Shoplifting hits 'epidemic levels' as workers fear for their safety

Watch Wales This Week's Shoplifting: Working on the Frontline on Thursday, 4 April, at 8.30pm on ITV 1 Cymru Wales. Catch up afterwards on ITVX.

Cullan Mais used to shoplift almost every day. 

Retailers in Wales fear they may not be able to survive what are being described as  "epidemic levels" of shoplifting

More than 21,000 cases of shoplifting were recorded by police forces in Wales last year, an increase of 36% from the previous year.

The increase is having an impact on both businesses and their employees, and there are fears police are no longer able to help tackle the problem.

Fiona Malone, who owns Tenby Stores in the centre of the Pembrokeshire town, said she is experiencing unprecedented levels of theft.

Fiona Malone said police are no longer responding to routine incidents of shoplifting.

"Certainly we’ve noticed our losses dramatically increase,” she told ITV’s Wales This Week.

"We looked at it last year and we were looking at about £26,000 of losses. That’s a huge amount because we are a small shop. 

"Sometimes, I’ve been told [by police] ‘it was only £10’. But, if all of our customers took £10 worth of goods we wouldn’t stay in business for longer than three months."

Wales has seen the sharpest increase in shoplifting of the four UK nations, and the uplift has coincided with those working in the sector experiencing violence and abuse. 

In a survey by USDAW - the union which represents retail workers - 70% of respondents said they had experienced verbal abuse at work in the last year, while almost one in five said they had been physically assaulted.

One anonymous retail worker said her colleagues are changing the times of their shifts after feeling threatened.

One retail worker, who wished to remain anonymous, said: "They show us [what they are stealing] and say ‘you can’t do anything, you can’t touch me, I’m taking it’.

"They also abuse [us] a lot, verbally, even sometimes physically. They throw bottles, they swear, they use abusive words, sometimes they are even racist.

"Sometimes they threaten ‘we’ll see you outside’. A lot of the time our shift starts quite early in the morning or late at night, so sometimes it’s really unsafe. 

"A few women in our company changed their shifts because they don’t want to work late because they’ve been threatened."

Police forces across Wales say they are prioritising shoplifting where they can.

However, they say the approach has changed, with a growing focus on the causes and its prevention.

North Wales Police have been running an intervention campaign which has seen a 9% increase in the detection rate for shoplifting

Superintendent Jonathan Bowcott said he believes some of the criticism of police response to an increase in shoplifting reports "is probably fair”. 

Superintendent Jonathan Bowcott is the lead on retail crime for North Wales Police.

"We really are committed to improving things across the country in relation to this,” he continued. 

"It does have an impact on society that we understand better now than I think we have in the past. 

"In policing we prioritise things on the threat harm and risk that they cause to our communities.

"We will prioritise attendance where someone has been detained, perhaps by security, or when someone has used and threatened violence.

"Dealing with the persistent nature of some offenders, and the circumstances that cause them to offend, is a real challenge."

Theft cost UK retailers £1.8billion last year, with many businesses having to cover the losses themselves.

Sara Jones, director of the Welsh Retail Consortium, said: "The more money retailers have to cover themselves, the less money they have available to keep prices down for the customer.

"I think the challenge is there’s a perception among those involved in this kind of behaviour that the offence won’t be followed up, they won’t get prosecuted. 

"We need to see more at a UK Government level, with policing not being devolved we need to see a standalone offence for the protection of shop workers from violence and abuse in the workplace."

Sara Jones leads the Welsh Retail Consortium.

Policing in Wales falls under the responsibility of the UK Government’s Home Office.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Home Office said: "Progress is being made through a police commitment to prioritise attending the scene of shoplifting instances involving violence against a shop worker."

Watch Wales This Week's Shoplifting: Working on the Frontline on Thursday, 4 April, at 8.30pm on ITV 1 Cymru Wales. Catch up afterwards on ITVX.