Shop thieves are wising up to penalties

07 March, 2008

the industry needs to remember shoplifting, says Nigel Huddleston

With all the current fuss concerning under-age purchases and antisocial behaviour, shoplifting is fast becoming a forgotten crime.

Noises coming from government that store theft should no longer be dealt with by anything more than an £80 fixed penalty notice - except in the most extreme cases - have left some in the trade feeling that offenders have essentially been given the green light to carry on thieving.

But evidence suggests that the introduction of fixed -penalty notices for first -time offenders has done little to deter would-be shoplifters.

Figures from the British Retail Consortium for 2006 showed the recorded number of customer thefts per 100 retail outlets had risen by 3 per cent to just short of 4,000,

But the Home Office says police figures for England and Wales for 2006/7 recorded 294,304 instances of shoplifting - "a number that had no statistical difference from the previous year".

The BRC figures show that the total cost of customer theft was up 9 per cent to £205 million - and that's just the incidents that are detected . The average value of goods stolen in any one incident was £156, up from £149 in 2005.

Fixing a punishment

The BRC says that many (perhaps the majority) are drug users stealing to fund their habit, and the Home Office says around three-quarters of crack and heroin users admit to committing crimes to buy drugs.

Incidents of physical violence against shop staff were 50 per cent ahead of 2005 levels, according to the BRC figures, while threats of violence more than doubled.

Sue Dixon, head of security at Thresher, says specific records of shoplifting incidents within the group aren't kept, but there's evidence that thieves are becoming more aggressive in their approach.

"People are becoming more desperate. Especially with all the measures the industry has successfully put in place - on such things as under-age purchases - then shoplifting is becoming another avenue for them to obtain what they want."

And she adds: "There's a perception that they're not going to get caught, and if they are caught they're going to get nothing more than a slap on the wrists."

Since 2004, the police have been able - and indeed encouraged - to issue fixed -penalty notices - for incidents of shoplifting where the value of the goods were under £200, a threshold well above the average shoplifting haul.

Fixed-penalty notices are supposed to be issued only to first -time offenders and with the victim's consent, but the Sentencing Guidelines Council is in the process of reviewing those guidelines.

Justice Minister Jack Straw last week outlined pilot projects involving unpaid work, mentoring and electronic tagging as alternatives to custody, in a bid to ease pressure on space in the nation's prisons.

He suggested these should be for those on sentences of less than 12 months . The maximum magistrates can hand out for shoplifting, even for persistent offenders, is six months.

Whether this policy will embrace shoplifting or the SGC recommends a move to a wider use of fixed -penalty notices remains to be seen.

The Association of Convenience Stores supported the idea of fixed -penalty notices on their introduction in 2004, but says they have not had the desired effect on shop crime, making their wider introduction unpalatable.

It cites figures from the Ministry of Justice that show only 41 per cent of the 39,000 penalty notices issued for shop thefts in 2006 (up 75 per cent on 2005) were paid in full.

Taking initiative

Shane Brennan, public affairs and communications manager at the ACS, said: "Initially, we were in favour of them, but with caution, and only if they were for first -time offenders and that the retail outlet concerned was consulted and their view was taken seriously, so that if they had a zero -tolerance policy they could insist it went to court.

"There's enough anecdotal evidence to suggest those two things aren't happening," says Brennan.

"The problem is the government, and in particular the police, depending where they are, dipping in and out."

Dixon at Thresher said the apparent failure of fixed -penalty notices to deter store theft shouldn't be blamed on the police, saying that they were "over-resourced and not supported by the law".

Until they are, it seems retailers will have to do more to fight the problem on their own.

One step ahead

Thresher uses "benefit denial" bottle tags and "beer coffins" as deterrents to theft, and advises staff under no circumstances to "have a go".

"Our advice is to absolutely not put yourself at risk," she says. "Losing a bottle of wine isn't the end of the world," she adds.

The Home Office has completely abandoned the retail trade on this issue. A National Retail Crime Steering Group including the BRC, ACS, Federation of Small Businesses and larger retailers, was set up only last year.

Minister Vernon Coaker sa ys the government "takes it extremely seriously", but its remit puts the emphasis on crime prevention rather than apprehending perpetrators.

But no matter how tough the crime prevention measures are, criminals are usually one step ahead. Organised shoplifting gangs in London and Glasgow are using signal jammers to immobilise radio-based security tags.

If it pays the thieves to shell out for equipment like that, what effect will an £80 fine have?

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