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Using technology to revoke the thieves’ licence to shoplift

July 23, 2024 by Alistair Enser

I was interested to read last week that John Lewis boss Sharon White has warned that criminals have a “licence to shoplift” following an increase in cases. She claimed shoplifting has surged 26%, citing research by the British Retail Consortium, which found that more than 850 incidents of violence and abuse towards shop workers are recorded every day. “It’s a crisis that is hiding in plain sight,” White told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg.

I ask myself: “Why are we not using technology such as Facial Recognition to greatly assist safety, security and commercial shrinkage? Despite the reasonable and fair questions surrounding ethics, privacy and usage, we need to be pragmatic and quite frankly make some sensible decisions here.”

“One of the big issues for John Lewis is staff safety,” Sharon White said, as she called for better protection from threats and abuse for store employees in England after the new ‘Protection of workers bill’ making ‘abuse’ a criminal offence. She revealed she had witnessed theft first-hand during a visit to the John Lewis store in Glasgow. “I saw a group of teenage boys hovering around our tech department, clearly looking to pocket some items. I followed them around the store, keeping a safe distance until our security team came and the boys were led out empty-handed. It didn’t end there, however. The group then made the hour-long journey to the company’s Edinburgh store, where they attempted to make off with a large volume of expensive fragrance.

“They were asked to leave by a member of the security team whom they then aggressively pushed out of the way. A customer stepped in to help and was unfortunately hurt in the process.”

I have great sympathy for what she and other retailers face in a difficult world where they have to protect their people, provide a safe environment for customers, and prevent shrinkage.

Now, while the official statistics show a decrease in overall theft by around 20% compared with the pre-coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic year ending March 2020, that doesn’t seem to be the experience of retailers we speak to. As we know, there can be a fundamental difference between reportable crime and actual crime.

At Reliance High-Tech and Reliance Protect, as a leading integrator and installer of CCTV, Access Control and body-worn video, we work with a number of major retailers, providing them with technology to help protect them.

We ask: “why would they not want to benefit from a joined-up approach across the technology platforms?”, and we encourage retailers to talk to me and my team about how the right investment in the right technology can assist.

But there’s more. More that technology can do to support retailers, including Facial Recognition. Yes, I know it’s a controversial subject but, reading Sharon White’s comments last week, I was struck by the huge benefits this can bring.

A store is a private commercial organisation, and within legal guidelines (discrimination etc.) it should reasonably be able to restrict, permit or deny entry onto premises as it wishes – banning a known thief, or gang of thieves, for example. If we assume they have this right, by virtue of that, they must have the ability to communicate to their employees about which people are restricted. In the old days, for example, customers barred from their local pub had their pictures stapled behind the bar, often alongside a bounced cheque! I’m not advocating ‘name and shame’, but the staff need some way of communicating.

The reality is that nearly every retailer today will be using CCTV. They are governed by best practice, guidelines and legislation, such as GDPR, to ensure that privacy and data handling is proportionate and considered. The recordings exist. The cameras exist, the operators exist, and the list of currently barred individuals exists. So, why would we not include Facial Recognition to ensure that ‘potential’ criminals are highlighted to the appropriate authorised operators and managers? Verification can take place and if necessary, the potential suspects can be challenged or escorted from the premises.

The example Sharon White provides with Glasgow and Edinburgh is a ‘case in point’.

The technology must be controlled, of course, and as I say, there is a need for clearer guidance on its use, but in the case above, no additional personal details are being processed, and no other members of the public are having their personal data added to the system.

False positives may be a concern, however, the technology is now capable of delivering only a 1 in 6,000 false positive (A study by the National Physics Laboratory.) Surely this is a whole lot better than a hastily written description of a suspicious individual being emailed to all the stores, surely? Let’s be sensible about this.

Given we are in the business of trying to safeguard people, minimise risk and make shoppers feel safe – as well as reducing inflation through shrinkage – why would we not seek to improve outcomes by embracing technology? Video analytics, body-worn video and CCTV should be considered as part of an overall wider strategy. Improving outcomes and reducing the burden on staff and our overstretched police.

I would be interested in your thoughts!