Co-op Group sounds the alarm as store crime hits record levels

The retailer warns that some areas could become a no-go area for stores if offending rates continue to rise

Retail crime has surged to record levels with repeat offenders and criminal gangs operating exempt from consequences, according to figures from the Co-op  Group.  

The retailer says crime, shoplifting and anti-social behaviour have jumped 35% year-on-year, with more than 175,000 incidents recorded in the first six months of 2023 – almost 1,000 incidents every day.

With one inner city London store targeted three times in a single day, the Group warns that crime levels are out of control and  is unsustainable – and could see some communities become a no-go area for local stores. 

It has called on police forces and crime commissioners to target prolific offenders and local organised criminal gangs.  

Reports show that almost two-thirds (63%) of crime is driven by repeat and prolific offenders, with drug or alcohol addictions and local organised criminal gangs among the main drivers of offending.

But a Freedom of Information request from the Group found that police failed to respond in 71% of serious retail crimes reported.

The retailer also revealed that front-line store workers had seen physical assaults increase year-on-year by 30%and, anti-social behaviour and verbal abuse rising by 20%.

Matt Hood, managing director at Co-op Food, said: “I have seen some horrific incidents of brazen and violent theft in our stores, where my store colleagues feel scared and threatened. I see first-hand how this criminal behaviour also erodes the very fabric of our communities. Co-op has invested significantly in keeping colleagues and stores safe, but we need the police to play their part.”

The call for action was backed by the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS)   and store workers’ union Usdaw. 

James Lowman,  CEO of ACS, said: “The police have to face up to theft, violence and anti-social behaviour in and around shops. Cracking down on the criminals who account for the majority of this crime would be the most effective way to make our communities safer.”

Paddy Lillis, Usdaw general secretary, said: “Added to this Co-op report is a 24% uplift in official police recorded incidents of shoplifting. This is very concerning for our members in retail, because shoplifting is not a victimless crime. Theft from shops has long been a major flashpoint for violence and abuse against shopworkers.”

The Group is working closely with a number of police forces including Nottinghamshire, where this year 17 prolific offenders have been removed from the streets, with a combined 5.6 years of custodial sentences, and a further 13 repeat offenders given a Criminal Behaviour Order (CBO) or rehabilitation.

Inspector Oliver Vale of Nottinghamshire Police said: “The collaborative work has provided us with a fantastic opportunity to identify those not only committing the most harm in our retail communities but to our communities as a whole. Retail crime is something we recognise within Nottinghamshire Police as being an issue that needs to be proactively tackled but we cannot do this alone and the information sharing model that Op Synergy has developed has allowed for us to collaboratively secure significant convictions and prohibitive orders on some of our most prolific retail offenders by working with the Co-op.”

The Group has invested more than £200m in recent years in colleague and community safety. It uses a wide range of targeted measures to deter criminal behaviour, including CCTV, body-worn cameras; communication headsets for frontline colleagues and security guards.

The retailer also successfully campaigned – alongside the independent retail co-ops, the Co-op Party and the wider retail sector – for stricter sentencing in law for violence against retail workers through its Safer Colleagues, Safer Communities campaign – with the new law introduced in Scotland in August 2021, and England and Wales the following May. 

This joined-up approach has seen continued efforts across the retail co-op movement.

Central Co-op, for example, has run listening sessions with Alex Norris MP and colleagues, and has heavily focussed on investment to protect colleagues. Central CEO Debbie Robinson spoke on this at the 2021 Co-op Congress.

And Midcounties CEO, Phil Ponsonby, has held discussions with the Police and Crime Commissioner of the West Midlands, the CEO of ACS and senior Usdaw officials to ensure police response is appropriate and there is zero tolerance for attacks on colleagues.