POLICE have launched a dedicated crime unit as part of a major crackdown on shoplifters during the festive period.

Organised gangs and opportunist thieves will be targeted in Glasgow city centre over Christmas and New Year.

It is an extension of the robbery unit based at Stewart Street police office.

Six officers will be involved in the month-long campaign, which runs until Sunday, January 6.

With hundreds of stores and malls in the city centre, including Buchanan Galleries and St Enoch Centre, the area is an obvious target for criminals over the festive period.

Senior officers believe that having a unit which focuses primarily on shoplifting is the key to driving down the number of incidents.

Chief Inspector Alan Porte, area commander for the city centre, said: "The message to anyone considering shoplifting is that they will be arrested and brought to justice.

"Previously, in the run up to Christmas, we have seen an increase in shoplifting and we aim to police the entire area robustly.

"Every day, until January 6, we will have six dedicated officers who will deal solely with incidents of shoplifting in the area.

"Glasgow city centre is a safe place and we will work to ensure that it is kept that way."

As well as stamping out shoplifting, senior officers say that reassuring the public about their safety will be a key part of the initiative.

Earlier this year the Evening Times revealed that thefts from shops in Glasgow increased by 14% on the previous year.

Strathclyde Police officially recorded 6318 reports of shoplifting in 2011-12, while figures obtained for individual police beats, as part of our Crime On Your Streets series, revealed that the crime is booming at the heart of the city's Style Mile.

Police and retail crime experts link the rise in shoplifting to the recession because more people are turning to theft, and there are more arrests because struggling shops are less willing to tolerate the problem.

Inspector Stuart Simpson, who supervises the unit's officers, said: "Some people might think shoplifting is a victimless crime, but it is not.

"Shoplifting has a series of knock-on effects and, in some cases, is connected to other forms of crime.

"Some will steal to fund a drug addiction, while others will carry out the thefts as part of a 'professional business'.

"It's not just individuals who shoplift. Some will work in teams and, at times, the thefts can be quite well orchestrated.

"In addition, increases in shoplifting could result in price rises for law-abiding shoppers.

"There is a big increase in footfall in the city centre at this time of year, so therefore there are going to be more shoplifters.

"Not only will this allow us to put more focus on to tackling shoplifting, but it also stops us from diverting officers away from other areas.

"Ultimately, our aim is to keep people safe."

Official police statistics for shoplifting show a clear rise in the city's main shopping areas.

One of Glasgow's busiest beats, which covers the southern end of Buchanan Street and nearby parts of Argyle Street, has experienced an increase in shoplifting incidents from 588 to 848 in 2011-12.

Nearby St Enoch Square – a beat that extends beyond the mall of the same name – had 412 such offences, up from 356 the year before.

Meanwhile, figures doubled in the area around – but not including – Central Station.

Officers have warned that all shops – including major department stores and small independent shops – can fall victim to shoplifters.

Some are investing in what they call "revenue protection", such as when Tesco started putting electronic tags on packs of mince in its city centre stores last year.

Others have introduced CCTV and store detectives to protect their stock.

Glasgow Chamber of Commerce chief executive Stuart Patrick said: "Retail is the very heartbeat of Glasgow, breathing life into the city centre and performing a significant role in the city's leisure tourism industry.

"We welcome this move by the police to help protect the interests of shops of all sizes at this important time of year."

rebecca.gray@ heraldandtimes.co.uk