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Thursday, July 14, 2005 

The old five-finger discount.

I've often been suspicious of retailers' almost imaginary made up figures for how much they lose to shoplifters. One study quotes that as a whole they lose £3 billion pounds each year. While these should be taken with more than a grain of salt, seeing as the main research agency counts as clients almost all every big retailer in Britain you can name, the study they released yesterday is certainly interesting.

The study reveals that significantly more men than women are jailed for shoplifting and thefts by staff, and that the offenders are predominantly older, more organised and frequently steal higher-value goods to order.

The research by the Centre for Retail Research (CRR) at Nottingham University also shows that theft by staff, unlike shoplifting, is on the increase in the UK. While staff theft accounts for far fewer losses than theft by shoppers, the sums stolen per offence are higher, averaging £816 for women and £919 for men.


I've often felt that staff theft is a much bigger problem than the stores will ever own up to, and that instead they blame it on the stereotypical Vicky Pollards of this world. While not going all the way to prove this, the study is certainly more eye-opening than the typical rant against shoplifters.

One of the little known facts is that most major stores now operate a civil recovery system. If a person gets caught trying to steal, as well as being reported to the police, they are sent a demand from a very friendly company (warning: link leads to a very ugly flash site) who demands money in compensation, otherwise they will pursue the offender through the courts. In the letter they warn that if they fail to comply then higher costs will inevitably arise. A lot of people would, and do instantly cave in. As the retail research site mentions, the money demanded usually amounts to between £60 and £150.

Let's take a second to just figure all this out. Companies such as Tesco, who last year made a profit of £2 billion and who have reported sales growth of 14.6% in the first quarter of this year are demanding money in recompense from often the most vulnerable in society, those who are stealing to sell items for their drug addiction, to the extremely impoverished, and the mentally ill. We're not talking piffling sums here, we're talking up to £150. That's more than double what the average person on income support in the UK gets a week. This is on top of the charges police may bring against the offender, who faces the possibility of a hefty fine, a community order or jail.

The fact is that a lot of police forces in the country now don't regard shoplifting as a major offence, and they don't bother to haul the majority of first time offenders through the courts. Instead, they usually put them through a course where they attend the police station and meet the managers from a local store, and hear their side of the story. This kind of punishment is of course not good enough for the average Daily Mail reader, or of course the likes of Tesco. Hence, the civil recovery scheme. If the police won't punish the offenders properly, they jolly well will.

The issue of stealing by staff can be linked to the low wages that Tesco and co pay. It's usually just above the minimum wage, which at the moment is £4.85, which is not a living wage. Socialists and others have long campaigned for the wage to be at least made £6, if not higher. The government does seem to be at least going in this direction, with increases made irregularly, usually once every 6 months at the moment.

Civil recovery is regarded as a success. Obviously for the likes of Tesco, whose motto is "every little helps", it certainly does. At the general election, the Liberal Democrats made a call for women to not be sent to jail for shoplifting. It was rejected by Labour. I'd go one further. No one should be sent to jail for shoplifting. All it does is increases the cycle of imprisonment and offence. Imprisonment usually results in the offender losing their home, their job and their friends, if they had any in the first place. With little after prison care provided, you can guess what they do as soon as they are released and the small amount of money they are given runs out. If anything, offenders should be made to work in the stores where they offend and give back to the community. Hell, I'd even be prepared to allow the employers to tag them and search them when they leave work to make sure they don't steal while they are working. At the moment no other solution is working.

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