The Security Guards Letting People Steal Food

“Would people really be stealing baby milk if they didn't have to?”
Security guards with their face obscured surrounded by shopping basket of food

With rocketing energy costs, rising inflation and stagnant wages, it’s certainly not been an easy winter in the UK. While some are having to choose between heating or eating, others are having to resort to more illegal methods to stay afloat – like shoplifting.

While shoplifting has always been a booming business (for shoplifters), casual theft has only grown during the cost of living crisis. From nicking cheese and meat to nappies and shampoo, shoplifting rose 21 per cent in the 12 months to March 2022, according to the Office of National Statistics. Perhaps unsurprising at a time when food banks are so overrun they’re having to turn people away.

If you’re caught nicking stuff from UK supermarkets, you can receive a ban, fine or even jail time if you’re extremely unlucky. But what if you’re not caught? Because for some security guards, who’d usually be checking, it feels deeply unfair to be harsh on those having to shoplift during the cost of living crisis.

Mike is a security guard at one of the UK’s largest security firms. He regularly patrols large supermarket chains, and has often found himself turning a blind eye to people stealing food. Like everyone else in this piece, we changed his name to protect his job prospects. “I really don’t like calling the police or catching shoplifters since the bills went up,” he says. “If people are choosing between heating and eating, who am I to stop them? Prices have literally doubled – from food to electricity to rent. I don’t want anyone to go hungry.”

He continues: “People have children to feed. Whether it’s people pushing food into prams and bags or not scanning half their shopping at the self-service, I just don’t have it in me anymore to stop people stealing essential items. Would people really be stealing baby milk if they didn't have to?”


Mike says that it’s easier to ignore shoplifters during the weekends when the police are usually busier. “I don’t believe that people steal food for fun,” he adds.

Nick, another security guard, agrees. “People can get really desperate. It breaks my heart to see people stealing things that are clearly for their children. There’s so much to buy and spend money on. Put it this way, I won’t be paying attention to anyone stealing things to eat or drink. Everyones got to live.”

Carl, an ex-security guard who now owns a security firm that deals with many UK supermarkets, says that it’s hard to catch shoplifters anyway. Sometimes it’s not even worth the hassle – especially when security guards themselves are on low pay. “There have been incidents when shoplifters have attacked us and really hurt us,” he says. “I know some security guards have been stabbed at work. When I hear about stuff like this alongside the cost of living crisis, of course it makes me more likely to turn a blind-eye... People are getting desperate, simple as. And I won’t be putting myself in the way. Legally, we can’t pursue anyone out of the shop for health and safety, anyway.”

I asked Carl what would happen if security guards were seen to be ignoring shoplifters by shop managers. “If we didn’t make arrests, we would be sacked pretty quickly. But it’s so difficult for us to get the balance right… Trust me, I have cried when I’ve seen my own grocery shopping bill, so I really sympathise with people this winter.”


Tim, a security guard at a major supermarket chain, adds that “it’s very difficult to prove that we are actually turning a blind-eye, especially when shoplifters are not known to the store. How exactly are we supposed to judge a shoplifter from a normal shopper, when so many people are doing it? Nowadays, most people are stealing one or two items alongside their regular shop in an attempt to reduce their bills and I don’t blame them. I have friends who do the same.” 

In order to combat the recent increase in shoplifting, certain supermarkets in Wales have launched schemes that they hope will see a decrease in convictions. Rather than calling the police to make arrests, shoplifters will be signposted to local food banks and charities. 

Carl remained sceptical about making this the norm, however. If food banks were a simple solution, then people wouldn’t need to steal. “Some of us have spoken about these schemes,” he says. “We feel like it’s a way to try and ease the burden on us for catching shoplifters, but it doesn’t. The most high risk areas of a supermarket, like the baby food and alcohol aisles, will not see a reduction in theft with this scheme. Will food banks always have enough items for children? No. Will they give out alcohol to alcoholics? No.”

“So, will I still feel guilty catching people who steal essential items? Yes. Will I continue to turn a blind-eye? Most definitely.”

It’s clear that schemes and incentives curated by the government fall drastically short of offering people the economic support they desperately need. At a time when rent prices are soaring and benefits are at a shocking 40-year low (despite inflation being at a 40-year high), a few food banks and charities aren’t going to solve the damage caused by over a decade of austerity measures. 

“We’re all pawns in a game really, and we can all feel the cost of living crisis,” says Mike. “Whether you’re the shoplifter, or the security guard, we’re both being shafted.”