How can technology help beat shoplifters?

08 May 2024, 07:00 AM
  • Retail crime continues to plague British retailers. What reforms are being made, and what innovative solutions are available to provide support?
How can technology help beat shoplifters?

Recent data has shown a concerning rise in shoplifting in the UK as new measures are introduced to protect shop workers from abuse.

Shoplifting offences rose by 37% to more than 430,000 instances of theft for the year ending December 2023, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). 

With almost 1,200 offences a day marking the highest figure on record, the home secretary has urged the police not to view theft in shops as a minor crime. “Crime is crime – it’s black and white. Criminal activity should be policed,” said James Cleverly. “When people see videos of shops being robbed, that has a corrosive effect – so we have to deal with it, which is why we’ve made it absolutely clear they [police] will pursue every reasonable line of inquiry.

“We will make sure that we send a very, very clear message that you don’t just get away with it,” he said.

Not all crime experienced by shop workers involves theft, however. Bira, the British Independent Retailers Association, found in its 2024 retail crime survey, that 35.5% of respondents had experienced verbal abuse in their shops, and nearly 8% had experienced physical attacks, including threats with weapons.

Retail crime has been on the rise because of several factors, including the cost-of-living crisis, the sharing of ‘viral’ events on social media, the increased use of self-service tills and a reduced police presence.

New law set to protect shop workers

Industry groups have welcomed a new law to make assaulting a shop worker a separate criminal offence in both England and Wales. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the law aims to send a clear message to criminals at a time when retail theft and abuse of shop workers are both on the rise. 

Andrew Goodacre, CEO of Bira, said the sector has been crying out for greater protections for retail staff. “For some time, Bira, along with the wider retail sector, has been calling for more protection for people who work in shops. We are delighted with this announcement, especially as we are dealing with a significant increase in retail crime.” 

Under the new law, the offence of assaulting a shop worker will carry a maximum sentence of six months and perpetrators could also receive an unlimited fine, and ban from the premises where the offence was committed. 

Repeat offenders may be forced to wear tags to track their movements, and £50 million is to be spent on facial recognition technology, with dedicated units placed on high street to catch criminals and prevent shoplifting. 

In more serious cases, those found guilty of GBH (grievous bodily harm) will face jail sentences. However, anyone convicted of the new offence would not routinely go to prison. The Sentencing Bill, would mean sentences of 12 months or less would be suspended and served in the community, although a prison sentence could be imposed in exceptional circumstances.

Additional reforms and resources needed

While Bira was “encouraged by the government’s commitment to tackle this unacceptable abuse,” Andrew Goodacre said the figures underscored a need for “real reform and resources to ensure shopkeepers feel protected”.

Indeed, Bira’s own research showed that many incidents experienced by shopkeepers are never reported to the police. Its 2024 retail crime survey found a whopping 66% of those subjected to verbal abuse chose not to report it. For incidents reported to police, 29% said authorities did not even attend the scene. In cases where police did respond, 57% did not lead to prosecution – an increase in non-prosecution levels compared to the trade body’s previous survey.

Physical attacks and threats remain prevalent too, as nearly 8% of shopkeepers said in the report they experienced violence, including being threatened with needles, knives and hammers. Around 70% did not report these incidents to police.

Chain retailers like the Co-op that are facing serious retail crime are beginning to use AI technology to fight back with a more proactive approach. JD Sports even announced a forensic tagging spray that will leave a synthetic DNA and UV marker on stolen property and criminals. 

Independents, too, are more open to the idea of using new technologies to fight crime. “Better technology would make it harder for the perpetrators to do what they want to do and would take pressure off the polices forces,” Andrew said, speaking on Bira’s High Street Matters podcast.

Liam Arderne is the operations and sales director at Facewatch, a company that uses specialist facial recognition technology to help retailers reduce crime. Speaking on the podcast, he said one retailer using the service had cut crime (including staff abuse and assault, theft and vandalism) in their stores by 70%. Facial recognition technology, he said, is a preventative measure, adding, “It’s easier to prevent a crime than to let a theft happen and try to get the items back.”

The tech works by alerting shop owners – whether in stores, cafes or even garden centres – when someone on Facewatch’s watch list enters their store. Within about five seconds, employees will be alerted on a handheld device with a picture, and they can choose whether they need to take any action. People can be on the system for theft, fraud, assault and more, Liam said.

Elsewhere, companies like Veesion offer AI-powered surveillance systems that can be plugged into existing cameras to spot suspicious movements. One London-based retailer told Convenience Store the technology has helped them to report shoplifting much more accurately and efficiently and to stop 15 shoplifters in just two weeks. What’s more, the tech also reduced staff stress.

Users of Facewatch also reported that staff felt safer and morale improved.

The tech can be used by retailers of any size, but Bira’s Andrew notes the cost of systems like these can be “a lot of money for small businesses,” so it’s important they calculate the cost against how much stock they are losing. “If they believe it can reduce the amount of crime that takes place…there is a trade off.”

Andrew noted that the West of England has made a fund available for retailers to apply for a grant for technology to fight shoplifting, like CCTV or other surveillance systems. He said he would like to see similar action taken elsewhere in the UK, or even on a national level. “This is in the government’s interest,” he said.

Speaking at the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers’s (Usdaw) annual conference, Labour leader Sir Kier Starmer pledged to do more. He said his government would crack down on shoplifting and retail crime, boosting neighbourhood police numbers by 13,000 and reversing a rule that means the theft of goods under £200 are not investigated. Shockingly, in over 248,000 shoplifting cases last year, no suspect was found or further action was considered not to be in the public interest. “If Labour takes power, we won’t stand by while crime takes over our streets,” he said.

“Nobody in Britain should be in any doubt about the scale of the crime wave on our high streets at the moment. The epidemic levels of shoplifting and the persistent plague of antisocial behaviour,” Sir Kier said. “Some people call this type of crime ‘petty’. But they don’t work in your shop. They don’t walk in your shoes. Don’t see the damage this does to your community.”

If retail crime isn’t enough of a problem for a retailer to invest potentially thousands of pounds into new technologies, Andrew suggests that those who still want to take action can rethink their product displays – ensuring that pricey products are not easy to grab – and work together with other shops in their area, for example forming WhatsApp groups where one business can alert others if known perpetrators are in the area. “No one shop is isolated from this crime,” he said.

While fine food retailers are not the stereotypical victims of retail crime, as Andrew says, no shop is immune. If your business has been affected by retail crime and you’d like to get in touch to share your experiences with Speciality Food, contact

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