Shoplifting soars as economic hardships fuels desperation

Aug 07, 2023
Theft from retail stores in NSW has spiked by 38 per cent over the past two years. Source: Getty

It seems we are in the midst of another worldwide pandemic.

This time it’s a shoplifting pandemic.

Unfortunately, Australia is not immune. Figures here show that shoplifting is rising dramatically as money gets tighter in tough economic times and people get more and more desperate by the day.

In England, the Tory Government this week said the problem was so bad there that it would start to build more prisons to house shoplifters – if necessary.

In the 12 months to March, police recorded 339,206 cases of shoplifting in England.

Only 14 per cent of the cases investigated by police resulted in anyone being charged.

According to the British Retail Consortium, shoplifting costs shop owners close to one billion pounds a year. The BRC also suggests that the police figures were a gross underestimation of actual shoplifting numbers.

Until now, shoplifters were unlikely to ever receive a custodial sentence. In fact, if they were unlucky enough to get caught at all, then the most they would get was a slap on the wrist.

Now though, it’s been suggested that a “three strikes” policy be introduced. In other words, if you are caught shoplifting three times you automatically go to jail.

Over the border in Scotland, it is much worse.

According to the Scottish Grocers Federation, 98 per cent of convenience store owners deal with thefts on a daily basis. It also says that shop workers are constantly being verbally and physically abused if they try to intervene in a robbery.

“Shoplifting is now essentially a pandemic which neither Police Scotland nor the judicial system is dealing with anywhere near adequately,” the federation’s annual retail crime report.

According to the New York Post, shoplifting costs a mind-boggling $100 billion a year in America.

More and more large firms are citing shoplifting as having a dramatic effect on their day-to-day ability to do business.

Retailer Target said it expected to lose half a billion dollars to theft this year. Stores like Walmart are locking products, some as cheap as $10, behind glass cases to make it harder for shoplifters.

Whole Foods and several other large chains have said they plan to stop doing business at all in San Francisco, a once glamorous tourist destination, because shoplifting and associated crime were unable to be curbed. 

A rise in homelessness, America’s inability to deal with an out-of-control drug culture, and low successful policing rates for shoplifting, seem to be driving the pandemic across the states.

California seems to be one of the worst-hit states. Most experts say that is a direct result of legislation that reclassified theft as a misdemeanour if the stolen goods totalled less than $950.

Everyone knows the law and steals accordingly.

One brazen thief was caught on camera using his iPhone to calculate the value of the goods he was stealing to make sure they didn’t go over the $950 level.

A small store – Dale Hardware in Fremont California – reportedly lost $700,000 in goods to shoplifters in 2022.

Store workers, too scared to confront robbers, say people sometimes walk out of the store with a shopping trolley full of stolen goods. To combat thieves, the store owners put expensive stuff on higher shelves. That didn’t work. Robbers used extendable tools, from the store, to reach up, and knock the goods down, before exiting the store with their bounty.

Clothing brand Lululemon made headlines a few weeks back when it sacked two of its staff who tried to stop shoplifters at the company’s Peachtree Corners store in Georgia.

The company has a policy that demands its staff not intervene if someone is stealing. “In this particular case, we have a zero-tolerance policy that we train our educators on around engaging during a theft. Why? Because we put the safety of our team and of our guests front and centre,” Lululemon CEO Calvin McDonald told CNBC. “It’s only merchandise.”

Rightly so.

It is not worth risking your life to stop someone from stealing a $149 softstreme turtleneck pullover.

Trying to stop theft in a country like America, where so many people carry guns in the first place, is fraught with disaster.

So what’s happening here in Australia?

Theft from retail stores in NSW has spiked by 38 per cent over the past two years. It has surged back to pre-Covid-19 levels.

About 9 per cent of Australians confess to shoplifting regularly from retail stores and 1 in 5 people admit to stealing from supermarkets at self-serve checkouts.

My golfing mate Ron, who is in his 70s, says that Bunnings, Coles and Woolworths gave up the ability to police theft when they stopped staffing their checkouts.

“These stores expect us to serve ourselves. At Coles the other day there was only one checkout person on duty. So it is easy for people to steal if they really want to.

“With prices going up almost every day, people will always be tempted to bypass the checkout with a few products – especially things like steak which costs an arm and a leg these days.’’

New research from Finder backs up Ron’s theory.

The research – a poll of 1100 people – found that one in 10 people admitted to not scanning all their items before leaving the supermarket. Another 10 per cent said they lied about what they had scanned in order to get a better price.

The Australian Retailers Association has said that it is obvious people are working together in an organised system to steal from shops.

Police organisations just don’t have the time, or numbers, to stop this shoplifting pandemic. And that won’t change. They don’t have the numbers to police far more serious crimes, let alone catch someone who steals the odd box of Weetbix.

So, like America and the UK, we can expect shoplifting rates to continue on an upward spiral.

As a result, we can expect prices to keep going up and up.

It’s a vicious cycle.

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