The other side of talking tough on retail crime

Would you steal a loaf of bread to feed your family? It’s one of the oldest ethical thought experiments, but also a question that comes to mind amid skyrocketing food costs and the news on Wednesday that Foodstuffs have reported a 38% increase in retail crime in their North Island stores.

Foodstuffs North Island Chief Executive Chris Quin lays the blame for this crime on unsympathetic culprits like teenagers following TikTok trends, “professional criminals”, and drug addicts “stealing to fund or fuel their addiction”. He also raises the more concerning issue of an increase in abuse and threatening behaviour towards staff.

Quin’s framing of the story has been very influential. Headlines over the last two days have focused on things like “shoplifters exporting meat“, “increase in violent attacks” and “repeat thief steals 31 whole steaks as crime soars“. Make no mistake, these are serious problems, especially for frontline staff who bear the brunt of them. We need to ensure that retail staff are kept safe.

But we also need to be wary of this limited framing. Quin was eager in interviews to rule out food prices as a possible driver of the reported crimes, but rising costs do drive crime. This is not just common sense, it is a well-researched phenomenon.

So it is especially relevant that the gap between our incomes and the weekly grocery bill has never been greater. Grocery food prices increased 18% over the last year; fruit and vegetables by 22.5%. These price increases came about while supermarkets raked in $430 million in “excess” profits, regularly adding markups of 50% or more.

Putting into context the numbers reported by Foodstuffs also paints a less alarming picture than the headlines. Their supermarkets serve 385,000 customers every day, and in this “worst it’s ever been” period only 29 (less than 0.01%) of these on any given day were shoplifting. 

Given the relatively small scale of the problem, it is worth considering how it came to dominate headlines, as well as why the proposed “solutions” focus almost entirely on a punitive criminal justice response.

For one thing, the corporate bosses and business owners whose profits are harmed by retail crime are also the people with the resources needed to make their voices heard. It is their job to lobby against government intervention in the markets that they dominate, and to lobby for the use of the criminal justice system to protect their interests. The likes of Foodstuffs’ Chris Quin are doing their job well.

Business owners and corporates are also well represented by a political opposition with a long history of using law and order issues as a stick to beat the Government. National and ACT are quick to seize on any retail crime headlines to blame the Government for being “soft on crime”. ACT leader David Seymour yesterday claimed “Jacinda’s kindness” was behind the increase in supermarket shoplifting. He promised instead to incarcerate more people, among other harsher punishments.

Such promises are nothing new, and anyone with a history book knows that they don’t work. More severe punishments do not act as deterrents. Prisons are not effective rehabilitation environments, with most people reoffending within two years of being released. Prisons cause significant harm to the whānau and communities that people are taken from, as well as to incarcerated people themselves. For young people, military style boot camps, detention facilities and “scared straight” approaches can actually increase crime.

There is an absurd gulf between the heavy-handed or even draconian punishments being promised for repeat perpetrators of retail crime, and the laissez-faire response of both Government and opposition parties to the drivers of that crime. Drivers that include the outrageous prices our supermarket duopoly are charging for food, as well as the crippling cost pressures that people are facing in other areas like childcare, accommodation, transport and electricity.

Time and resources wasted trying to deter or “scare straight” the small number of people committing retail crime will do nothing about these rising costs. If we truly want to prevent crime and keep people on the retail frontlines safe, we should start by making sure everyone can afford to eat. Until then, as one commentator recently put it, we’re just going round in circles.

This piece was written by Parliamentary Advocacy Coordinator Tom Pearce, and originally published on Stuff at this link.