Shoplifting: do you have a crisis comms plan?

Paul Mcentee

November 11, 2022

When was the last time you stole? I’m not talking about a luxury handbag heist, but the smaller (albeit no less illegal) incremental gains supposedly made while conducting one’s business on the high street.

Declaring only two out of three avocados at the self-checkout at the local Saino’s; tapping ‘Own Bag’ at Marks & Spencer and then sticking a proverbial two fingers up to the system while wanging your ‘Dine In for Two’ Meal Deal into a Bag for Life. Naughty.

But here is the problem. Shoplifting is on the up, and it is not just the ‘poor’ doing it. The Grocer reports that there is a wave of ‘first-time shoplifters’ who are stealing low-cost items. Food banks are running on empty, and Jack Monroe is advocating that the public should turn a blind eye if they see customers stealing staples – nappies, pasta, milk.

Activists such as Foka Wolf are being even more provocative and advocating that shoplifting should be ‘normalised’.

All of this leads to a pretty grim picture of modern Britain and its food poverty crisis and, like it or not, supermarkets and FMCG brands are on the front line. It’s already quite sad to see pieces of meat, bars of chocolate and, allegedly, now butter, eggs and salt either in plastic security cases or with security tags on them – a measure once reserved for expensive bottles of alcohol or other premium goods. Reddit is awash with Sainsbury’s trialling a new exit system where you must scan your receipt to leave the store.

So what can supermarkets and FMCG brands do? It's a crisis comms quagmire waiting to happen. All it takes is one overzealous security guard to apprehend a struggling mother or OAP, a scuffle ensues and it is all over TikTok.

So, here is a playbook that might provide some service:

  • Train and brief all shop-floor staff, particularly security, to exercise emotional intelligence for the next six months. Desperation should not equal criminality.
  • Have a crisis escalation process, by all means, but have a de-escalation process too. No need to advocate shoplifting, but have a level of empathy – be human.
  • Be generous. It is well publicised that supermarkets waste tonnes of food everyday. Develop the means to give this to those in need or develop random acts of kindness (look no further than Pret’s amazing initiative for staff to be empowered to give away items for free). Could supermarkets make a condition of listing for certain major staple brands that they give away a very small percentage of product?
  • Use social listening to track sentiment around your competitors and be ready to step in where they mishandle customer service online.
  • Get creative: don't rely on corporate comms teams to be reactive. Get your agencies coming up with creative solutions to champion and help the consumer in this moment.

The brands that survive downturns the best are the ones that speak the loudest via meaningful contributions to society.

Looking forward to seeing all the ‘Steal Me’ campaigns in next year’s awards season.