According to the latest British Crime Survey, 320,846 incidents of shoplifting were reported to the police in 2008/09, a 10% increase on the previous year. The term Credit Crunch Crime Wave was coined by politicians who believed that those struggling to make ends meet were turning to shoplifting.
It's not just government statistics that highlighted the problem. A recent survey by consultancy Simply Business revealed that 47% of retailers experienced an increase in shoplifting over the past year. Managing director of Simply Business Tony Deacon says that this rise is causing serious hassle for retailers. "Nearly half of all retailers have experienced an upsurge in shoplifting and this is having a major impact on their ability to stay profitable and remain in business."
While it is easy to blame the economic downturn for the increase, what's hard is to see what's being done about the epidemic and what retailers can do to reduce it.
Earlier this year, the Home Office unveiled a £5m grants scheme to help retailers fight crime in stores. However, this was available in only 50 locations throughout the UK and there was a limited time frame to apply. The retailers who did beat the September 30 deadline were able to apply for grants of up to £3,000 or apply with neighbouring businesses for £50,000 grant. The grant was to be used for adding security features such as a CCTV system, an alarm system or dye packs for products and tills.
One retailer who jumped on this offer was Paul Cheema. He and the rest of his family who run Malcolm's Store, a Costcutter in Coventry, decided that their shop needed more protection.
"If the grant application is approved, we hope to use the money for a CCTV system that will let us view the store remotely so we can keep an eye on it even when we're at home," says Paul.
The Cheemas were forced to up their security measures following a rise in shoplifting in their store in 2008. According to Paul, drug users were the main perpetrators, stealing expensive items like coffee, toiletries, cheese and bacon to the tune of £300 a week.
"We had kids and elderly people committing some petty theft, but it was drug users who were doing most of the shoplifting," he adds. "And you can't confront them as they might have a knife or a needle, and that's just not worth it."
Shoplifters recognised the staffing patterns of the store and knew when the family were at their most vulnerable. "We changed the rota for a few weeks and at some periods there was only one person in the store," says Paul. "It took only two or three weeks for them to realise this and once the word spread, they came from miles around as they thought the store was an easy target."
Paul explains that if a couple of shoplifters entered the store at the same time, it was impossible for the staff member on duty to serve customers, manage the store and watch out for suspicious behaviour. The situation came to a head in March this year when a cigarette delivery was stolen. Luckily for the family, it fell under the responsibility of the delivery company, but if they had signed for it before the robbery they would have been down to the tune of £7,000-worth of stock.
"In the end we had to put more people on duty which, of course, costs us more money," says Paul. "We managed to cut down on stock being stolen but at a cost to us. This is something the government should be looking at as retailers are losing out to protect their businesses."
Paul adds that even though the local police are usually helpful, he is sometimes left waiting for someone to help if there is a problem. "The Police Community Support Officers pass by the store quite regularly and usually drop in on a daily basis, but there have been occasions when it's taken up to a day later for them to respond to a call."
He urges other retailers to keep their eyes peeled in order to catch shoplifters. "I would advise anyone who is undergoing the same problem to be more vigilant," he says. "Spend more time on the shop floor. It's all well and good having a decent CCTV system. but if you're not there looking after your business then it will get out of hand."
The Cheemas also advise others to rearrange their stock to curb thieves. "We brought the tea and coffee displays closer to the till so we could keep an eye on them and did the same for the toiletries," says Paul. "There's still a problem when it comes to bacon and cheese as we can't move the entire fridge, but hopefully the new camera system will help put an end to the stealing."
While retailers such as the Cheemas are doing their bit to stop shoplifting on the front line, there is still major contention over the issue of penalties for the offence. Currently the worst thing most people caught shoplifting face is a Penalty Notice for Disorder (PND), which results in an £80 fine.
This fine is seen as too lenient and both the Met Commissioner and the Magistrate's Association have gone on record to say that a PND is not an effective punishment for shoplifting and that the sentencing process needs to be examined.
Also fighting retailers' corner is Conservative MP Anne McIntosh. Earlier this year she tabled an Early Day Motion for harsher penalties for shoplifters and although it missed its Second Reading window in Parliament before the summer break on two occasions, she's not giving up the fight.
Another Second Reading has been scheduled for the end of this month and in it McIntosh is calling for a national database of offenders to be compiled so that police know who is a first-time offender and who is a habitual offender.
She wants those who are continually shoplifting from stores to face harsher penalties rather than just face a fixed penalty notice.
"The government introduced fixed penalty notices to provide justice on the cheap," says McIntosh. "Shoplifting costs retailers in the UK over £1bn per year. These small businesses are the rock of the UK economy, and more should be done to prevent shoplifting in the first instance and punish offenders."
Justice secretary Jack Straw has taken some of McIntosh's suggestions on board - such as limiting PNDs to first-time offenders and when the value of goods stolen is less than £100. Also drug users will not be issued a PND for shoplifting and will instead face a court appearance.
However, the government's failure to introduce a national database to register the incidents has been criticised by McIntosh.
"A national database would help the police locate repeat offenders and prevent them from committing thefts in many different constabularies," she says. "Habitual criminals should be referred to the court system or be issued with a community sentence."
Another area of shoplifting that McIntosh is attempting to tackle is the non-payment of fines. Government statistics show that of the 45,146 penalty notices for shoplifting that were handed out in 2007 (the latest year for which figures are available), only 24,344 were actually paid. She believes that criminals don't take PNDs seriously and calls for changes in how they are issued. "I would want to see the PND issued in a police station to emphasise the seriousness of the crime committed," she adds.
It seems the government still has a long way to go when it comes to enforcing shoplifting penalties. In the meantime, retailers are forced to continue doing what they can to protect their businesses from a growing problem.