Retail theft for the December quarter is up 20% – and the year isn’t even over

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Many of these organised criminals have a “professional” approach to theft and may target five to 10 stores in a day in groups of three or four, stealing more than $5000 worth of merchandise.

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“This is their day job. They do this nine to five, Monday through Friday,” said Thomson.

“You’ll be surprised at the amount of people who do walk out of the electronics store with a flat-screen TV under their arm. It’s got more brazen.”

Sophisticated, co-ordinated retail theft groups typically have links to broader criminal networks, with the profits going towards funding gangs, guns and drugs, he added.

Higher cost-of-living pressures have also driven up demand for these goods, which are exported overseas or resold on Facebook marketplace and bought by Australians who are attracted by the lower prices.

“People find a market for cheap goods that people don’t ask too many questions about, unfortunately,” said Thomson.

Bunnings’ MD Mike Schneider says theft and customer aggression are year-round issues that began escalating during the pandemic.

Bunnings’ managing director Mike Schneider said theft and customer aggression are year-round issues that began escalating during the pandemic.

He described “abusive behaviour … that can be anything from swearing at a team member to spitting at a team member to pushing and shoving”, and is sometimes even directed towards other customers.

“In the worst instances, team members can be punched or hit or kicked and that’s horrible.

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“It isn’t as though [this behaviour] got turned on for Christmas, right? This has really been building over the last 18, 24 months.”

Bunnings has implemented deterrence strategies including uniformed and plain-clothes security, surveillance technology and engaging with law enforcement, but Schneider declined to provide more details.

“We’re really conscious … there’ll be people that we probably don’t want learning our security secrets.”

Supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths have flagged the deepening impact of theft on profitability, with the former flagging a 20 per cent rise in total stock loss for the 2023 financial year.

As retailers brace for higher levels of theft and aggression, they are also carefully watching how much Australians spend this Christmas, especially after a blockbuster Black Friday and Cyber Monday weekend in November, when consumers spent a record $8.7 billion.

After a year of several interest rate rises, and a jump in energy and petrol prices, Australians have become better at managing their budgets and finding ways to cut down on spending by eating out less, trading down, and denying “micro treats” such as coffees, saving an average of $300 a month.

“Customers are absolutely far more confident in how they manage their money, and they’re engaged now, more than ever,” said NAB personal banking executive Kylie Young. “They’re a lot more confident in tips and tricks to get ahead.”

Australians are converting their loyalty points built up over the year into gift cards and spending them on groceries or Christmas presents, she said, with Woolworths, Coles, Bunnings and Amazon being the most popular gift cards, according to NAB data.

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