 2024 ‘Shoplifting rate in England and Wales hits highest level in more than 20 years.’ Jack Simpson, The Guardian

(2) ‘Shoplifting up 25% in the past year’ Henry Vaughan, Sky News, 19 October 2023 ‘Shoplifting up 25% in the past year’ Henry Vaughan, Sky News

(3) ‘Co-op stores take £33m hit in just six months as shoplifting cases surge’ Connor Sephton, business reporter, Sky News, 21 September 2023 ‘Co-op stores take £33m hit in just six months as shoplifting cases surge’ Connor Sephton, business reporter, Sky News

(4) ‘General Elections’ UK Parliament website, 22 March 2024 General Elections’ UK Parliament website

(5) ‘Crime in England and Wales: year ending September 2023’ Office for National Statistics, 25 January 2024 (6) ‘Crime in England and Wales: year ending September 2023’ Office for National Statistics