Terence Blacker: Supermarkets on a shoplifting spree

They claim to represent choice while eliminating from towns the butcher, chemist and bookshop
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The news that the latest police initiative against shoplifting in East Anglian supermarkets involves the deployment of cardboard cut-out policemen has prompted some predictably unhelpful comments. Given the speed and dynamism of the local force, some people have said, shoppers will be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the two-dimensional policemen and the old-fashioned breathing type.

Clearly, that is unfair. My hunch is that the plan, soon to be in operation at retail outlets in Beccles, Halesworth and Southwold, has a good chance of discouraging the more light-fingered of their customers. Up north, another hi-tech crime-busting scheme, which involved parking cardboard patrol cars at a fuel station along the M6, significantly reduced the number of customers who filled up and drove off without paying.

Those who steal from shops are fairly low down the criminal food chain. When I was briefly a local hero among shoplifters (I was arrested in Somerfield for carrying a newspaper without a receipt and went public with my outrage), I discovered that, as a profession, they are rather less than brilliant. The thief with whom I was confused would patrol the local supermarkets with a large, empty bag into which he dropped his booty in the full view of CCTV cameras. When my story came out, he rang me offering me an exclusive interview and was outraged by my lack of interest.

Now we are all being encouraged to unite against this sort of anti-social behaviour, and the arrival of PC Cardboard Cut-Out should probably be applauded. There is a lot of theft from supermarkets - the chief executive of Somerfield wrote a heartbreaking letter to me about the problem - and real, live police have their hands full dealing with binge-drinkers, heckling pensioners and the rest of the Respect agenda.

But what an eloquent and depressing portrait of early 21st-century Britain the initiative provides. In grim, brightly lit cathedrals to Capitalism, dead-eyed shoppers search blearily for the week's special offers to the accompaniment of a musak version of "Yesterday" and the plaintive beep of electronic scanners checking bar-codes at the check-out tills. And there, between "Ready-Made Meals" and "Nuts and Nibbles", will now be the beaming, immobile figure of a fake policeman, surveying the scene with a smile which strikes the perfect balance between chumminess and admonition.

One day, just possibly, it will occur to some bright spark in government that there is a connection between the shopping-mall culture, in which people are treated as consumer units to be kept as pacified as possible, and the anti-social behaviour of some individuals.

For, although it does not involve slipping goods into the inside pockets of an overcoat, there is a systematic dishonesty at work in many supermarket chains. They claim to be offering jobs to local communities, but fail to mention how many jobs their arrival in a new area destroys. They announce that they have the support of communities when often new stores are opened in the face of opposition. They claim to represent choice while eliminating from small towns not only the butcher and greengrocer, but the chemist, the bookshop and, sooner or later, the post office.

As for the safety issue, Robert Sturdy, an MEP for the Eastern region, surely has a point when he argues that when the giant shop chains buy their chicken at the lowest possible prices from Asia, they are rewarding lower standards of hygiene than exist in the EU and increasing the risk of the spread of avian flu.

These firms have both economic and, because the Labour Government has a deep affection for them, political power. But there is a straightforward and pleasurable way to counteract their growing power, and that is to regard shopping as a political act. By supporting, whenever possible, independent shops in preference to multinationals, a consumer strikes a small but important blow for civilised values, for local businesses, for individuality in a corporate age.

In his own inimitable way, Alan Bennett has recently provided an example of positive action against the power of big business. After his much-loved local shop was forced into liquidation by the large bookshop chains, he advised those who wanted to buy his new book, Untold Stories, to boycott Waterstone's, Sainsbury's, Amazon and others, and to pay extra at an independent shop.

The disappearance of bookshops will make a whole street duller, Bennett said, and his words could be applied to other local stores. The miracle is that, once one moves away from the convenience approach to buying things, shopping becomes less of a chore, even a pleasure. By avoiding supermarkets, one steps off a treadmill of functional consumerism, and back into the normal, human world.

That personal gesture for independence, a vote for individuality in the face of bland, sinister homogeneity, is worth the occasional sacrifice of convenience. The alternative, after all, is a gradual, dispiriting slide towards a world in which it is not only PC Cardboard Cut-Out who is a lifeless imitation of the real thing.