Shoplifting rates in Ireland soared by more than 10pc over Christmas, with a leading retail body warning that the system for dealing with such thefts was "broken and an absolute joke".
An estimated €250m worth of goods is now taken annually from Irish stores by shoplifters, with almost €2m a day being stolen over the Christmas shopping season.
Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association (ISME) Chief Executive Mark Fielding said they were awaiting the results of a special nationwide Christmas shopping survey of their members to determine the precise shoplifting rate.
"There is no doubt that shoplifting rates have increased and, frankly, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see that shoplifting had double-digit growth over December," he said.
"It is certainly true to say that our members are deeply concerned about the level of thefts and the impact it is having on their business at a very difficult trading time."
Both ISME and the retail grocery group, RGDATA, now want a radical overhaul of the judicial approach to shoplifting.
Retail groups estimate that Irish traders have to add 3pc to 5pc to the cost of goods to allow for the scale of thefts they suffer. Worst hit are retailers in the fashion, jewellery, grocery and electronics sectors
Studies have shown that just one in 20 of those convicted of shoplifting is later given a jail sentence. Worse still, just one in four of those detained for shoplifting was prosecuted and convicted in the 12 months following the original incident.
"The system is a joke. I think everyone realises it at this stage," said Mr Fielding. "Some of our members have complained that, after attending multiple court sittings in relation to a case, they often meet the shoplifter on the way home after the case is finished. They are generally home before the traders – and with little more than a slap on the wrist."
The greatest concern is that the cost to the trader of supporting a prosecution through attending multiple court sessions can often match or exceed the cost of the original theft.
Both ISME and RGDATA want the system for dealing with shoplifting radically overhauled to tackle repeat offenders, to use exclusion orders to keep offenders away from retail zones and to ensure serial thieves receive hefty custodial sentences. They also want a fast-track system for such crimes within district courts.
The Irish retail theft study also found that, over a 12-month period, the heaviest sentence handed down by a district court was five months, with the offender being released early. Last year, one district court judge expressed concern at the number of shoplifting cases coming before him.
Judge Seamus Hughes warned Mullingar District Court that the number of cases indicated a shoplifting "epidemic". Gardai admitted organised shoplifting gangs were a matter of growing concern.
Such gangs are highly organised and 'blitz' targeted urban areas in periods of less than an hour, in order to maximise the value of goods stolen before retailers are able to co-ordinate warnings among security staff.