UK's shoplift to order epidemic as county lines-style gangs hit stores

Britain’s shoplift-to-order epidemic: County lines-style gangs hitting stores to steal products and sell them on are ‘being fuelled by people struggling with food bills and high inflation’

Britain’s high streets are enduring a scourge of shoplifting targeted by county lines-style gangs stealing items to order as thefts rise by more than a quarter in a year.

Chain retailers and independent businesses are suffering from a crime epidemic fuelled by people struggling with food bills amid high inflation, experts say.

Small gangs are ‘hitting’ stores in what the British Independent Retailers Association described as ‘stealing to order’ and compared to the county lines issue for drugs.

More businesses are investing in CCTV but many smaller retailers cannot afford security guards and face all of their profits being wiped out by a successful theft.

Reported retail thefts have now risen by 27 per cent across ten of the UK’s largest cities – and were up by 68 per cent in some, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) said.

The trade body added that incidents of violence and abuse against retail staff have nearly doubled from more than 450 per day in 2019/2020 to more than 850 last year – with crimes including racial or sexual abuse, assault and threats with weapons.

JD Sports has been at the eye of the shoplifting storm this month after widely-shared posts on TikTok and Snapchat two weeks ago invited yobs to wear balaclavas and gloves and ‘rob JD Sports’ on Oxford Street at 3pm on a Wednesday afternoon.

Police at JD Sports on Oxford Street in London amid the ‘mass shoplifting event’ on August 9

Other chains such as John Lewis, Waitrose Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Boots are now issuing staff bodycams and training to deter violence from aggressive thieves.

READ MORE Dick’s blames 23% drop in profits on THEFT as chairman predicts ‘grab and go’ crime is going to get worse

Andrew Goodacre, the chief executive of the British Independent Retailers Association, told The Times: ‘We have heard of examples where a small gang has ‘hit’ a place, almost stealing to order.

‘It is not dissimilar to the county line issue for drugs. For the small retailers this level of crime can remove all their profits. Many have invested in CCTV but security guards are out of the question.

‘Criminals need to know that the punishment suits the crime. Retailers in general are frustrated at what they see as slow response times and a lack of punishment for the perpetrators.’

In the 12 months to March, police recorded 339,206 cases of shoplifting – but the BRC estimated the true figure was eight million, costing shops nearly £1billion across the year.

The boss of Co-op has warned retail crime is ‘out of control’ – saying it is recording almost 1,000 incidents every day – and one store was looted three times in one day.

Firms such as JD are suffering from increased ‘shrinkage’ – industry jargon for retail theft – with the issue also now impacting the company’s US peer Dick’s Sporting Goods.

Dick’s shares fell by 25 per cent yesterday amid weak earnings, which had a knock-on effect on JD – currently trying to expand in the US – which saw shares fall 7 per cent.

Police outside a Mango store on Oxford Street on August 9 amid concerns over shoplifting

JD, which has 400 UK stores, has been ramping up its presence across the Atlantic and wants to open up to 600 extra outlets in North America over the next five years.

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The mounting issue was discussed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning amid concerns over theft both from stores and from the staff working there.

Fiona Cincotta, senior market analyst for City Index, said: ‘This is something that seems to have been growing. We’ve seen this organised retail crime.

‘Retail crime has become something much more notable in recent corporate earnings that have been coming out.

‘If you think perhaps behind what’s going on here, we’ve got higher costs, people are struggling with food bills, with being able to feed themselves, being able to buy things as prices go up.

‘So, perhaps, I’m not saying it’s OK by any means, but there is sort of a logic perhaps behind the trend that we’re seeing.’

Following the Oxford Street incident, Home Secretary Suella Braverman warned that the UK must not allow ‘the lawlessness seen in some American cities’.

This comes amid concerns over scenes of casual looting in parts of San Francisco, Chicago, Portland and Los Angeles.

In the US yesterday, Dick’s share price plunged after it revealed poor second-quarter earnings. 

Its chief executive Lauren Hobart said: ‘Organised retail crime and theft in general is an increasingly serious issue impacting many retailers.’

She added that the issue is set to continue, saying: ‘The impact of theft on our shrink was meaningful to both our Q2 (second quarter) results and our go forward expectations for the balance of the year.’

A shoplifter on CCTV at a newsagent in Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent in February 

Security protection on chicken for sale in a Tesco Express store in West Ruislip earlier this year

Dick’s chairman Ed Stack also said: ‘We think we’re doing the best we can to try to curtail it [theft] with the security that we have in the stores, working with local authorities.’

READ MORE Waitrose offers free coffees to on-duty police officers in bid to deter thieves – as long as they bring a re-useable cup

America has also seen a surge in retail theft since the pandemic at pharmacies such as CVS and Walgreens, and department store chain Target – which said earlier this year that the surge in retail theft could cost it $500million (£400million) in profits in 2023.

Among the UK retailers stepping up their approach to deter shoplifters are Waitrose and John Lewis, which is now giving free coffee to police.

The John Lewis Partnership, which owns both brands, is offering on-duty officers free hot drinks and discounted food in-store. 

Dubbed ‘thanks a latte’, the initiative will be available to both police officers and police community support officers.

In John Lewis, hot drinks and cut-price food will be offered through the staff canteen, while at Waitrose coffee will be handed out from machines in branches.

Nicki Juniper, head of security for the John Lewis Partnership, hoped the police presence would put off would-be thieves. 

She said: ‘Having a police car parked outside can make people think twice about shoplifting… or becoming aggressive.’

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