Almost 90 retail leaders, including the bosses of Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Boots and WH Smith, have written to the government demanding action on rising retail crime, in which violent criminals are “emptying stores”.
The retailers, who also include the bosses of Aldi, Primark and Superdrug, call for the creation of a new UK-wide aggravated offence of assaulting or abusing a retail worker – as already exists in Scotland – which would carry tougher sentences and require police to record all incidents of retail crime and allow the allocation of more resources.
“The police consistently tell us that a lack of data about these offences means they have no visibility about the nature or scale of the issue,” the letter says.
The 88 retail bosses have asked for a meeting with the home secretary, Suella Braverman, to discuss the issue after a meeting with the minister for crime, Chris Philp, led to the promise to develop an action plan.
The call comes after retailers, including the Co-op and John Lewis, highlighted what they said was a worsening issue. A survey of members of the British Retail Consortium (BRC), which represents all the major chains, found levels of shoplifting in 10 of the biggest cities had risen by an average of 27% this year.
Meanwhile, the police’s own data for one major retailer shows that forces failed to respond to 73% of serious retail crimes that were reported, while 44% of retailers in the BRC’s annual crime survey rated the police response as “poor” or “very poor”.
Helen Dickinson, the chief executive of the BRC, which helped organise the letter to Braverman, said: “It is vital that action is taken before the scourge of retail crime gets any worse. We are seeing organised gangs threatening staff with weapons and emptying stores. We are seeing violence against colleagues who are doing their job and asking for age verification. We are seeing a torrent of abuse aimed at hardworking shop staff. It’s simply unacceptable – no one should have to go to work fearing for their safety. We need government to stand with the millions of retail workers who kept us safe and fed during the pandemic – and support them, as those workers supported us.”
The letter comes after the boss of the Co-op grocery chain said he was frustrated by a lack of action against thieves who cost the business £33m in the first half of 2023.
Matt Hood, the chain’s managing director, said shoplifting was becoming a major issue for UK communities and cited a rise in what he called “shop looting”, where large amounts are stolen by organised gangs.
He argued that the idea that shoplifting was only done by those in real need meant it was seen as a “victimless” crime that was not being properly tackled.
The Co-op has seen crime, shoplifting and antisocial behaviour jump 35% year on year, with more than 175,000 incidents recorded in the first six months of this year – or almost 1,000 incidents every day.
While historically thieves have targeted certain products, such as cigarettes, he said they were now stealing all kinds of items from confectionery to meat and health and beauty products.
Some experts argue that technology such as self-checkouts and the display of expensive goods on shelves, rather than behind counters served by staff, have contributed to the problems.
The fashion and homewares retailer Next’s boss, Simon Wolfson, also said he had seen a rise in shoplifting which had hit profit margins by 0.2%. That came after John Lewis said it had suffered a £12m year-on-year increase in theft with its chair, Sharon White, calling shoplifting an “epidemic”.