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The supermarket that holds you in: Britain’s shoplifting epidemic prompts retailers to take drastic measures

Shoplifting was up by more than a quarter in Britain as inflation ran rampant this year

The first time I went to the local Sainsbury’s supermarket near my house in southwest London, I got stuck there.

Like all supermarkets, it had a large self-service checkout area where customers scanned their own items in an automated process. I did as I have been conditioned to do, scanned and paid for my shopping, and made for home. I didn’t get far.

I met a swing barrier just inside the exit doors near the checkouts. It was the type of supermarket swing gate that normally flings open automatically to welcome you upon entry. But this one wasn’t letting me out. It was rigid. I was momentarily confused. Was the gate faulty? Did its sensors not detect my approach? Is there a button I should press?

I could not find a button. Conscious of the line of people now forming behind me at the exit, I dropped my shopping over what I assumed was a broken automatic swing gate and went to vault it. Big mistake. Like shadowy death eaters from a Harry Potter scene, Sainsbury’s staff appeared from nowhere to intercept me.


The swing gate was, unbeknown to me, actually a receipt barrier. To exit the self-service area, you had to scan your receipt on a reader on the gate, which then allowed you out. Sainsbury’s physically kept you inside the shop until you proved that you had paid. There was no other way to exit the checkouts unless you played along.

Cheeks flaming, I rooted through my shopping bags for the receipt, which by now was just one of a load of scrunched-up bits of paper at the bottom of the reusable bag. Eventually I dug it out, scanned it and won my freedom from Sainsbury’s. It was an irritating experience and one that I personally had not encountered in Ireland – prove that you haven’t nicked your stuff or we’re not letting you out of our shop.

My local Sainsbury’s had taken part in a pilot scheme for receipt barriers to combat theft. The chain was pilloried on traditional and social media for treating all customers as potential shoplifters, but it persevered through the opprobrium. Sainsbury’s receipt barriers have since been rolled out across Britain. I have also spotted some at other chains.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) last month pleaded for government action to stem a surge in shoplifting, which it estimated cost shops almost £1 billion last year. This year, the BRC said, shoplifting is up 27 per cent. This correlates with official data from the Office of National Statistics, which estimated the rise at 25 per cent in March. In some cities, BRC data suggests the problem is out of control. It estimates shoplifting is up 45 per cent in Newcastle and 68 per cent in Cardiff.

Last month, Ken Murphy the Cork-born chief executive of Tesco, said shoplifting was a “national problem”. The John Lewis chain called it an “epidemic”. A group of 88 big retailers, including Primark and WH Smith, wrote to the government demanding action.

The Co-op supermarket chain said shoplifting in its stores was up 35 per cent. It said 71 per cent of “serious incidents” of retail theft are not even responded to by British police. Co-op complained shoplifters have “freedom to loot”. It said one of its inner city London stores was “looted three times in one day”.

Co-op has started putting out empty boxes of Ferrero Rocher chocolates and Kenco coffee on its shelves, with “antitheft display box” labels. Customers who want to buy Ferrero Rocher must take an empty box to a till, where staff give them a full one. If little else, it made for a slew of media headlines that kept the industry’s anti-shoplifting campaign in focus.

Britain’s shoplifting problem is clearly linked, at least in part, to inflation, which was worse here than anywhere else in western Europe. In March, the annual rate of UK food price inflation peaked above 19 per cent. It has halved since. But if supermarkets are putting out decoy empty jars of coffee, clearly there is a social problem at play as well as a crime issue.

The government responded last month with an “action plan” for shoplifting. It included Pegasus, an information-sharing scheme between police and retailers. The London Metropolitan Police have also introduced facial recognition technology to target recidivist shoplifters.

Sometimes you don’t need technology. Just open your eyes. At the end of summer, I was walking through Clapham Junction with my daughter. I spotted two men outside Boots whom I just knew were going to shoplift. It was a hunch based on nothing but their agitated demeanour as they planned their mini heist on the street, deciding who would hold the bag.

Out of curiosity, I nudged my daughter and we followed them into Boots. Sure enough, one of them slipped an electronic product, maybe a hair dryer or tongs, into his bag, before they both left. The staff either didn’t notice or were nonplussed.

On one of my last visits to the Sainsbury’s, I watched a dishevelled guy stuffing packets of meat into his jacket and head for the door. He skipped the supermarket’s apparently ingenious receipt security barrier system by simply avoiding the self-service checkout area altogether. Instead, he walked, unchallenged, straight out through the entrance door.