Stashing six bottles of wine into a bag, a man wearing a dark jacket and beanie heads straight to the store exit without paying, barging by a female shop worker who blocks his way and only stopping when her colleague overpowers him just outside the doorway.
For the supermarket’s owner, Richard Inglis, the early morning fracas — captured on CCTV — was the day’s first attempted theft but was unlikely to be the last.
“I’ll probably have another three or four today,” Mr. Inglis said, adding that, while trying to stop shoplifters, he and his staff members had been punched, kicked, bitten, spat at, threatened with needles, racially abused and attacked with bottles. “It’s like the Wild West out there at the moment.”
Britain is seeing a surge in theft from its stores at the hands, stores say, of opportunistic shoplifters, marauding teenagers, people stealing to finance drug use and organized gangs intent on looting.
According to official figures, shoplifting incidents recorded by the police rose by 25 percent in the year ending June 2023, and Co-op, a British supermarket chain with about 2,400 stores, recorded its highest ever levels of theft and aggressive behavior, with almost 1,000 incidents each day in the six months to June 2023, a 35 percent spike from the previous year. One of its stores was “looted” three times in one day, it said in a news release.
Some statistical comparisons reflect increases after the pandemic, when crime rates fell, but a survey by the British Retail Consortium, a trade body, concluded that incidents including racial and sexual abuse, physical assault and threats with weapons rose from the pre-Covid high of over 450 per day in 2019-20, to more than 850 per day in 2021-22. Theft exceeded pre-Covid levels with about eight million thefts costing retailers almost one billion pounds, it added.
With growing evidence of the cost of theft, the government announced a plan this week to tackle shoplifting in partnership with retailers, who have become increasingly vocal.
The chairman of the Asda supermarket chain, Stuart Rose, said shoplifting had effectively been “decriminalized” by lack of police enforcement. James Lowman, chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores, which represents smaller retailers, said that “repeat offenders and organized criminals are targeting local shops to steal goods to resell.”
The crime wave has unfolded as Britain’s sluggish economy suffers rampant inflation. Police statistics don’t address shoplifters’ motives, but the increase in theft has incited debate among academics about the root causes: Do they lie in poverty and surging food prices, a failure to tackle drugs, homelessness and other social ills, or a decline in behavior toward store workers dating from the pandemic? Some supermarket bosses believe theft has been legitimized in the minds of some by accusations that supermarkets have profiteered from food price increases. Others think that self-service checkouts offer too much temptation to steal.
“I would say there is a perfect storm of different issues that have now coalesced to a point where the level of shop theft that we are seeing is astronomical,” said Emmeline Taylor, professor of criminology at City, University of London. “It’s an epidemic. We used to think about a theft being a daily occurrence, maybe weekly; this is every minute of every day in city-center stores.”
Professor Taylor said that years of cuts to drug rehabilitation projects, mental health support and other programs had left supermarkets on the front line of a growing social crisis, with inadequate support from law enforcement.
“Overwhelmingly, the police do not respond and have allowed this to escalate to the point where, I would say, theft has been decriminalized,” she said.
In a statement, Chief Constable Amanda Blakeman, lead for acquisitive crime for the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said that the police “take any incident of violence incredibly seriously, and will prioritize our response where there is a risk to individuals.”
Each department, she said, has its own response model that considers the threat, risk and harm of every call.
“In some cases, there may not be enough information for police to act upon or bring about criminal proceedings,” she said, and for these types of offenses, the police focus on “targeting prolific offenders, organized crime networks, and ensuring effective prevention measures are in place.”
That is of limited comfort to Mr. Inglis, 44, who says that, on a busy day, he and his 33 workers in three Welcome stores — a franchise of Southern Co-op — face as many as 10 shoplifting incidents. That morning’s theft attempt, which would be logged with the police, ended with the culprit walking away, but without the £65, or roughly $79, of wine he had taken.
Confronting shoplifters has limited losses to around £300, or roughly $365, a week, Mr. Inglis said, though it can backfire. When a group of teenagers who took candy were challenged, one of them kicked down a door, leaving a repair bill much greater than the value of the items.
Groups of youngsters can be unpredictable. “Some will almost fight you to the death over a Mars bar,” Mr. Inglis said.
Like other stores, his supermarket, which is close to the Southampton railway station, has invested in security and has 56 CCTV cameras. Alcohol is stocked far from the exit and some other goods often targeted by shoplifters, like washing detergent, are close to areas where staff members are stationed. Just two or three packets of coffee are stocked on shelves at a time to limit what can be stolen in one attempt.
Like many retailers, Mr. Inglis does not think most shoplifters are reacting to inflation or stealing out of a need to feed themselves, and sees drug-related crime as a much bigger factor.
But he does date the origin of the recent surge in theft to the pandemic.
“We definitely got the frontline frustration of people and we got that anger,” he said. “I don’t think it has subsided, and I do think there are a certain number of people who have lost their politeness.”
In Birmingham, Pak Pharmacy, a smaller retailer, tried a novel tactic to recover stolen items: displaying CCTV images of shoplifters on what he called a “wall of shame” inside the store.
“It was very effective,” said Whasuf Farooq, who until recently ran the Pak Pharmacy. “Everyone local was seeing it, grown adults were being told by their parents to go back and pay for items, some of them 23, 24 years old.”
But across Britain, shop workers are facing risks that few associated with their jobs just a few years ago.
Raja Sani, 41, who works at one of Mr. Inglis’s stores in Southampton, said that aggression and violence were now common and that he experienced “a lot of racial abuse from many shoplifters.”
On one occasion a customer threw a milkshake over him. On another, when he tried to prevent the theft of a bottle of wine, he was bitten on the arm, suffering an injury that required stitches and hospital treatment.
When he walks home, Mr. Sani sometimes feels anxious, fearing that he is being followed by someone who threatened him earlier.
In Bournemouth, also on England’s southern coast, one violent incident began almost comically, when Charlene Sweet, team leader at a Co-op store, saw a shoplifter had hidden a hot pastry in his pants.
Asked to leave the store, the man grabbed cider and another alcoholic beverage worth £6.70 and, when Ms. Sweet tried to bar his way, she was hit over the head with one of the bottles and left with a bleeding gash several centimeters long.
Since she was attacked in June, the supermarket has employed security guards but Ms. Sweet, 28, has felt anxious when challenging shoplifters — in one case she was left shaking and needed to take a break. “I don’t think I had realized the impact it was going to have on me,” she said.
That underscores the unwelcome dilemma facing many British store workers: How far should they go to stop the daily theft of items, sometimes worth just a few pounds?
“I ask myself: Why did I step inside of this?” Ms. Sweet said. “And what if I had really angered this guy? What if he had hit me harder? What if I was a bit more unfortunate?”