Jackie Fitzgerald – The Canberra Times & The Herald SunExecutive Director, Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research
Cost of living not to blame for rise in retail theft
A sharp rise in retail theft across NSW has brought the crime back to pre-pandemic levels, and researchers say the cost-of-living crisis is not to blame.
Retail theft fell significantly during the pandemic, but incidents have increased by 48 per cent in the 24 months to June this year, a NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research report reveals.
The crime of theft has now reached parity with pre-pandemic levels across the state.
NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research executive director Jackie Fitzgerald said the numbers reflect a return to pre-COVID offending behaviour, rather than being driven by inflation or cost-of-living pressures.
Hard liquor continues to be the most frequently reported item stolen, accounting for 37 per cent of incidents in 2022/23.
Thefts of clothing and shoes account for 22 per cent of incidents, while the theft of personal items such as perfume and cosmetics has declined in the past five years, accounting for 13 per cent of incidents.
The average value of items stolen in retail theft incidents reported to police in 2022/23 was $440.
“While still a male-dominated crime, females account for approximately 41 per cent of all retail theft offenders, which is more than most offences,” Ms Fitzgerald said.
The vast majority – 85 per cent – of retail theft offenders are adults, although the rate of participation in retail theft is highest among young people aged 14 to 17 years, the report revealed.
NSW retail theft on the rise as cost of living pressure ruled out as cause
Cost of living pressure has had little impact on why people are stealing from retail stores, with latest research revealing the amount of thefts has returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Recorded incidents of retail theft has increased by 48 per cent in the 24 months to June 2023, according to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research’s latest report.
The data found retail theft has now reached parity with pre-pandemic levels in both Greater Sydney and Regional NSW.
Retail theft during the pandemic lockdown periods saw a steep decline across the state but is now returning to pre-pandemic levels.
The report established the increase in retail theft was unlikely driven by inflation or emerging cost-of-living pressures, despite millions of Aussies battling to manage their budget.
Executive Director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, Jackie Fitzgerald, said if cost of living pressures were leading to more retail thefts, she would have expected to see “more incidents theft than we were seeing in 2019”.
Ms Fitzgerald said the latest theft data was consistent with incidents reported in 2019.
“People have resumed their previous offending behaviours and patterns rather than an acceleration in offending,” she said.
“If you just look at the police data it suggests they were were pretty consistent with when crime fell during Covid.
“You can’t rule out but based on the data we’ve got, it’s not really supportive of those cost of living pressures being the reason for offending.”
The report found that only eight NSW localities out of the 28 statistical areas across the state had recorded notably more retail theft incidents in 2022/23 than in 2018/19.
This limited increase does not support a cost-of-living crisis driving an increase in this offence, according to the report.
Those suburbs included:
- the Inner South West (up 36 per cent)
- Eastern Suburbs (up 34 per cent)
- Parramatta (up 18 per cent)
- Blacktown (up 8 per cent)
- Outer West and Blue Mountains (up 4 per cent respectively)
- Illawarra (up 8 per cent)
- Mid North Coast (up 6 per cent)
- Richmond-Tweed (up 5 per cent).
Ms Fitzgerald said the most frequently reported item stolen in retail theft continues to be hard liquor with 37 per cent of incidents recorded in 2022/23.
She said clothing/shoes came in second with 22 per cent of retail thefts across the state.
“Consistently liquor is the most common item stolen, these are expensive desirables, they’re not necessarily life necessities,” Ms Fitzgerald said.
Meanwhile, the theft of personal items – perfume and cosmetics – have declined in the past five years to now 13 per cent of incidents.
“The average value of items stolen in retail theft incidents reported to NSW Police in 2022/23 was $440,” Ms Fitzgerald said.
Supermarkets continues to consistently report the highest volumes of retail theft with 27 per cent of reported incidents, while department clothing stores and chemists reported the largest declines.
The report also analysed those people who committed the offending, with NSW, with 47 per cent of people caught stealing being aged between 30 and 49 years.
“While still a male-dominated crime, females account for approximately 41 per cent of all retail theft offenders which is more than most offences,” Ms Fitzgerald said.
“85 per cent of retail theft offenders are adults, although the rate of participation in retail theft is highest among young people aged 14 to 17 years.”
Nearly half of all reported retail thefts in NSW resulted in legal proceedings within 90 days in the year to June 2023.
“Drawing on what is reported to NSW Police, the findings of this report suggest that the recent increase in retail theft is more likely to be a recovery from COVID-19 related crime falls,” the report stated.
“While rising cost of living pressures and organised crime involvement may be playing a part in how quickly retail theft volumes rebounded, this paper does not find evidence to suggest these factors have driven retail theft above what was occurring prior to the pandemic.”