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Robbed, spat at and assaulted, British shopkeepers despair over retail crime

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As shopkeeper Ben Selvaratnam recounted how his grocery store in south London was being targeted by shoplifters up to 10 times a day, he had to stop to eject two men who had brazenly slipped two bottles of premium beer into their carrier bag.

The incident, on a Tuesday morning, was unremarkable at his Freshfields Market convenience store following a “massive increase” in theft and violence that he and other shop owners put down to a lack of response from authorities to retail crime.

Repeat offenders and criminal gangs operating with apparent impunity is becoming a hot political topic ahead of a national election expected next year. Critics of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government say it shows a breakdown in society.

“We stopped reporting incidents to the police because we just felt, for whatever reason, budget cuts or whatnot, they weren’t as responsive as we needed them to be,” Selvaratnam told Reuters in his shop in Croydon, where his butcher doubles up as a security guard.

It’s a similar story in Glasgow, Scotland, where Girish Jeeva was recently left bloodied after being punched in the face when he challenged a man stealing from his grocery store in the Barmulloch district.

Both Selvaratnam and Jeeva are frustrated that shoplifters who steal goods worth less than 200 pounds are rarely prosecuted.

“That explains why some of these gangs, especially the teenagers, they don’t even run when they rob the place,” said Selvaratnam.

The issue of theft and violence has been raised by many of Britain’s biggest retailers in recent months, including Tesco (TSCO.L), John Lewis and Primark, echoing similar reports in the United States and elsewhere.

The two British shopkeepers said the main protagonists were local organised criminal gangs, often hooded and masked and sometimes carrying weapons like machetes, who target higher-value products like alcohol, boxed chocolates and meat.

But they have also seen an increase in mums hiding goods in prams and pensioners stealing tinned meat and fish as an increase in the cost of living hits many households.

Jeeva in Scotland said the police did not take action even when he provided clear CCTV evidence of offences and told them where the perpetrator lived.

“It’s a waste of time,” he said.

 

NO-GO AREAS

A Freedom of Information request by British retailer the Co-op showed the police did not respond to 71 per cent of serious retail crimes reported.

In the six months to June 2023, it recorded almost 1,000 incidents a day of shoplifting and anti-social behaviour, a 35 per cent increase year-on-year. It has warned that some local stores risk becoming no-go areas.

The British Retail Consortium lobby group said the industry was losing almost 1 billion pounds ($1.2 billion) a year from theft, despite an industry spend on crime prevention of 700 million pounds in 2021/22.

Selvaratnam installed reinforced glass and steel barriers in the till area of his shop this year.

Thefts are an increasing problem for Sunak, whose Conservative Party, lagging in polls after 13 years in power, has traditionally portrayed itself as strong on law and order.

A YouGov poll found 74 per cent of British adults believe the government has badly handled crime, and 22 per cent see it as one of the three most important issues facing the country.

Policing minister Chris Philp recently asked forces to take a zero-tolerance approach to shoplifting, including thefts below 200 pounds.

But London’s police force, the country’s biggest, said that was not realistic.

“Where a crime is being committed, a suspect is on the scene, and the situation has or is likely to become heated or violent, our call handlers will assess this and seek to despatch officers where appropriate,” it said.

 

ASSAULT

The opposition Labour Party has said if it wins power it will change the law to ensure all thefts are investigated. It will ban repeat offenders from town centres, restore neighbourhood policing and create a new specific offence of assault against retail workers.

But Selvaratnam is not optimistic. As well as a new approach to policing he believes the government needs to address economic hardship, social services and ways to strengthen community ties.

In the eight years he’s owned the shop he has been regularly spat at, and physically assaulted over 20 times. He has been slashed with broken bottles four times and the top part of his ear had to be reattached after it was bitten off.

“It’s out of control,” he told Reuters.

He tried to sell the business, but potential buyers pulled out when their due diligence revealed the extent of losses from theft.

More spending by the biggest retailers on their theft defences will simply divert crime, Selvaratnam fears.

“For the small independents like ourselves, we’re just going to get it even more,” he said.

($1 = 0.8204 pounds)

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