The Co-op is installing in its supermarkets more than 200 secure till kiosks, locked cabinets for bottles of spirits and AI technology to monitor self-checkouts after a 44% surge in retail crime last year to about 1,000 incidents a day.
The grocery retailer, which has more than 2,400 stores across the UK, said its undercover security guards detained 3,361 individuals across its stores last year for a range of offences including burglary, abuse and harassment, amid a surge in physical assaults on its staff.
Despite spending £200m on new security measures, including additional guards and a roving undercover team targeting crime hotspots, the supermarket group suffered a 48% rise in shoplifting incidents to almost 298,000.
Matt Hood, the managing director of the Co-op’s food business, said: “This is not a few opportunistic shoplifters becoming more prolific. This is organised crime and looting.”
He said that in some stores, staff face as many as two or three incidents a week of thieves jumping the till counter to steal alcohol, cigarettes and lottery cards.
He said such stores were rendered unprofitable until new security measures, such as reinforced till kiosks with secure doors, were introduced. Hood said the Co-op was not using facial recognition systems, unlike a number of other major chains.
He has joined other major retail bosses in calling for a new specific crime of attacking a retail worker as two-in-five of those detained by the chain’s guards still walk away as police had failed to attend an incident.
“People who are really organised can only be stopped by custodial sentences and the police. We need it to have consequences,” he said.
“The thing that concerns me more than anything is that we have colleagues who won’t bother to report [incidents] as they know they are not going to get a reaction.
“If you have detained somebody that has committed a crime and the police don’t turn up, you have to let them go. You can imagine how demotivating that is for people working in the shop and how motivating [it is] for shoplifters.”
The Co-op has highlighted that where serious incidents are prioritised, and there is cooperation with the police, the problem can be tackled.
Forces such as Essex, Nottinghamshire and Sussex last year worked with the Co-op to manage the arrest of 110 prolific offenders, leading to a combined 30 years of custodial sentences and a further 60 years’ worth of criminal behaviour orders. In addition, 16 offenders received some form of rehabilitation order.
Hood said: “Unless these crimes become something police act on, this will continue. It has been proved in Scotland that if you make it a specific crime to attack a shopworker, incidents come down. We need that to happen in England.”
Labour proposed an amendment to the criminal justice bill currently working its way through parliament that would have made the assault of a retail worker a specific criminal offence, carrying a sentence of 12 months behind bars or a fine of up to £10,000.
The government voted against the move, with the policing minister, Chris Philp, saying it could lead to a problem of “equity between retail workers and other public-facing workers”.
Paddy Lillis, the general secretary of Usdaw, the shopworkers’ union, said: “Having to deal with repeated and persistent offenders can cause anxiety, fear and – in some cases – physical harm to retail workers.
“It was deeply disappointing that the government have no measures in their legislative programme to tackle high levels of retail crime and safeguard shopworkers. Labour is seeking to amend the criminal justice bill to strengthen the law to protect shopworkers from violence, threats and abuse.
“We urge Tory MPs and ministers to end their long-held opposition to a protection of shopworkers law, which already exists in Scotland and has led to over 500 convictions.”
Hood said he had seen “early signs of progress” from the government’s retail crime action plan published in October, which includes a police commitment to prioritise attending shoplifting instances involving violence against a shopworker or where security guards have detained an offender.
The plan also involves the more controversial Project Pegasus under which 10 of the country’s biggest retailers, including Marks & Spencer, Boots and Primark, are handing over CCTV images to the police, to be run through databases using facial recognition technology in an effort to identify prolific or potentially dangerous individuals.
Some experts argue that technology such as self-checkouts and the display of expensive goods on shelves, rather than behind counters served by staff, have contributed to the problems.