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Is the Cost of Living Fuelling a Rise in Shoplifting?

New research suggests 10% of young adults have turned to shoplifting because they can’t afford to eat due to the cost-of-living crisis. Data from the British Retail Consortium reveals thefts from shops have more than doubled since 2016, reaching a record high of eight million incidents in 2022.

New data from the Office for National Statistics reveals imported food costs, due to shortages in Britain, are pushing prices up higher. In the past 12 months, food imports have increased by 25%, while the cost of food and non-alcoholic drinks in Britain has risen by a staggering 19.1%.

The price of some foods and beverages has doubled in one year alone. With inflation remaining in double figures for months, ending May at 10.4%, there is no sign of the economic crisis abating any time soon.


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Why do people shoplift?

Some analysts have linked an increase in shoplifting to the ongoing cost of living crisis, claiming people are turning into thieves out of desperation to feed their family. However, other experts take a different view.

The current cost of living crisis UK-wide has left thousands of households struggling to put food on the table.

Research reveals 20% of adults have sought financial help, such as loans or charity funding, to pay for essential food items.

The problem is worse for younger generations, as a massive 37% of young adults have sought financial aid, compared with 5% of over-55s.

In addition, around 10% of people have asked friends and family members to borrow money to cover their grocery bills. Of the 2,000 adults surveyed by ZipZero about their shopping habits, 8% had gone into an overdraft to pay for food. Around 5% of the consumers polled have used food banks for the first time this year.

Perhaps most shocking is the increase in shoplifting and abuse of the system at self-scan checkouts in supermarkets.

Around one in 25 adults say they have intentionally failed to scan a food item they can’t afford and tried to slip it into their bag unnoticed. Others have incorrectly scanned food they can’t pay for by trying to put a reduced-price sticker on it.

One of the most stolen items is the children’s medicine, Calpol, while some stores have resorted to putting security tags on everyday items, such as cheese and milk, to combat shoplifters.

Is shoplifting really linked to the rising cost of living?

Charity the Trussell Trust, which hands out food parcels to the needy across the UK, has handed out more than three million parcels in 2022 and 2023. This is an increase of 37% on the same period 12 months earlier.

Around 20% of food bank users are working adults whose wages haven’t kept pace with the cost of living.

The chief executive of ZipZero, Mohsin Rashid, says there’s a limit to how much coupon-cutting and searches for reduced-price food people can manage. He says the rising cost of food is “massively destabilising” household finances and increasing poverty levels across the UK.

While some Brits have been advocates of spending less and finding savvy new ways to reduce expenditure, they are running out of options and resilience.

Mr Rashid believes a lot of adults are “actively turning to petty theft” to reduce costs because they simply can’t afford to eat. He claims food inflation is “redefining life standards” and “changing social norms” in Britain. Opposition politicians have echoed this view, claiming people are stealing to feed their children.

Retailers dispute “desperate shoplifters” theory

Some retailers disagree with the theory that people are stealing because they are starving and desperate. Fed-up shopkeepers believe habitual petty thieves are stealing items because they know “nothing will happen” if they are caught.

They say repeat offenders are willing to take the risk because even if they appear in court many times, the sentence will be incredibly light and consequently won’t even make a difference.

According to a report in The Guardian, “serial shoplifters” are often appearing before magistrates, such as one man who stole £110 of angling equipment from a retail store, claiming he was selling it to feed himself.

Another man who stole £128 worth of makeup from a department store also said he was selling it to feed himself. Then, at the other end of the scale, one shoplifter was in court for stealing six packets of bacon.

There are varying views on whether some cases of shop theft occur out of desperation and a genuine need for food, or whether the perpetrators are simply habitual shoplifters, who would be stealing regardless of the economic crisis.

Shopkeepers are generally rejecting the view that “good people have turned bad overnight”. They claim ordinary, honest householders go to food banks and community pantries for help, rather than suddenly stealing from their local retail store.

However, some admit that maybe a small number of “regular shoppers” who are short of money may hide the odd item in their coat pocket or bag. However, unlike serial shoplifters, they are mortified if they’re caught and have to admit they can’t make ends meet. According to news reports in May 2023, food price inflation is starting to slow down a little. However, this doesn’t mean prices will go down. It merely means they will go up at a slower rate. The British Retail Consortium says “meaningful price decreases” for customers are likely to be some way off yet.