Store thefts: I’ve been hit by bottles, says retailer as crime soars

Convenience stores saw 5.6 million thefts last year, a trade body says, with 76,000 violent cases reported.
Store thefts: I've been hit by bottles, says retailer as crime soars
Ben SelvaratnamBen Selvaratnam

“I’ve been bottled a number of times,” says convenience store owner Ben Salvaratnam. “I’ve had at least 20 stitches.”

The rise in thefts and violence has forced the London businessman to spend thousands on new security measures.

It comes as new data shows shop owners have reported a 400% increase in thefts during 2023, setting a new record.

The Association of Convenience Stores (ASC) said shops recorded 5.6 million theft incidents last year.

That is up from 1.1 million the year previously. Violence is also up – with 76,000 incidents reported, compared to 41,000 in the 12-months prior, the ASC said.

Freshfields Market in Croydon has been owned by Mr Salvaratnam for eight years. It sells fresh produce, meat and alcohol but loses “hundreds of pounds a week” to shoplifting.

Mr Salvaratnam used to have 12 CCTV cameras in the Church Street store, but because of the jump in shoplifting he spent £3,000 last year to “capture blind spots” and now has 40 of them.

The 40-year-old also laid out on other security measures – spending £5,000 on a new steel and glass cage around the till area “because the cashiers kept getting jumped on and spat at”.

He also installed a smoke-activated panic system similar to those used in jewellers and banks “to protect my staff”.

But the businessman has been forced to close in the evenings at 21.30, unlike others in the area which stay open until 23.00.

“Most of my staff don’t want to work till then,” he said. “It impacts our bottom line, incurring these costs, we’re not able to operate profitably. We’re 25% down on 2022 in terms of revenue.”

However, it is not just in terms of lost sales that Mr Salvaratnam has been affected.

“I’ve been bottled a number a times, been to A&E twice and had at least 20 stitches. With these attacks and them saying ‘We know what time you finish, how can you stop me?’, it’s been awful. You just don’t know how a day is going to end.”

Crime ‘onslaught’

In its 2024 Crime Report, the ASC said local shops were facing a retail crime crisis, with retailers recording over 600 incidents of theft an hour over the last year.

It said retailers were doing “what they can to fight back”, spending £339m over the past year in areas such as CCTV and security staff.

ASC chief executive James Lowman said shop owners were facing an “onslaught” of crime, with some losing tens of thousands of pounds per year to theft alone.

“This extended crimewave cannot be allowed to continue,” he said. “Thieves are known to the community and to the police but they simply do not care, and continue on regardless, filling baskets and trolleys and walking out without fear of reproach.”

Mr Lowman said while there had been “positive steps forward” with the Retail Crime Action Plan and the launching of Operation Pegasus to try and better identify prolific offenders the report showed more needed to be done.

“Nobody should have to come to work and face what retailers and their colleagues have faced over the last year,” he said.

In Scotland, staff working in shops, bars and restaurants are protected from abuse via the Protection of Workers Act which came into force in 2021.

According to the retail trade union Usdaw there have been more than 500 convictions since the law has been introduced and there are now calls for the UK government to follow Scotland’s lead with an amendment to its Criminal Justice Bill.

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Retail crime soars

  • 87% of colleagues in convenience stores have faced verbal abuse over the last year
  • 67% of retailers believe that the cost of living crisis has led to an increase in theft
  • 76% of retailers believe organised crime has become more prevalent over the last year

Source: Association of Convenience Stores

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Meanwhile, in Croydon, staff at Freshfields Market do not call police over an incident “unless it’s violent”, Mr Salvaratnam said. “We can’t be stuck on the phone for 45 minutes knowing they won’t attend.”

The shoplifters who target the shop fall into various categories. “Drug addiction is ongoing, it’s always been there, but there’s more organised gangs stealing to order,” Mr Salvaratnam said.

“Definitely there’s been an increase in pensioners and mums with pushchairs, those who’ve been customers for years and who now can’t make ends meet,” he added.

The married father-of-three put the business up for sale last year but has so far been unable to sell. “We’re between a rock and a hard place,” he said. “I don’t want my wife or my kids to ever come here.”

Source: bbc.co.uk

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