Self-checkout counters encourage shoplifting among middle-class Brits, Marks & Spencer chairman says


The uptick in retail theft has become a multi-million dollar headache among British retailers, as they scramble to bolster security measures and “love-bomb” their shoppers with great customer service to deter the growing phenomenon. 

Self-checkout counters at such stores can be especially tricky to oversee as customers are responsible for scanning their own products, making it easier for shoplifters to steal items. 

Retail giant Marks & Spencer has witnessed this in its self-service stations—especially among middle-class shoppers, the chain’s chairman Archie Norman said.    

“Some of this shoplifting is gangs… then you got the middle class,” he said in the Money with David Buik and Michael Wilson podcast, released Monday. 

“With the reduction of service you get in a lot of shops, a lot of people think ‘well, this didn’t scan properly, or it’s very difficult to scan these things through and I shop here all the time. It’s not my fault, I’m owed it.’ You see it with the self-checkouts.” 

Self-service counters make up an important part of M&S’s plans as it aims to trim costs by £400 million in five years. The company rolled out hundreds of such tills earlier this year as part of the effort.

While the U.K. is seeing a surge in shoplifting cases, the M&S chair noted that it was more than a store- or country-specific problem. 

“Nobody quite understands why this has happened, but shoplifting has become a global problem. We’re seeing this rise,” Norman said. “It’s too easy to say it’s a cost-of-living problem.”

Britain has seen cost-of-living and food prices surge in recent years, making it harder for people to make ends meet and pushing them to adopt extreme measures to cope with the harsh economic conditions.

Norman’s comments underline the trouble U.K. retailers face as shoplifters find sophisticated ways to steal from grocery and other retail stores. In a report earlier this year, trade body British Retail Consortium estimated that £953 million ($1.2 billion) had been lost to retail theft, despite over £700 million worth of crime prevention measures by various retailers. A group of 91 retail leaders, including M&S CEO Stuart Machin, signed a letter addressed to the Home Secretary in September to urge quick action in fighting the rising retail crime rates. 

“We are seeing organized gangs threatening staff with weapons and emptying stores. We are seeing violence against colleagues who are doing their job and asking for age-verification,” BRC chief Helen Dickinson said in a statement.  “No one should have to go to work fearing for their safety.”

Retailers up their guard

With retail crime becoming more rampant, retailers are doing their part to amp up security measures. For instance, U.K. retailer Tesco, which has over 3,000 stores in the country, has invested £44 million in four years to shore up security around its stores. It’s also given its staff members body cameras to crack down on targeted abuse. 

John Lewis Partnership, which operates John Lewis and Waitrose stores, is offering training for employees to fight shoplifting while also increasing security signages and CCTV cameras. The retail company has also started offering free coffees and discounted food to police officers as a way to deter crime in its stores. 

Some retailers have also began working with law enforcement authorities, dubbed Project Pegasus, by scanning CCTV camera images of shoplifters and using facial recognition software to help identify offenders.

As for M&S, the company has opted for different ways that involve fewer cameras and barriers that risk turning its stores into “prison camps.” 

“Our approach is to be open and welcome,” Norman said in the Money with David Buik and Michael Wilson podcast. “We’ve got a great security team, they’re go around making sure we keep an eye on what’s on sale and what’s going missing,”

He pointed out that the company goes for more subtle measures, such as limiting the items it keeps on its shelves. Norman also noted that because M&S offers its own label products, their resale value is lower among shoplifters, putting the retail chain at an advantage when fighting shoplifting.  

“We do little things like make sure the steak is positioned in the right place so people can keep an eye on it. We don’t sell a lot of branded skin care, those sort of things,” Norman said. “For us, I’m not too worried.”

Representatives at M&S didn’t immediately return Fortune’s request for comment.

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