October 18, 2011 5:12 am

UK retailers hit with record £4.9bn in theft

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Shoplifting, employee theft and error have cost UK retailers an estimated £4.9bn in the past year, the highest figure ever recorded, as worsening economic conditions fuel rising levels of crime in the retail sector.

In the year to June 30, losses relating to theft, fraud and error in the UK retail sector increased by 6.2 per cent, according to the Global Retail Theft Barometer.

Nearly 44 per cent of the estimated £4.9bn ($7.7bn) losses relate to shoplifting, with employee theft accounting for just over 36 per cent of the total.

Administrative errors, such as the computer glitch which caused Tesco to sell hundreds of Terry’s Chocolate Oranges for 29p, made up 12 per cent of the losses, with supplier fraud accounting for the remainder.

The items most likely to be stolen in the UK are fashion accessories, fresh meat and men’s shaving products, prompting companies to spend an estimated £1bn in the same period on prevention methods ranging from security tagging to anonymous whistleblower helplines, where staff can report light-fingered colleagues.

“Criminologists talk about a triangle of factors involved in shoplifting; need, opportunity and consequences,” said Neil Matthews, vice-president of Checkpoint Systems, the retail security consultancy which publishes the annual survey. “In the current economic climate, the need is certainly greater, there’s plenty of opportunity to steal products, and the consequences are not that harsh.”

“Teenage clothing generally is a high-risk area, and sought-after fashion items are generally stolen for personal use,” said Mr Matthews, noting that branded sports wear was one of the biggest targets in looting after the UK summer riots.

Although staff theft accounts for over a third of total losses, Mr Matthews said that compared with shoplifting, it was being carried out “by a smaller number of people, who tend to steal much more by value”.

“A lot of losses occur at the checkout, as the result of collusion with friends, but sometimes it may even be the store management who are involved in thefts,” he said. “Many retailers have introduced whistleblower lines for anonymous tip-offs in the past few years.” Others have established loss prevention teams, which analyse and investigate stores losing above average amounts of stock.

Shoplifters of the world also have varying tastes in stolen goods. Americans are the most likely to steal sweets and chocolates, Latin America has the highest numbers of theft of infant formula milk, and Southern Europeans are more likely to steal high-value cheese, such as Parmesan, than any other nationality.

“The survey reflects trends that we are aware of,” said a spokeswoman for the British Retail Consortium. “Retailers are reducing opportunistic levels of shoplifting, but there is a hard core of shoplifters who are stealing for more organised reasons and manage to get away with higher value goods.”

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