Faced with an annual shoplifting bill of more than pounds 2bn, the retailers are determined to recoup some of their losses by importing a civil recovery scheme used in the US.
A UK version, backed by Asda, Boots, Marks and Spencer and some smaller chains, is being tested in the West Midlands and Kent. It is expected to be established nationally by next summer.
The "fines" imposed under the scheme, which range from pounds 50 to pounds 140 depending on the offence, will be used to pay for in-store security, with a proportion going to projects to help young offenders.
Figures show that of the 800,000 shoplifters apprehended last year, only 65,000 appeared in court and only 4,000 went to prison. The aim of the scheme, which is being run by a company called Retail Loss Recovery, is to reduce losses by up to 15 per cent.
On conviction, shoplifters are sent a solicitor's letter outlining the compensation demand. If it is ignored, the store then sends out two further demands stating that the criminal will be taken to court if they do not pay.
Those who are under 16, over 65 or who have mental health problems are exempt from any compensation demands but there is no test on ability to pay.
That has alarmed Citizens Advice Bureaux which say the scheme is already hitting the very poor.
In one case a CAB was contacted by a woman on income support from Gravesham in Kent who had been convicted and fined pounds 50 by a court for stealing goods worth just over pounds 10. Asda then asked for pounds 140 compensation towards administration and processing costs incurred by the store. In another case, a woman on incapacity benefit from Macclesfield in Cheshire was asked for pounds 50 compensation by United Norwest Co-operatives despite the fact the stolen goods, valued at under pounds 10, never left the store.
But a spokeswoman for Asda defended the scheme. "We take shoplifting very seriously," she said. "This is very much about deterring thieves, not getting money, and the money we receive goes to a trust which helps young offenders."Reuse content