Petty theft in retail and supermarkets on the rise, survey finds

Supermarkets have released more measures to curb petty theft, such as security tagging meat.

Supermarkets have released more measures to curb petty theft, such as security tagging meat. Photo: AAP

Cost-of-living pressures are forcing more Australians into petty theft, according to a new survey, but experts say the real level is probably much higher.

Finder research showed that 15 per cent of the 1096 people surveyed admitted to stealing or fraud in the past 12 months, while 7 per cent said they’d stolen from the supermarket self-checkouts.

Nitika Garg, a professor at UNSW School of Marketing, said the number of people shoplifting is likely to be much higher.

“Most of us, even if it is an anonymous survey, will not admit to bad behaviour,” she said.

“The fact that 7 per cent of consumers admitted to that shows that this problem is escalating, especially given the cost-of-living pressures right now.”

That 7 per cent figure was almost double the number of people who reported stealing from the self-checkout in 2023.

Cost of living

Graham Cooke, head of consumer research at Finder, said the figures are alarming.

“Many households are struggling and are having to make difficult, and in some cases, criminal choices to cope,” he said.

“This illustrates the serious impacts of the cost-of-living crisis and the financial strain people are under.”

Gen Z is more likely to have left the supermarket without paying for an item, with 17 per cent admitting they had, compared to just 2 per cent of Gen X responders.

Garg said the introduction of self-checkouts and cost-of-living pressures have contributed to rising retail theft.

“Consumers have been squeezed even more and there is a greater temptation to engage in these behaviours that they feel they can get away with,” she said.

“That is why there has been an increase in surveillance.”

self-service checkout theft

The introduction of self-checkouts and cost-of-living pressures are causing an uptick in retail theft. Photo: AAP

Rising costs of rents, interest rates and the cost of grocery shopping have all contributed to Australia’s cost-of-living stress, with little respite on the horizon.

Garg said while there has always been CCTV and surveillance in retail environments, it is now far more visible.

“We’ve seen more in-your-face surveillance, which is impacting consumer behaviour,” she said.

“The absence of manned checkouts and less staff on the floor has led to an increase in shoplifting.”

Technological solutions

In December, Woolworths announced it would invest more than $40 million into CCTV upgrades, body cameras for staff and other measures to keep staff safe from abuse and violence, and reduce theft.

Garg said there has been a mixed response from consumers towards surveillance measures in retail settings.

“Some stores and retailers have rolled back self-checkouts because the lost inventory is so significant,” she said.

“They cannot keep it up unless the technology is much more sophisticated than it is now, which is not the case in regional Australia.”

She said Coles and Woolworths can do more to communicate with shoppers about the issues surrounding retail theft.

“Grocery stores and retailers are missing the opportunity to get consumers on their side,” she said.

“They have to go a step further and say because some consumers might engage in misbehaviour and thus to keep the costs lower for everyone, we are employing technology that will help us in those instances.”

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