Pitiful penalties for shoplifters are driving c-store operators to despair. Andrew Don reports

Well, it's only a £2 slab of cheese, a policeman once told Mark Cleary, owner of Cleary's six north Manchester-based Spar stores, after he reported a shoplifter. It's a commonplace attitude.
But it soon adds up. Mark reports that he has had one particular shoplifter who has stolen about £6,000-worth of goods a year for the past 10 years. He adds: "There's a pub near me that sells more of my products than I do."
Costcutter says that along with razors, coffee and bacon, cheese is one of the items most commonly stolen from its stores.
Spokesman Graham Hey says: "We have been told by some of our retailers that cheese is perceived to help drugs kick in faster. This may be wrong, but once they have this in their heads, the druggies will steal it."
Research by the Sentencing Advisory Panel (SAP), published in August, found that just 10 national retail companies accounted for 40% of the shoplifters taken to court, and 82% of offences were against major multiple retailers. Food accounted for 20% of goods stolen and alcohol 14%. Thirty-four per cent of offences involved goods that were valued at £25 or less.
Only 5% of the offences were committed by those with no previous convictions. The most common penalty was community service (32%), followed by absolute and conditional discharges (27%) and custody (26%).
The panel is now suggesting in a consultation paper that those caught stealing goods worth less than £200 should not receive a custodial sentence where there is no accompanying violence or physical damage and no children used.
The Association of Convenience Stores fears SAP's proposal "is totally the wrong message and will hinder the fight against crime".
SAP secretary Lesley Dix says the proposal is not set in stone and it is consulting until November 21.
"We are trying to define levels of seriousness. It is the single offender and very little value to the goods and no previous convictions that we are talking about. If someone has stolen a bottle of gin and it is a first offence, the harm is low."
When C-Store tells Dix that it is the cumulative effect of lots of thefts that causes harm to a business, whether the perpetrators are first-timers or not, she replies: "Do you sentence an individual more harshly just because there are lots of others doing the same thing?"
The industry believes, yes, you should. After all, the cost can be huge. According to the latest figures from the Retail Crime Survey, published last month by the British Retail Consortium, the number of shoplifting offences has risen by a staggering 70% since 2000, while 56% of convenience retailers have experienced an increase in shoplifting over the past 12 months.
Costcutter estimates shoplifting can account for 5-15% of turnover, depending on location, and the average value of each item stolen is £1.50. Individual shops can lose hundreds of pounds each week in this way.
To the police, though, individual cases of shoplifting are often too small to worry about. Costcutter's Hey says that in some cases the police don't do anything at all. "In one particular store we have a big problem with Polish people shoplifting. The shoplifters pretend not to speak English and so the police tend not to bother."
Hey complains that when shoplifters are prosecuted, the sentences are too lenient and fail to act as a deterrent. "The same people blatantly steal things over and over again.
"I attended a store launch last year with another member of staff. The first person to enter was a man whom the other Costcutter member of staff had found guilty of theft while serving on jury duty a month before.
"The man was sentenced to three months in prison, yet was out in four weeks or less, free to steal again."
Hey says the crime has to be pretty bad before prison is considered. "We hear of people with 30-plus convictions still not being sent to prison."
Peter Sykes, managing director of Colin Sykes Foodstores in Liverpool, says the average value of items stolen tends to be £2/£3 packs of coffee, cheese or bacon, 50p/£1 snacks, £5 nappies and £2.50 baby wipes. He reports serious incidents to the police, but he usually only gets a good response if the perpetrators are potentially violent.
"I have recently experienced the issuing of on-the-spot £80 fines, which is stupid. These people can't afford to pay the fines so steal again to pay them off."
Peter believes that most offenders are old hands and the local police usually know them. He says it is usual for a report to be made after an incident, but not for it to result in an arrest. "Instead, the offender is identified by us and the report sits on their file until the next time the police bump into the offender. Then all cases reported will be thrown
at them."
Peter says that when shoplifters are prosecuted he is "very rarely" satisfied with the result.
Pursuing offenders privately through the courts is not feasible for small operators, but it is for the major supermarkets which have their own legal teams.
The cost of shoplifting to Gilletts, a 41-strong South-West Spar chain, is estimated to be £150,000 a year plus £30,000 on top from its own staff. Sales director Mark Gillett says SAP's proposals are a carte blanche invitation to shoplifters to carry on. "It makes a mockery of the system."
He adds that the police are also frustrated by lenient sentences. "It doesn't encourage them to come into our store and stop a shoplifter."
As it stands, the system does little to discourage potential shoplifters and, as Mark suggests, hardly inspires the police to take it seriously. It certainly appears that there is a consensus in the industry that it would be crazy to go any further down the road towards making life easier for shoplifters. The SAP would be well advised to take note of these views from the front line.

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