A new requirement that shoppers pay for plastic bags — previously distributed free of charge — has compelled many of them to bring their own bags to put their purchases in. But the charge, implemented nationwide in July, has come at the cost of an undesirable side effect: a rise in shoplifting.
More and more customers are now taking advantage of their own personal, reusable bags, which they are encouraged to use in lieu of single-use plastic bags, to conceal unpaid items, making shoplifting harder to identify — a headache for shop owners.
The mandatory levy on plastic bags, introduced as part of Japan’s efforts to reduce plastic waste, has led to the prevalence of these reusable bags, dubbed “My Bag.”
“Since July, the number of shoplifting cases involving My Bags has noticeably increased,” said a man in his 70s who runs a security firm in Hiroshima.
Between July and September, some 15 plainclothes security officers dispatched by his company to retail outlets in Hiroshima Prefecture and its surroundings caught people in about 50 shoplifting cases, most of which involved the use of reusable bags.
In one case, a woman in her 40s was caught at a Hiroshima supermarket in late August as she stole 29 items worth about ¥6,000 — including bread, canned beer and ready-to-eat food products — stowed in her My Bag. Just before she was arrested, she was exploring the supermarket with her personal bag spread over a shopping basket.
The man who heads the security firm has over 20 years experience dealing with shoplifters as a plainclothes security guard.
“Even when I caught them after witnessing the whole thing, some had the temerity to claim items were those they bought elsewhere,” he said.
Even before July, when all retail outlets nationwide started charging customers for single-use plastic bags, many shops in the prefecture had already done so voluntarily in compliance with a request by the local government, starting from October 2009.
Most susceptible to the recent surge in shoplifting are those shops that waited until July to make customers pay for plastic bags.
A drugstore headquartered in the prefecture, for example, saw revenue losses caused by shoplifters increase about 30% in July from the previous month. The increase persisted in August and September, hovering at about a 20% rise.
Shop owners are hard-pressed to come up with effective countermeasures.
Act Chushoku, which runs a supermarket chain, has a system in place where shoppers are given baskets of a different color upon making their purchases, so that they will stand out if they try to pack their groceries in their personal bags without going through cashiers first.
Another local supermarket at one point considered hiring more staff to boost surveillance, but thought better of it upon the realization that personnel costs could exceed shoplifting-related losses.
“At the end of the day, we have to rely on customers’ morality,” a supermarket official said.
“Shoplifting does constitute a charge of larceny,” warned Junichi Izumi, a Hiroshima Prefectural Police official. “It could evolve into a serious case if perpetrators become violent toward store employees in their attempt to escape.”
The National Shoplifting Prevention Organization (NSPO), a nonprofit based in Tokyo, created fliers in August detailing manners regarding My Bag use. The group recommends, among other things, that shoppers fold their personal bags upon entering stores and close their bags if they contain items bought elsewhere.
“There is a limit as to what stores can do as self-defense. What’s important is for the community and local municipalities to cooperate, and call on shoppers to thoroughly observe etiquette to make shoplifting difficult,” Akira Mitsuzane, secretary-general of NSPO, said.
This monthly feature focuses on topics and issues covered by the Chugoku Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the Chugoku region. The original article was published Nov. 6.
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