The Government's bid to help tackle retail crime
Described as “the first national partnership of its kind”, the Government, at the end of October, launched Project Pegasus. Pegasus is a business and policing partnership which seeks to tackle retail crime, recently described by the outgoing Chair of John Lewis, Dame Sharon White, to have reached “epidemic levels”.
What is Pegasus?
Thirteen of the UK's largest retailers have pledged £840,000 to fund the creation of a new team of analysts and intelligence officers who will work within the team that oversees the intelligence gathered on organised crime (OPAL). The Government will contribute £30,000 in the first year towards running costs.
Policing Minister, Chris Philp, in launching Pegasus as part of the Government's “Retail Crime Action Plan” said the Government had a “zero tolerance approach to shoplifting”. The Government has pledged:
- For the police to prioritise urgently instances where violence has been used against shop workers and where offenders have been detained. Prolific/juvenile offenders are to be given “elevated priority”.
- Where CCTV or digital evidence has been obtained, the police will run this through the national database using facial recognition technology.
- The creation of a new information sharing platform for retailers.
Reaction from retailers?
Whilst many large retailers view the Retail Crime Action Plan positively, the reaction from independent and smaller retailers has been much more guarded. TalkingRetail (24 October 2023), reports John Heaguey, Consultant and Co-Founder of the C-Store Collective:
Others express reservations over affordability and privacy and data protection issues in addition to a fear that offenders will simply turn their attention and focus (given the new preventative measures in large retail outlets) to the smaller independents - who are less able financially to meet the high costs of security and technology.
The scale of the problem
The overall picture on retail crime is more complex than some media platforms may proclaim. Whilst recorded offences (365,164) rose this year by 25% compared to the previous year, retail crime remains slightly down on the pre-pandemic figure of 368,745 offences. However, many retailers (evidenced by previous British Retail Consortium Crime Surveys) fail to report offences to the police - in the main because they view the overall police response as inadequate. The last survey did, however, show signs of an improving picture.
The causes of retail crime are multifactorial, although substance addiction, organised crime, challenges to underage sales and the “cost of living crisis” feature heavily. Concern has also been expressed that downgrading of the offence of shoplifting goods below £200 to be treated as a ‘summary offence' has made the police less likely to prosecute low level thefts.
Is the answer technology?
Both retailers and the police appear in this latest Government initiative to place their faith that recording and monitoring technology will reduce retail crime and lead to a greater number of successful criminal prosecutions.
The Sunday Times, in an article published on 22 October 2023, highlighted technology deployed by Mitie Security, on behalf of one larger retailer, which follows a four-stage approach:
- Thieves spotted by supermarket shopworker who inform Mitie staff by buzzer or phone.
- Mitie Control Centre captures CCTV footage, screenshots
perpetrator and generates a report of the
- Security Guard or shop assistant approaches the thief, whilst
Mitie announces through the speaker
“you are being watched”. If the situation escalates, the thief could be sprayed with a biological tag.
- Mitie's employees log crimes of repeat offenders and organised gangs to send to the police.
The same article also references Mitie's development in two further areas: the first is “AI Heuristics” where artificial intelligence (AI) technology enables its software to forecast whether someone is about to steal – based on their position in the shop, the quantity of goods they are holding and even their hand movements.
The second is that by fitting AI scanners to self-checkout machines, to catch thieves who try to “cheat” the machine, for example by charging a bottle of spirits as a cheaper bottle of water of similar weight.
Whilst these technological developments have led to inevitable comparisons with a ‘1984 – Big Brother Society', most retailers will, however, see them as a necessary and proportionate response to a crime epidemic which ultimately costs consumers more in the price of goods paid.
Time will tell if Pegasus is a success or whether this simply shifts the problem elsewhere, to independent and smaller retailers who are less able to afford the technological advances.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.