Violent shop theft in the US: what does it mean for UK retail security?

At the end of last year, Target reported losses due to shrinkage of $400 million against its gross profit. That covers only three quarters of the year, with forecasts suggesting an even bigger loss for the entire fiscal year.

As most retailers are only too aware, theft is a large part of stock shrinkage. Other US giants like Walmart are issuing stark warnings of rising theft leading to increased prices and store closures. If loss prevention is losing the battle, will customers end up footing the bill?

What can we learn from US trends?

Reports suggest that shoplifting has more than doubled across America from 0.7-1% (before the COVID pandemic) to around 2-3% of total sales. What effect would losing 2-3% of sales have on your margins?

Loss of stock and erosion of profit is bad enough, but that’s not the only issue. In 2021, incidents of organised retail crime increased by 26.5% (as reported by the National Retail Security Survey 2022). Alarmingly, nearly two thirds of retailers surveyed by the National Retail Federation said that violence associated with shop theft had increased and it seems to be linked to organised gangs.

There seems to be a perfect storm of factors creating an opportunity that criminals have been quick to seize on:

  • labour shortages, leaving shops understaffed
  • increasing the dollar value at which shoplifting becomes a felony
  • COVID-19 masks, so criminals can cover their faces without raising suspicion
  • more opportunities to resell stolen goods anonymously online

There are reports of armed gangs entering en masse to grab high value equipment and walking out the front door. Where stores are short-staffed, they have little hope of intimidating an organised gang. Armed security staff may seem an obvious solution, but in practice it simply escalates the violence.

These smash and grab stories tend to get more attention, but are probably relatively rare. Another approach is for a gang to pay individuals to steal items up to the state felony limit. That may sound a lot less lucrative, but in many states you can now steal up to $1000 of property without being charged for a felony. Where shops are understaffed, they’re an easy target for petty thieves.

And violence plays a part here too. Most stores won’t even try to stop armed shoplifters, making this an easy win. With a big enough network of petty shoplifters, it would be easy enough to amass stolen goods to resell online for a tidy profit.

If patterns of shoplifting are changing, loss prevention needs to step up. Relying on staff to intimidate or overpower shoplifters is no longer enough.

What does this mean for the UK?

While not all the factors above apply in the UK, there are signs of similar shifts in store theft. The COVID-19 pandemic has seen an increase in antisocial behaviour towards shop staff and, while guns are less of a problem in the UK, shoplifters can and do use other weapons.

In 2021, the Co-op group recorded over 400 incidents where weapons were used against shop workers, according to the Retail Gazette, with a whopping 50% involving knives, syringes or glass bottles. This has, understandably, led to calls for greater protection for shop workers with a heavy responsibility resting on employers to ensure safety for their staff.

Many UK retailers are also preparing for increases in shoplifting as the cost of living crisis bites harder. In 2022, supermarket chain Tesco announced extra security tags on food and an increase in security staff presence. Other big names like Primark and Boots have joined calls to police for more support as reports show shoplifting increased by 21% in the 12 months leading to March 2022.

It’s not hard to see how pressures on the cost of living, staff shortages and shifting norms around antisocial behaviour could open up UK retail to organised retail crime, while simultaneously driving away in-store shoppers.

Three fresh approaches for in-store loss prevention

Body worn cameras – these are cameras worn on the head or chest that capture images and videos of what’s happening. Unlike CCTV, they also capture speech, which may be suitable for use as evidence. Use of body worn camera can also act as a deterrent, as most individuals are less likely to engage in violent acts if they know their actions are being recorded.

Crime deterrent spray – In 2021, Co-op security staff started using handheld sprays that dispense invisible paint that is very difficult to remove and shows up under UV light. The benefit here is that an offender can be identified later and, again, this can provide evidence. They’re intended primarily as a deterrent and trials have shown they do work to calm potentially violent incidents.

The Concept Tag – It’s clear that deterrence is the top strategy and when you persuade thieves it’s not worth their time trying your stores, you stop the problem before it even starts. That’s where the Concept Tag comes in. The patented tag detacher is a powered mechanical releaser (not magnetic) making the tags virtually impossible to remove. By being so undefeatable, it removes all incentive for both opportunists and organised groups to target your stores.

For full transparency: clearly, we believe our Concept Tag technology is the best solution or why else would we be investing our time in manufacturing and supplying it? Don’t take our word for it, though. We can point to trials with John Lewis & Partners, Footasylum and others where Concept Tag was proven to reduce shoplifting by at least 50%.

We know we have a powerful answer to loss prevention: get in touch to find out how Concept Tag could work for you, to decrease losses and the risk of violence in your stores.

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