From dusk till dawn: fighting crime on the night shift
Whatever the time of day, c-store staff face the prospect of verbal or physical abuse from customers, but this threat is magnified come nightfall. Those who work night shifts in 24-hour stores have to contend with drunken revellers spilling out of pubs, and thieves ready to strike when there are fewer people around and darkness to hide in. Convenience Store went to the Tates Spar forecourt in Battlefield, to spend some time on the frontline.
We arrive in the thick of things in the early evening. Trainee manager Marcus Burnley-Lowe has seen two young men shoplifting and chases them out of the store. Showing Olympic-style prowess, Marcus catches up with them, just as the local police arrive. The thieves' loot? Two bottles of cider.
For four litres of alcohol, the store's manager has had to leave the premises; staff members have had to drop their duties to give statements to the police; and customers have been left feeling uncomfortable, knowing that crime is taking place on their doorstep.
Mark Stevenson, loss prevention manager for Tates Spar, says that situations such as this can have a serious effect on business. "A few incidents of shoplifting have cost us a lot of business in the past six months or so. Even on a weeknight the store used to be very busy with staff members rushed off their feet. Now it's a lot quieter here. I'm sure crime isn't the only reason for the drop in business, but it's certainly contributed to it."
One customer told Convenience Store that his wife is afraid to come to the store because of the gangs of kids hanging around outside. Mark is well aware of the problem. "It can be intimidating for people to pass by a gang of 10 or 12 teenagers and I completely understand someone not wanting to risk anything happening to them," he says.
Unfortunately, it's down to the staff to deal with the gangs. "We can't call the police for this every time so we have to ask the youths to move on ourselves," adds Mark. "It's very intimidating for a member of staff to have to do that."
One of Convenience Store's tasks for the night is to approach the group and ask them to move on. There are seven cars with at least two young men in each one. Mark's instructions are to be polite but firm. Thankfully, in this case, they are reasonable and move on when asked, but five minutes later two more cars show up.
"We could do this all night, but they'll keep coming back," says Kevin Maddocks, a supervisor at the store. "The forecourt has become a place for them to hang around and even when we move them on, more come along soon after. Most times, they move on without any hassle, but on occasions they can be abusive. In those situations, we have to call the police."
Kevin has been working at the store for more than 18 months and has had to put up with his fair share of verbal abuse. "It's usually on weekend nights that we get most hassle people coming home from pubs or clubs and stopping off for more alcohol."
Incidents of verbal abuse have become more frequent as the requirement to ask for identification for age-related sales has become stricter. "A lot of the abuse stems from asking for ID for cigarettes and alcohol," says Mark. "While obviously I agree that there have to be ID checks, the legislation puts staff in a very awkward situation. If they don't ask for identification, they could receive a fine and get the store into trouble, but if they do ask they run the risk of being verbally or even physically abused."
Tates Spar has invested in a number of measures to ensure that its employees are as safe as possible. To deter criminals, the store has an extensive CCTV system as well as security doors at the counter entrance. There are also panic buttons in case there is a raid on the store.
Mark says that no expense is spared when it comes to staff safety. "The CCTV is state-of-the-art and we've offered every possible provision for staff to protect themselves," he says. "We also advise them not to challenge an armed robber in any way."
Mark also places several staff members on duty throughout the night rather than just having one or two on during the quiet hours to cut costs. He believes that this is more effective than employing a security guard.
"Some staff members have asked me about having a security guard, but I think that they can sometimes make the situation worse," he says. "If an armed robber comes in with a gun, what will they be able to do? And if there's anti-social behaviour taking place in or around the store, it can be the case that the presence of a security guard escalates the situation.
"It's not a cost issue. If I thought it would work, I would campaign for security guards to be in all stores that had trouble, but I don't feel that they would be any help protecting the staff," he adds. "I much prefer to have a few members on together; they learn to look out for each other and it works much better than having an outsider at the store."
Mark maintains that working with the local police can also help when it comes to tackling crime, during both night and day. In some Tates stores the local force has set up an office, resulting in a constant presence that deters criminals. Mark says that even if the store simply offers the local police a place to sit down and have a cup of tea or coffee while working a night shift, it can go a long way to building a partnership.
"A good relationship with the local police is essential. West Mercia police have been very willing to help us whenever we've needed them," Mark points out. "For any store manager who faces anti-social behaviour and theft and wants to continue to open 24 hours, I would recommend cultivating a strong relationship with the police force."
However, Mark adds that if crime gets to an unacceptable level, he wouldn't hesitate in abandoning 24-hour opening. "If the situation gets too bad, we'll take a serious look at whether it should remain an all-night store. It's not just a financial decision we have to look at the welfare of the staff as well.
"Even if the store regularly turns a profit during a night shift, it may be the case it's not worth risking staff members' safety for it. These people work hard for their wages and deserve to be able to do it without feeling threatened."