Last week, during his shift overseeing the self-scan section of a large supermarket in London, James let a woman walk out with three multipacks of children’s yoghurts. He had randomly checked her shopping and found that among the items she hadn’t scanned and paid for were the yoghurts, as well as some pouches of baby food. He felt horrible, he says, to have quickly run through his own judgments of how “worthy” he considered her to be – that she was young and had three children under five with her, that she was holding Healthy Start vouchers, which allow people on universal credit and other benefits to buy nutritious food, that the rest of her shopping was healthy with no junk food or alcohol, and that she was really embarrassed and upset. “I couldn’t bring myself to take these four or five items off her so I let it go,” he says. “It wasn’t a huge loss to the company. It wasn’t like they were luxury items. I just said: ‘Don’t worry, but next time someone else might not let it slide.’” He knows he could have been sacked for it. “I’d just have to feign ignorance or stupidity if I got caught.”
At another supermarket, in a town across the country, Alexander watched as a young couple found they couldn’t pay for their shopping at a checkout close to his. They had spent more than £100, paid for some of it in cash, and tried to put the rest on a credit card – not unusual, he says, but the card was declined. “For the next half an hour, they took over the checkout, which we had to close, and somebody had to stand with them while they were making phone calls, presumably to locate some money or fix a problem with the card,” he says. The woman, who was pregnant, was getting more and more distressed and broke down in tears. “It was sad to see. If a credit card doesn’t work, most people have another card, but clearly they had no means of paying.” Eventually they left without half of their shopping.
Inflation has hit a 40-year high of 9%, partly driven by food prices rising at the highest rate since 2011. Then there’s the increasing cost of other essentials – housing, energy, petrol, phone and broadband bills. People – and disproportionately those in the poorest households – are being squeezed, and those who work in supermarkets are seeing it every day. Last week, Andy Cooke, the new chief inspector of constabulary, said police officers should use their “discretion – and they need to use discretion more often” when dealing with crimes of poverty, particularly stealing to eat. Then the policing minister Kit Malthouse said police officers should “not be ignoring these seemingly small crimes”.
But it isn’t just stealing. Supermarket workers tell of watching people put products back that they can’t afford, or make difficult choices about what to buy. There are many more, not obviously struggling people making small changes: cheaper sausages over the premium range, own-brand deodorant over the heavily marketed brand name. “People are putting back things such as strawberries, and they’re buying bananas,” says one man who works at a large Tesco. “Cherries are £15 a kilo and they’re not really getting sold. Before, you’d see people come in for bread and milk and get a few little bits. Now it’s bread and milk and they’re done. There’s a lot less ‘luxuries’ being bought.”
A couple of weeks ago, John Allan, the chair of Tesco, said the supermarket was seeing “real food poverty for the first time in a generation” and reported that customers were asking checkout staff to stop scanning their shopping when it reached £40 because they didn’t want, or couldn’t afford, to spend more. Lila, who works for a supermarket on the south coast, also says more people are asking her to stop putting items through when the total reaches £40 or £50. “Then they’ll take the alcohol or confectionery out and swap it for bread,” she says. It’s not as if they put their priority items first, she says, more that “people don’t realise how much prices have gone up until they get to the till and then they’re like: ‘Oh, wow.’ It’s definitely changed the way people are shopping – they’re thinking: ‘Do I need this?’” One of Lila’s customers immediately put the total into a spreadsheet on her phone. “She said: ‘I have to do this now or I’ll forget, and it’s really important.’”
Even at the higher-end supermarkets, the higher prices have been noted, even if their customers are not particularly affected by them. “Sometimes, when I give them the bill at the end, I feel slightly guilty,” says Kay, who works on the checkout at Waitrose. “I just say, ‘Oh God, it’s really bad, isn’t it?’ And they go ‘yeah’, but most of them can afford it. They could shop somewhere else if they couldn’t afford it.” She has noticed an impact on the older people who use the supermarket for convenience. “We get to know the regulars and you do notice that they’re not putting so much in a basket.” And the staff now shop there less, she says, “including me. We get quite a good discount, but I’ve started shopping at Lidl and Aldi, whereas I would have [shopped at Waitrose] before. I have noticed the prices of things I would normally buy, which are another 30p or 50p higher.”
Thefts have increased, she says, and the supermarket has started to employ a security guard, but she adds it’s not so much struggling customers slipping something extra into their bag without paying for it, as experienced shoplifters taking products such as meat, alcohol and razor blades to sell on. The picture is different elsewhere. One supermarket worker I speak to says that that morning, an elderly woman had claimed she had already paid for a bag of oranges which she had half-hidden in her trolley, but couldn’t produce a receipt. “There was a bit of concern as to whether the lady had dementia, and so might have forgotten,” he says, but after talking to her – and checking with their colleague on the checkout where she claimed to have paid – the staff believed it was more likely she had intended to take it without paying.
Nick works nights at a big supermarket, stacking shelves and restocking freezers. He has always found empty packets, their contents taken, hidden at the backs of shelves or under bags of frozen peas, “but lately it seems to have increased. Since the turn of the year, I’m finding more and more.” Before, it might have been an opportunistic thief taking something such as jewellery or accessories from the supermarket’s clothing department and dumping the tag somewhere in store, but he says, “that seems to have stopped. Now, it’s everyday products.” In the past few weeks, he has found empty packets of denture adhesive and pain relief medicine such as Voltarol, “which suggests it’s pensioners who are doing it”. Paracetamol has been taken “even though it’s only about 20p”. Baby clothes are another thing commonly stolen, he says. “Last weekend, I found tags from baby socks.”
Supermarket workers tell of people getting to know the time when items get reduced and using physical force to get to them. “My colleague normally does them, and there might be 10 or 12 customers around her,” says Alexander. “She has had to shout at them to stand back because she has found it oppressive, and it seems to be getting worse.”
At the large supermarket where he works in London, James has seen the same. In the past couple of months he has seen the number of people queueing double, and waiting at 3pm on a Sunday by the big doors to the warehouse for the trays of reduced items to come out, particularly meat. “There will be people waiting for whichever poor soul has got to put them out and he doesn’t even get to the fridge,” he says. “Before he gets there, people are ripping the trays off him. There’s less shame in it – not that there should be any shame in it, but people are caring less about how it looks.” There are the regulars who have long waited for the yellow-stickered items, but now there are more people “elbowing in on their patch. It gets a bit territorial.” He remembers people pushing to get to the reduced trays of strawberries, and the manager having to call the security guard to keep people back.
There has been a change in atmosphere, James says. Customers are ruder and more aggressive. He doesn’t know if it’s a hangover from the stressful days of lockdown shopping, when people were fearful and navigating new rules, or if the cost of living is taking its toll – probably both, he says. “They’re a lot more short with you, more dismissive of you as a person.” He thinks supermarket workers, even though most are on little more than the national minimum wage themselves, are experiencing people’s anger at the rising prices. “You’re in a uniform, they don’t see you as a person, they see you as an extension of this company you work for, so people shout at you.” Customers annoyed that a product is no longer on special offer will shout at him, he says. “Fuses of people are short. People are under pressure.”
Many customers that he recognises have been coming in later, which he has put down to them working longer hours. The other thing he has noticed – perhaps because parents are at work for longer – is an increase in children, about 11 or 12 years old, doing small basket shops. “They always pay in cash, and quite a few times they run short. They’re about 50p short and they’re like: ‘Can you take this off?’” he says, of children asking to put things back that they have already scanned. He carries a cash float, usually coppers and small change other customers have left, and – after checking with his boss – often pays for their items.
Theft, James says, “is massively up” since the beginning of the year, probably by about half. Some of this is down to experienced shoplifters, he says, “the people who try to leave with a vacuum cleaner or a TV, or walk out with a trolley full of fish; the ones in the nice cars and nice clothes. They’re not the ones in need.” But it’s rare the police come out, he says – the shoplifter will be banned from the store, but he will see them back again in a few weeks. “The police won’t really come out for anything other than violence. Usually nothing happens [to shoplifters] and for certain people, that’s a risk worth taking.”
What James has seen, though, is a rise in “genuine people struggling who are not ‘shoplifting’, but conveniently not paying for all of their shopping,” he says. He can spot them – they look guilty when they’re paying – and they’re mortified when they’re caught. At each shift he works, he says there are at least two or three incidences of this. “People ‘forget’ to scan expensive items, such as boxes of washing powder, things that don’t need an approval [unlike alcohol].” Packets of precooked meat, in a world where some families can’t afford to put the oven on, are another regular item that gets “missed”. The typical customer, he says, tends to be a fairly young mother who “hasn’t scanned a big bottle of Comfort, yet she’s only got 10 items, so it’s a bit of a ‘happy accident’. When you point out it hasn’t been scanned and you scan it, they’re like: ‘Oh, I didn’t realise it was that price – I’m not going to take that now.’ Then I feel bad because this lady’s gone without fabric softener because she can’t afford it – but then she did try to shoplift.
“It’s difficult, and I try not to judge anyone because it’s hard for people. You can tell which people are brazenly trying it on, and which people are struggling. Whichever way, it doesn’t really matter because you still have to do what you’ve got to do.” Except for the occasional time when he doesn’t.