Shoplifting is set to increase dramatically as Britain enters a recession, with desperate times forcing more people into desperate measures, the British Retail Consortium has warned. The BRC 2008 Retail Crime Survey, published this week, shows shoplifting fell 26% in the year to April, but director general Stephen Robertson claimed the progress was set to be reversed.

“Reports have focused on a surge in shoplifting,” he said. “Retailers are preparing for a rapid rise in offences and are adapting crime prevention methods by, for example, placing electronic security tags on expensive cuts of meat.”

Convenience stores were often targeted by thieves because the penalties were soft, said Jonathan James, MD of Top 50 retailer James Graven & Sons. “If they burgled a house there would be a chance of imprisonment, but if they come and steal the same stuff from a shop they get an £80 fixed penalty notice.”

One of James’ stores, in Soham, Cambridgeshire, houses a local police office, but James said even this is only effective to a point.

“The police office has deterred shoplifting, but hardened druggies looking for a fix are still going to take the gamble,” he said, adding that theft cost the business 0.5% of turnover. Asda said it was preparing for a new upsurge.

“We have not seen any signs that there are increasing numbers of thefts. However, we constantly review our procedures to ensure we’re ready for the future,” said a spokeswoman.

The BRC is campaigning for the end of penalty notices for disorder, and is asking that sentences for commercial burglary take account of all costs, including repairs, lost trade and employee time, not just the value of the goods stolen.

“The falls in retail crime cannot be taken for granted,” said Robertson. “With the economic slowdown worsening, retailers deserve Government and police support in their battle to stop the human and financial costs rising again.”