Retail co-ops put on a united front as store thefts continue to rise

‘We’re working closely together. We’ve all seen the same issues and broadly I think we’re all responding in similar ways’

In the UK and across Europe high inflation has led to a surge in food theft – a situation made worse in some places with gangs sending thieves into stores to sweep goods in bulk from shelves. 

According to the Office of National Statistics, shoplifting in England and Wales alone rose by 22% in the year to September. And a report by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) found that £953m was lost to customer theft, with eight million cases in the 2021-2022 period. 

In July BRC wrote to mayors and police and crime commissioners across the UK to ask them to do more to protect retail workers, and urged the UK government to improve reporting around the amendment, to better understand its impact.

Within the retail co-op movement, the crisis has shown the benefits of principle 6, co-operation among co-operatives, with a common front when it comes to lobbying and the sharing of information and best practice.

A spokesperson for Midcounties Co-op said: “We’re working closely together. We’ve all seen the same issues and broadly I think we’re all responding in similar ways. Midcounties Co-operative has seen incidents of retail crime in our food stores and travel branches increase by 50% over the last 12 months, and there is a similar pattern across the other co-op societies.

“This is despite significant investment from all retail co-operatives in measures to help prevent criminal activity and protect colleagues. Measures include headsets for store colleagues, body-worn cameras, increased uniformed guarding and store detectives as well as state-of-the-art CCTV systems, and a central monitoring service that allows store colleagues who need support to alert a monitoring centre, providing support remotely and contacting the police.”

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

Many co-ops are also investing in the National Business Crime Solution Platform, the spokesperson added. This is a solution-based approach to business crime that aims to support retail teams through enhanced local police engagement, improved investigation traction, increased offender intelligence for stores and security operatives as well as visibility of incident reporting and analysis.

Co-ops are also working directly with police forces and local stakeholders to ensure that tackling retail crime is prioritised – a campaign which has been stepped up after a freedom of information request from the Co-op Group found out that police failed to respond to 71% of serious retail crimes reported.

The top priority for co-ops, said the Midcounties spokesperson, is protecting colleagues, offering training and equipment, and a zero tolerance approach to offenders. Protecting stores and stock is also a key focus, followed by liaison with police to devise an effective response to the problem. And there are projects to rehabilitate persistent offenders. 

Retail co-ops are working with the wider grocery sector, too, through bodies such as the BRC, the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS), and the shop workers’ union Usdaw. Several co-ops contributed to the ACS’s Evidence for Action report on crime for 2023, launched at Parliament in June. 

There will be a flurry of activity for Respect for Shop Workers week, which starts on 13 November, but with the problem continuing on a daily basis the response is a constant, evolving one. The Co-op Group alone has spent £200m on extra security measures, with CEO Shirine Khoury-Haq and food MD Matt Hood “passionate” about the need to solve the issue, said a Group spokesperson. “It’s something that our colleagues feel very strongly about, they have worked hard to stock the shelves and make a store look nice, and it feels like they are being robbed themselves.” 

Sometimes store workers know persistent offenders by face or even name.

The latest in the raft of innovations from retail co-ops was announced last month, when the Group extended its trial of anti-theft ‘dummy display packaging’ for targeted products on its shelves. The move aims to “deter rising levels of crime driven by prolific and persistent offenders and, local organised criminal gangs”.

The packaging will be used across higher-value products such as coffee, washing powder and laundry gel. Shoppers take the dummy display case to the till to exchange for the product.

Kate Graham, director of operations at the Group, said: “Crime in many communities is increasing, and it is known that repeat and prolific offenders and local organised criminal gangs are driving serious incidents of brazen and violent theft in stores.

“It is an ongoing challenge for all retailers, and often a flashpoint for attacks and abuse towards our colleagues. 

“We also need the police to play their part, as too often, forces fail to respond to desperate calls by our store teams and criminals operate in communities without any fear of consequences.”

Retail co-ops in other countries are introducing similar measures. In Switzerland, where 19,781 supermarket thefts were recorded in 2022, up 20% from 2021, Coop and Migros are implementing a range of security measures.

In December, Migros started installing barriers where shoppers must scan a receipt to leave a store. Both Migros and Coop have cameras and in-store security personnel. Not all measures were popular with customers – Migros was criticised for storing video footage of customers for several weeks or months as part of a process to recognise customers who have stolen from the store in the past. 

In Spain, retail co-op Eroski introduced Veesion Artificial Intelligence cameras to detect ‘suspicious actions’ and alert security. The same technology is also used by French co-operative retailer Leclerc. The use of this technology is, however, problematic, with some campaigners questioning the legality of biometric surveillance. Similar concerns were expressed by privacy and civil liberties campaigners over the UK’s Southern Co-op’s use of live facial recognition surveillance. 

In France, figures from the Ministry of Interior show supermarket theft rose 14% from 2021 to 2022. In response to the increased theft of loose fruit and veg, BioCoop, which brings together more than 600 organic stores, introduced random unexpected weighings at the checkout, to stop customers wrongly labelling products to pay less than they should.