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Stores fight back against the scourge of retail crime

The recession has led to a wave of robberies and shoplifting, which costs about £2bn a year, reports James Thompson

Anyone wandering past Watches of Switzerland, the upmarket watch retailer, on London's Oxford Street before the shop opens in the morning will notice there are no products on display in its window. After a spate of increasingly bold and often violent robberies in the West End over recent years – including last week's raid on Graff Diamonds where two criminals used guns and latex face masks – this is the one of the most basic precautions a retailer can take. However such measures rarely deter hard-core criminals, particularly during a recession, when retail crime spikes.

A British Retail Consortium (BRC) survey last month found that more than 90 per cent of retailers reported crime had risen over the last 12 months; more than four-fifths said the recession was the reason.

In fact, some store groups have felt compelled to invest in installing highly sophisticated, almost James Bond-esque security.

Aurum Holdings, the company behind the retail jewellers Mappin & Webb, Goldsmiths and Watches of Switzerland, has deployed a smoke-screen system at more than 40 of its high-risk stores' window displays. It fills the shop and its windows with a security fog within seconds of a break-in. Justin Stead, the chief executive of Aurum Holdings, believes its £200,000 investment in the Concept Smoke Screen has already paid off, given the minimal losses it has suffered in two incidents since the technology was installed.

The BRC says the total cost of retail crime, including costs for stolen goods, vandalism and measures from CCTV to security guards, is about £2bn a year. "It is significant in financial terms. There is very often abuse, violence and murder involved when retail staff intervene to try to prevent retail crime. That very real human aspect should not be forgotten," says a spokesman.

Few subjects evoke such fury among retailers, and shoplifters are a massive bugbear. One senior boss at a major fashion retailer has spoken of chasing criminals down London's Oxford Street to try to retrieve stolen stock, despite the fact they may have a knife or other weapon.

In fact, the recession has led to a step change in the type of shoplifting activities and those committing it.

The BRC spokesman says: "In the past, most shoplifting has been driven by people stealing small and high-value items that they can sell, often to fund drug habits. During the recession, there is a bigger range of items being stolen, such as more mundane food-based thefts including cheese, chicken and frozen meat, which would appear to be things that people will use for themselves."

A Tesco store in Brockworth, Gloucester, put metal security tags on items including cheese and steak this year, after despairing at light-fingered shoppers, but this is not a company-wide policy.

Joshua Bamfield, a professor at the Centre for Retail Research, which publishes the Global Retail Theft Barometer each year, says the number of shoplifting incidents has increased by 10 percent over the past 12 months, adding that while the profile of the average shoplifter is unchanged, other social demographics have made an appearance.

"The average shoplifter is 14 to 25 years old, but there has been an increase in people who don't fit the normal type of shoplifter. There has been an increase in middle class shoplifters, but the bigger picture is about more gangs and a lot more amateurs doing it," says Mr Bamfield.

Another key factor behind the rise in retail crime is that some retailers have cut back on their security spending, says Professor Bamfield.

"The recession is one factor, but retailers have also cut back on security somewhat because most of them are less profitable than they were last year and they cannot afford to spend as much," he said, adding that security guards are one of the first areas to be trimmed back.

Proposals floated by the Government's Sentencing Advisory Panel in 2006 that considered replacing prison sentences with on-the-spot fines and community orders for even the most persistent offenders caused outrage in the sector. But these proposals never came to fruition, and the Government says it has been anything but a soft touch on criminals.

A Home Office spokesman said: "Since 1997, it is a fact that more, not fewer, shoplifters have gone to jail."

In 1997, just 12 per cent of those convicted of theft from a shop were sentenced to prison, but by 2007 the figure had increased to 18 per cent.

And last month, Jack Straw, the Secretary of State for Justice, reaffirmed guidance on the £80 fixed-penalty notices that the police can issue to first-time offenders for minor retail theft, if the thieves are not misusing drugs and where the value of goods stolen is less than £100.

But many retailers feel that the sentences handed down to hard-core perpetrators of retail crime do not go far enough. Mr Stead says: "From a legal side, there has to be tougher penalties. These people have to be put away for extended periods of time."

However, as the BRC says, retail crime is a problem that has to be tackled by retailers, the police and local councils working together. Mr Stead is keen to praise the support the retailer has received from the Metropolitan Police recently. "We are getting so much more information from the Met, and they have really engaged and put the drive into arresting the problem." At the end of last year, he recalls, Watches of Switzerland was informed that a raid on its store in Knightsbridge was imminent; the police camped above its shop for five days. When the raid actually occurred, the police swooped in within seconds and took the matter into their own hands.

Maybe, finally, those outside the retail sector – where the average weekly wage for staff, including part-timers, is a meagre £276.20 – are starting to treat retail crime for what it is: unadulterated criminal activity. As Mr Stead says, this kind of crime "is often very rapid and is an emotional and traumatic experience for our staff."