When good news is at a premium, even positive tales carry a sting. The revelation in the latest BRC Retail Crime Survey that, for the year to April, levels of retail crime had fallen by the biggest margin in a decade was accompanied by an ominous caveat – a press statement titled ‘Downturn Threatens Retail Crime Surge’.

For an industry adept at finding the good in every bad, this seems doom mongering of Daily Mail proportions. But with the credit crunch now more than a year old and many experts claiming we are already in recession, the BRC has good reason to preach caution.

A recent leaked Home Office report to the Prime Minister warned that, based on models from the previous recession in 1991-92, violent crime is set to grow at a rate of 19% once recession takes hold, while theft and burglaries could rise by 7% in 2008 and 2% in 2009.

“It’s clear from past experience that there’s an upswing in crime during a recession,” says Stephen Robertson, BRC director general. “Retailers are already reporting a rise in offences and are expecting crime to rise significantly as the situation worsens.”

What makes the expected increase in crime so galling is that the BRC figures show a 26% fall in consumer theft and a 56% reduction in employee theft in the year to April – which includes the first nine months of the credit crunch. The average value of goods stolen per incident more than halved. However, the economy has deteriorated rapidly since the Spring. Many retailers agree tougher times lay ahead. For some retailers, they’ve already arrived.

“It’s absolutely true,” says Atul Sodha, owner of a Londis in Harefield, Middlesex. “I’ve seen a rise in shop theft in the past few months. When people have less money to spend there’s a greater risk of theft. I was a retailer in the last recession and saw all kinds of scams.”

Gareth Lewis, head of loss prevention at Southern Co-operatives also reports an increase in shop theft, especially in inner cities. “Thieves tend to target higher-end items such as alcohol,” he says. The potential scale of the problem is what’s really worrying, says Robertson. “This isn’t just about an old lady pinching a packet of bacon,” he says. “Retail crime is really about organised crime and funding drug-related activities.”

Rural stores are most at risk of violent crime, says Lewis, while inner city shops are particularly vulnerable to shop theft. Retailers are, however, already on the offensive. The BRC report cites instances of the multiples tagging more expensive meat cuts. And it’s not just the multiples that are ramping up their crime prevention initiatives.

One retailer in Burnley has gone so far as to remove bacon from the self-service fridge. Shoppers have to ask at the till if they want to buy a pack. “We’re far better prepared than we used to be,” says Sodha. “We have CCTV and don’t leave high-value areas unattended. Retailers also need to be proactive and work alongside the police.”

Budgens store owner Jonathan James even hosts an in-store police office at his Cambridgeshire shop where shoppers can discuss concerns with officers. “We’ve seen some really good work by retailers,” says Robertson. “But crime is a really big issue.”

Big enough, evidently, to turn a rare good news day sour. That said, the ACS warns against sweeping generalisations.

“The reasons behind shop theft are many and varied and it’s too simplistic to say that if people have less money they’ll steal more,” says CEO James Lowman. “Nevertheless, next year is going to be tough. What we’ve seen up until now has been about financial systems. Now we’re going to see the knock-on effect. We’ll wait and see what that means for crime.”