‘Organised gangs’ are shoplifting to order in UK, John Lewis boss says | Business

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John Lewis chair Sharon White has raised fears for the safety of its store workers amid a rise of “organised gangs” of shoplifters who are targeting high-value items such as bottles of gin.

White, the head of the department store group which also owns Waitrose supermarkets, said it was “not an exaggeration” to describe the change as an epidemic: “It feels like in the last year we have moved from putting an extra six eggs in the shopping basket you haven’t paid for to organised gangs shoplifting to order in a way I find profoundly shocking.”

One Waitrose store had been raided by a gang looking for a particular brand of gin who, when they found it out of stock, said to the staff: “‘Don’t worry – we’ll be back on Monday’, as they knew it would be replenished over the weekend,” White told a meeting on fairer high streets led by the Policy Exchange thinktank.

White has backed calls for a UK-wide aggravated offence of assaulting or abusing a retail worker – as already exists in Scotland – which would carry tougher sentences, require police to record all incidents of retail crime and allow the allocation of more resources.

She previously said John Lewis had suffered a £12m year-on-year increase in theft.

Several major retailers have raised the issue, with the boss of the Co-op grocery chain, Matt Hood, saying he was frustrated by a lack of action against thieves who cost the business £33m in the first half of 2023.

White said that she had yet to see a “material impact on the ground” in response to retailers’ demands for a greater police response to shoplifting. The failure to do so reduced the fear of punishment for criminals and signalled a “profound break in the social contract” to the public and business, she added.

She said that reviving high streets in general required cross-party agreement for a long-term plan on a raft of measures “from tax to transport” that could help communities thrive.

Some experts argue that money-saving cuts to the number of shopfloor staff , the shift to technology such as self-checkouts and the display of expensive goods on shelves rather than behind counters have contributed to the problems with theft.

White said that the rise of AI was likely to affect jobs in call centres the most over the next few years as retailers look for ways to become more efficient amid rising cost pressures.

But she said she remained optimistic about employment levels as new jobs linked to new technology would be created.

John Lewis has set up its own apprenticeship scheme to turn shopfloor staff into “data scientists” and is now trying to market the programme to other retailers.

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