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Food Prices are Rising in Canada, But so is Theft from Grocery Stores [Sylvain Charlebois]

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“Thefts from grocery stores appear to be on the rise. With food inflation these days, that was to be expected; and the worst is yet to come. “

Apparently, shoplifting has been on the rise in supermarkets in Canada in recent months. Concrete data on theft in grocery stores is harder to get since incidents are typically underreported. Managers tend to take matters into their own hands. But with the increasing number of reports on theft and security guards stationed in and out of grocery stores, things are likely more complicated out there than we’re aware of.

Speaking with various retailers in Montreal, Halifax, Toronto, and Vancouver, and even those located in the heart of neighbourhoods where crime rates are typically lower than average, thefts are now a new cause for concern. According to some anecdotal estimates, the number of thefts has increased by 25 to 40% in just the last six months. A mid-sized grocery store can easily catch 10 to 12 shoplifters in a week these days. The cost of living and the price of food are enticing some citizens to find other ways to obtain supplies.

The most coveted items in supermarkets include meat such as ground beef, steaks, sausages, and roasts, cheeses, spices, and over-the-counter medicine. Energy drinks and alcohol are also a target in provinces where beer, wines and spirits are sold in grocery stores. Some people can steal up to $300 worth of products from multiple locations in a single day.

In addition, some employees may act as accomplices for internal thefts, either in the warehouse or at the back of the store even before the products are put on the shelves. On average in Canada, every grocery store is scooped up for $3,000 to $4,000 worth of groceries per week. In other words, for every 500 supermarkets that open their doors every morning in Canada, a total of nine stores will liquidate their food for free that day due to theft. That’s a lot of food, and the associated costs are a huge problem for our retailers.

Some merchants go to great lengths to prevent theft. Aside from the addition of security cameras and door people, hiring client-security guards also seems to be paying off. Plainclothes mystery shoppers roam the aisles to watch every single move of customers and catch them in the act. Although expensive, this strategy still works well.

These offenders are not associated with any typical profile, as they come from all age groups and backgrounds, which makes the task of catching them more difficult. In Canada, according to some crime experts, about half of all those charged have no criminal record. First instance offenders are often well educated, come from well-off families, hold stable positions, and enjoy a good reputation. Many are just down on their luck.

Obviously, self-service checkouts can facilitate theft. It should therefore come as no surprise that more surveillance has been added around these areas. With profit margins approaching 1%, the profitability of a store now depends a lot on increased surveillance to minimize theft of merchandise. And for those who do follow the rules, which is most of us, we must pay extra for our food due to shoplifting. For merchants to cover their costs, all consumers pay a premium of approximately 2-2.5% for shoplifting and internal theft.

However, with online shopping, theft becomes impossible. Since the start of the pandemic, e-commerce in food has exploded. Canadians now buy more than $5 billion in food a year online. These sales are obviously safe from any temptation to take products and leave without paying. Grocers know this and will want to encourage online shopping from their customers to lower their risk.

Meanwhile, food inflation still has unpredictable shocks in store for us and some believe the situation could deteriorate in the coming months. The merchants will have to double their vigilance. It should come as no surprise that some retailers are using new methods to deter in-store delinquency.

The very first self-service grocery store opened in 1916 in Memphis, Tennessee, under the name Piggly Wiggly. Back in the day, customers presented their shopping lists to employees who then collected the merchandise from the store shelves. Then the founder had the revolutionary idea of allowing customers to serve themselves. Since then, we have been able to visit a store, see the different products and place them in our basket ourselves. For the sake of our grocers, this is a privilege that should not be taken for granted.

Article Author

Sylvain Charlebois
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is Senior Director of the Agri-Foods Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Also at Dalhousie, he is Professor in food distribution and policy in the Faculty of Agriculture. His current research interest lies in the broad area of food distribution, security and safety, and has published four books and many peer-reviewed journal articles in several publications. His research has been featured in a number of newspapers, including The Economist, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, the Globe & Mail, the National Post and the Toronto Star.

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