These security guards look away when they see you stealing food in the supermarket

With energy prices skyrocketing, inflation worsening and wages kept low, it certainly hasn’t been an easy winter in the UK so far. While some of us have had to choose between a warm house or a hot plate with food, others have had to choose a slightly more illegal way of survival, such as shoplifting.

Sure, shoplifting has always been a lucrative industry (for thieves), but the number of people involved in random shoplifting has only grown since the life crisis we’re in. Whether it’s cheese, meat, diapers, or shampoo, shoplifting increased by around 21% in the 12 months to March 2022, according to the UK’s CBS. Perhaps not particularly surprising at a time when food banks are so busy that people have to be turned away.

If you are caught stealing from UK supermarkets, you could get a shopping ban, a fine or even a few hours in a cell if you are very unlucky. But what if you don’t get caught? With too many security guards usually watching over you, cracking down on people who steal during this crisis feels pretty unfair.

Mike is a security guard at one of the UK’s largest security companies. He regularly walks around various supermarkets and increasingly catches himself looking away when he sees people stealing food. Like everyone else in this article, we’ve changed his name so as not to jeopardize his job. “I don’t like having to call the police or bust shoplifters when life is so expensive,” he says. “If people have to choose between food and warmth, who am I to stop them? Prices have literally doubled – from food to electricity to rent. I don’t want people to go hungry.”

He continues: “People have children’s mouths to feed. Whether it’s people hiding food in the stroller, not scanning their bag, or accidentally scanning half of their groceries, I just don’t have it in me anymore to stop people from stealing essentials. Do you really think people will steal baby milk if they don’t have to?” Mike says it’s easier to ignore shoplifters on the weekend because the police are busier then. “I don’t believe people steal food for fun,” he adds.

Nick, another security guard, agrees. “People can get really desperate. It breaks my heart when I see people stealing products that are obviously for their children. There is so much to buy and spend money on. Let me put it this way, I don’t pay attention to people stealing food or drink. Everyone is trying to survive.”

Carl, a former security guard with his own security company that has contracts with several supermarkets, says catching shoplifters isn’t easy anyway. Sometimes it’s not even worth the trouble – especially when the security itself is also underpaid. “There have been cases of shoplifters attacking and injuring us,” he says. “I know some security guards who have been stabbed on the job. Of course, when I hear that kind of thing and add it to the cost of living crisis, I’m more likely to look away… People just get more desperate. It’s just that simple. And I don’t want to put myself in danger. Legally, we can’t even chase someone who has already left the store, for health and safety reasons.”

I asked Carl what would happen if store owners discovered that their security guards were ignoring the shoplifters. “If we didn’t arrest anyone, we would soon be fired. But it’s so hard to find the right balance… Believe me, I cried a lot when I saw my own grocery bill, so I really feel sympathy for everyone this winter.”

Tim, a security guard at a large supermarket chain, adds: “It is very difficult to prove that we are really looking away, especially if the shoplifter is not known to the store. How else are we supposed to know it’s a known thief instead of a regular customer when so many people do it? These days, most people steal an item or two beyond their regular groceries in an effort to cut costs, and I don’t blame them. I have friends who do the same.”

In a bid to curb the rise in shoplifting, some supermarkets in Wales are working on plans to reduce the number of convictions. Instead of calling the police, shoplifters are sent to the local food bank and other aid agencies.

Carl remains skeptical of this approach if it becomes the norm. If food banks were an easy solution, people wouldn’t need to steal in the first place. “Some of us have talked about these plans,” he says. “We think it’s a way to relieve ourselves of the task of catching shoplifters, but it doesn’t work. The highest risk products such as baby food and alcohol will not see a reduction in theft with these plans. Will the food banks always have enough products for children? None. Should they hand out alcohol to alcoholics? None.”

“So will I still feel guilty if I catch people stealing important things? Yeah. Do I have to keep looking away? Oh yeah.”

It is clear that plans and initiatives by the government fall far short when it comes to offering people the financial support they so badly need. At a time when rents are skyrocketing and benefits have not been this low in 40 years (despite inflation not being this high in 40 years), a few food banks and a handful of charities will not solve a decade of savings measures.

“We’re all pawns in a game and we’re all feeling the effects of the cost crisis,” Mike said. “Whether you’re a shoplifter or a security guard, we’re all screwed.”

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

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