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Technology is making shoplifting easy

Light-fingered rogues in Trainspotting (1996)

A “new mood of lawlessness” is gripping shops across the country, says Martha Gill in The Observer. Co-op despairs that shoplifting is “out of control”, while John Lewis has taken to offering police officers free coffees so they hang around the store and deter thieves. Overall, shoplifting has increased by a third in the first half of this year, and doubled over the past six years. “It’s a delicate subject.” The crime “seems to reflect social need” – it rises when the economy dips, as we’re seeing in the current cost-of-living crisis. And society has never treated the offence too seriously, as illustrated by all the lovable “light-fingered” rogues in literature. “Dickens is full of desperate characters driven to theft.”

So what to do? We can’t expect police to shoulder all responsibility – the number of officers required to guard every shop from thieves would “border on the absurd”. The wider problem is technology. In most areas of life, technological improvements make it harder to break the law. The use of deadlocks has “decimated car theft”; domestic burglary has diminished in the face of double-glazing and alarm systems. Yet in modern shops we have the “opposite phenomenon”: goods that were once behind counters are now “laid out near the door, ready for the taking”; automated self-checkouts mean customers effectively monitor themselves. And crucially, levels of staff – part of whose job it is to “maintain order” – have fallen sharply. Automation, in shops at least, has “led to lawlessness”.