Co-op Group urges ten-point plan to tackle record levels of retail crime

The retailer is calling on MPs to back a change to the law making attacks on store workers a stand-alone offence

A new report from the Co-op Group sets out a ten-point plan to tackle retail crime – which hit record levels at its stores in 2023, rising 44% to more than 330,000 incidents.

Commissioned by the Group and written by Emmeline Taylor, professor of criminology at City, University of London, the report recommends making attacks on a shopworker a stand-alone offence. An amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill is soon to be debated in Parliament and the Group is calling on its 57,000 colleagues, and five million member-owners to write to their MP to back it.

The report, Stealing with Impunity, also recommends an independent advisor or oversight board be put in place to support the “large amount of activity at national and local level to tackle the rise in retail crime and associated offending”.

Figures in the report point to shocking levels of crime, with 1,000 incidents of shoplifting, abuse, violence and anti-social behaviour every day across across its 2,400 stores.   

There were more than 1,325 physical assaults against store workers in 2023 (up 34%) - the equivalent of three or four Group colleagues attacked or assaulted every day .

The Group also reports more than 40,000 incidents of anti-social behaviour and abuse (up 37%).

Related: Co-op Group urges police action as it marks Respect for Retail Workers Week

This is despite the retailer introducing over £200m of preventative measures over recent years.

Last year saw the launch of the Retail Crime Action Plan, and the Group says there have since been “green shoots of improvement” in police response rates.

Specially trained undercover guards detained 3,361 criminals in Group stores during 2023, but, says the retailer, this often failed to result in police action. Earlier this year, the Group reported that police failed to attend in 79% of incidents where a criminal had been detained, “creating a dangerous, intimidating and threatening environment in communities”.

But since the introduction of the Retail Crime Action Plan, the non-attendance rate has improved to 38%, says the Group – but, it warns: “With two-in-five detained criminals still walking away, it continues to send a message that this is a consequence-less crime“.

The report calls on police and crime commissioners to commit to developing a strategy to tackle prolific retail crime, and also recommends that performance indicators be build into the Retail Crime Action Plan.

Other recommendations include adding a ‘retail flag’ to the crime database so police can monitor changes in frequency and severity of crimes.

And – with evidence showing that a lot of retail crime is driven by organised gang activity – the report wants action to takcle the stolen goods markets. “The placing of more attention on those who knowingly benefit from the theft of goods and criminal exploitation must form a central pillar of any retail crime strategy,” it adds. There should also be tougher regulation of e-commerce sites and online marketplaces to prevent the sale of stolen goods, says the report.

Alongside the call for attacks on retail workers to be made a standalone offence, the report wants specialist Intensive Supervision Courts introduced for retail crime, “to identify the underlying factors that are driving prolific local offenders and ensure that intense treatment interventions and links to wider support services are tailored to offenders’ needs”. This would involve “more intense probation supervision, and a system of incentives and sanctions to encourage compliance”.

The report also calls for tougher sentencing, with a presumption against custodial sentences of less than six months. “The proven reoffending rate for adults released from custodial sentences of less than or equal to six months is currently 57%,” it says. “Short custodial sentences are particularly ineffective because they can remove any prosocial factors in an offender’s life and yet are not long enough to begin any meaningful programmes or rehabilitation work.”

With the new report, the Group says it hopes “to foster a refreshed, honest and collaborative approach between the retail industry, police, and broader criminal justice system, and build on the advancements seen”.

The study “illustrates how retail crime spreads and grows when left unchecked and is all too often dismissed as a petty and victimless crime despite its far-reaching societal impacts,” adds the Group. “It discusses the extensive UK stolen goods market whereby small local businesses or markets buy stolen products to either sell on or serve up for profit, while outlining the prevalence of stolen goods being offered for sale on increasingly popular online community marketplaces.“

With an estimated 70% of shop theft committed by frequent users of Class A drugs who are stealing to fund an addiction, the crimes they commit “become more volatile, desperate, and potentially violent”, the Group warns. “These repeat offenders steal persistently, at volume, and the report suggests that effectively tackling this group of repeat offenders will have a large impact on reducing retail crime, and its pervasive impact on society.  ”

The retailer adds: “In addition to the impact on the mental and physical wellbeing of retail workers, societal impacts of career criminals include: proceeds of retail theft fuelling the drugs and, other illicit, trades; contributing to the criminal exploitation of vulnerable adults and children; destroying the high street and creating ‘food deserts’; blighting communities and, limiting employment opportunities. ”

Related: Co-op Group adds its stores to crime centre’s safe space scheme

Matt Hood, MD at Co-op Food, said: “We are seeing far too many prolific offenders persistently steal large volumes of products, in our shops every day, and, if they are stealing to fund addictions, the situation often becomes volatile and dangerous. Crime is an occupation for some – it is not petty crime, and it is not victimless. 

“It is imperative MPs don’t turn their backs on shopworkers, and vote through the amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill to give my colleagues the protection they deserve. Taking on board Professor Taylor’s recommendations, with a collaborative approach between the retail industry, the police, and the government, will send out a loud and clear message to all those who commit brazen and violent acts of theft that time is now up on their criminal ways.”  

Prof Taylor said: “Retail crime not only impacts on a business’s ability to operate safely and profitably but as my report demonstrates it also causes serious harm to shop workers, both physically and mentally, and to communities that are blighted by persistent offending.

“The police in England and Wales have lost grip on the scale and severity of acquisitive crime, and, in turn, retailers have lost confidence in them and the wider criminal justice system. My report sets out ten actionable recommendations to turn the tide on the current tsunami of shop theft. By taking decisive action to tackle high-volume, high-impact retail crime, the police and retail industry can work together to create safer communities in which to live, work and shop.”   

Paddy Lillis, Usdaw general secretary, added: “Retail crime is not victimless and has long been a major flashpoint for violence and abuse against shopworkers. Having to deal with repeated and persistent offenders can cause anxiety, fear and in some cases physical harm to retail workers.

“It was deeply disappointing that the government have no measures in their legislative programme to tackle high levels of retail crime and safeguard shopworkers. Labour is seeking to amend the Criminal Justice Bill to strengthen the law to protect shopworkers from violence, threats and abuse. We urge Tory MPs and ministers to end their long-held opposition to a protection of shopworkers law, which has already exists in Scotland and has led to over 500 convictions.” 

The Group has also repeatedly argued that where clear co-operation with police forces exist, and there is commitment and leadership, crime “is a solvable issue”. It has partnerships with a number of forces, such as Nottinghamshire, Essex and Sussex, who, in the past 12 months, removed and managed 110 prolific offenders, with a combined 30 years of custodial sentences and a further 60 years’ worth of Criminal Behaviour Orders (CBO) given. Also 16 offenders received some form of rehabilitation order.   

The retailer says it has invested more than £200m over recent years in colleague and store safety and security, this includes the latest interactive CCTV; body-worn cameras – which the Group has used since 2019 to capture real time audio and visual footage at the touch of a button which is sent to its Security Operation Centre; rolling out more fortified kiosks; use of dummy (or empty) packaging to deter bulk-theft and covert and non-covert guarding, with the tactical use of specially trained guards able to detain criminals. 

Click here for the Group’s media release with a link to the Stealing With Impunity report