December 8, 2023

Shoplifting has become an “epidemic” in the past year, the boss of John Lewis, Dame Sharon White, has told the BBC.

She told the Today programme the retailer had seen offences double over the past 12 months.

Dame Sharon said it was also “not right” that shop workers were “having to put up with abuse and attacks”.

A group of retailers, including John Lewis, have agreed to fund a police operation to crack down on shoplifting, called “Project Pegasus”.

Ten retailers will spend about £600,000 on the project, which will use CCTV pictures and data provided by the shops to get a better understanding of shoplifters’ operations.

Dame Sharon, chairwoman of the John Lewis Partnership – which also owns Waitrose, said that some areas had become “shells of their former selves” due to violent attacks and repeated offenders “causing havoc” in shops.

During the interview, she said that reported incidents have not always been responded to by the police.

According to figures from retail trade body the British Retail Consortium (BRC), retail thefts across the sector in England and Wales rose by 26% in 2022.

Its crime survey suggested that nearly 850 incidents were taking place every day, with staff facing physical assault and being threatened with weapons on some occasions.

Data, analysed by the BBC, also shows that shoplifting offences have returned to pre-pandemic levels as the cost of living rises.

Other retailers, such as the Co-op, Tesco and Iceland, have said they are spending heavily on anti-crime measures.

Steak and cheese are being fitted with security tags and coffee replaced with dummy jars in Co-op stores, while Tesco is offering all of its staff body cameras due to the risk in physical assaults and theft.

The BRC has previously told the BBC that these high level of theft cost retailers almost £1bn in the 2021 financial year, “money that would be better used to reduce prices and invest in a better customer experience”.

Dame Sharon said the UK needs a comprehensive plan to stop organised gangs, and called for Scottish legislation that makes the abuse of a retail worker an offence to be brought in nationwide.

As part of the efforts to improve relations with police, Waitrose and John Lewis are also offering free hot drinks to on-duty officers.

In John Lewis, police officers will be able to use staff cafeterias for breaks and buy discounted food there too, in the hope that their presence will deter criminals.

Dame Sharon is calling for a royal commission – essentially an independent inquiry – into the future of British High Streets.

Retailers have highlighted increased competition from online shopping, and high levels of business rates – which apply to commercial properties, as issues holding back physical stores in city centre locations.

She said there needed to be a “holistic view” of these problems, with input from government, academics and the industry, rather than individually investigating issues such as tax, crime, planning, housing, and environmental policy.

Dame Sharon has also been seeking ways to boost growth at the John Lewis Partnership, following concerns about its performance.

John Lewis is set to unveil its half-year financial results on Thursday. Earlier this year, the group reported a £78m loss before exceptional items for the latest financial year.

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