Our C-Store Champions share their experiences of crime in their stores, its effect on their businesses, and how they are fighting the battle.
Ralph Patel, owner of The Look-In, Woodmansterne in Surrey
Ralph tries to report all crimes in his store, but is becoming frustrated by the lack of police reponse
David Wyatt, owner of three Costcutter stores in West Sussex
Role-playing how to deal with different crime scenarios means David’s team are prepared
Barry Patel, owner of two Nisa stores in Luton and one in Oxford
Barry is continually investing in new security measures, backed up by thorough staff training
Mo Razzaq, owner of a Family Shopper and Premier store in Glasgow
Security watches, which allow staff to call for support in the event of a crime, are used in Mo’s stores
What are the most common offences that you encounter?
Ralph: We don’t encounter a huge amount of high level crime because we are in a village, so usually get the same customers coming in every day. The main problem is when we have to refuse a tobacco or alcohol sale. That’s when things can escalate and the customer will either run out with the product or get aggressive if we challenge them. Another recurring problem is ATM robbery. We were targeted earlier this year when thieves reversed into the front of store. You can imagine the damage it caused. We were fortunate that we were insured by The Retail Mutual. They contacted us about the incident and there was no problems with the payout. The incident happened at midnight and there were loads of people watching - someone even took a video - but the police still didn’t respond.
David: We have a garage site, a village store and a high street store, and crime varies in each. The main issue at our forecourt store is when we refuse a sale, which is usually the main cause of violence or abuse towards staff. We also get a lot of drive-offs, where people don’t pay for their fuel. I think the reason those incidents are going up is because people just can’t afford the fuel they need for work. In our other stores it’s more a case of general shoplifting. We try to keep all the high-value items in one area where we can keep an eye on them. The crime that hurts the most is staff crime and I’ve had a few incidents over the years.
Barry: Shoplifting is the major one for us, which is why I make sure we have enough staff on in the evening and early morning. It becomes more of an issue when it gets violent and confrontational. We had an incident three months ago when a guy was shoplifting in the store and became angry when we asked him to stop. He then tried to destroy the shop and damaged lots of products and shelving. It was a real shock for customers and staff.
Mo: The most common offence we face is shoplifting. Ever since minimum unit pricing kicked in we’ve seen a rise in the number of alcohol-related thefts. Because there are fewer cheap ciders and spirits for people to buy, they are turning to crime instead. I would say these types of offences have gone up at least 30-40% in our stores.
How do these crimes affect you, your staff and business?
Ralph: These type of incidents make people not want to come to work. It’s not good for anyone, especially when the police don’t take retail crime seriously. It’s sad when you have the Police Crime Commissioners openly saying that they won’t investigate crimes below £200. Criminals know that they can target independents, which makes us retailers even more frustrated.
David: We’ve been quite lucky as we don’t have to deal with too much organised crime. Generally, staff don’t suffer too much and we always tell them not to get involved and keep an eye out on the CCTV rather than take any physical action. We always remind staff that their well-being is more important than anything. Our forecourt is part of the Shell group so we get a lot of support from them in terms of making sure that we are prepared for all scenarios.
Barry: Crime comes at a cost for staff emotionally, as well as adding to our recruitment costs. We’ve had two staff leave because of confrontations with shoplifters. The main thing we tell them is to not get into a conflict and make sure that customers are safe.
Mo: The worst problem is that staff take time off with stress and we have to cover that cost. The recruiting of staff is also harder than it used to be because the good staff don’t want to work in the retail sector where there is a risk of crime.
Do you report every incident to the authorities?
Ralph: I know lots of retailers who don’t bother reporting crime because they don’t see the point. I do try to report crime, but all you get from the police is a crime reporting number and then someone calls to say that they aren’t taking the investigation further. Some people are put off reporting crime because their premiums go up.
David: If we have a drive-off then I always report it, even though that has to be done online now and takes a lot of time. However, we’re also aware that people can be put into difficult situations and we can see if someone is desperate and not a prolific criminal. I don’t want to play judge, but quite often it is up to me to decide whether someone is a true criminal, or has been forced into stealing products. Quite often they are local so the staff will keep an eye on them and I’ll take them to one side next time they come in and explain to them the seriousness of what they are doing. We don’t want to lose a customer because of a crime and actually it could turn round the other way where we earn their trust. You just have to be switched on about these things and deal with every situation individually so, no, I don’t report every incident.
Barry: About two years ago we stopped reporting most crimes to the police, the reason being that it has got to the stage where you are sent a letter that you have to fill in and know that it won’t be investigated. We can give them CCTV footage and even tell them the address of the person who committed the crime - usually it’s a local person - so it’s frustrating when you know it’s not going to go anywhere.
Mo: We make a point of reporting most crimes. Even if it feels like something isn’t worth reporting, it all goes on the record and builds up until police have to take action. We’re not going to change anything if we don’t report crime. Of course, it doesn’t work for every retailer, and it’s different for every police force, but even if it goes nowhere eventually there will have to be a breakthrough.
How do you train staff to deal with criminal activity or threatening behaviour?
Ralph: We have always said to staff that if someone comes into the store and starts threatening people and trying to steal then they should just let them have it. It’s not worth putting someone in danger to try to save a bottle of wine or some packs of cigarettes. We want to try to make sure the situation doesn’t turn violent. Staff safety is of paramount importance.
David: A couple of times a year we work through all our fire safety and health and safety measures, which includes all things to do with crime. We act out a number of different scenarios using the Shell ‘Get Home Safe’ guidelines. We want to make sure that every member of staff is prepared and familiar with a situation should it arise. You’re never going to be totally prepared but, for me, it’s all about minimising the risk to my team.
Barry: We hold monthly meetings with staff that includes preparing them for any crime. We want to make sure that they are able to react to a situation in the correct way. I know from speaking to my managers that they have seen an increase in incidents so that makes the training even more important.
Mo: As part of our staff inductions, all members are trained to deal with crime and are able to follow our security procedures. We also have a code word that everyone knows and is sent across the store tannoy when an incident is in progress. It works well because staff can react in a calm manner.
What is the worst incident you have encountered recently?
Ralph: The ATM incident earlier this year is the worst crime we have suffered in recent times.
David: Touch wood, we’ve never had any really big incident, but drive-offs do happen on occasion.
Barry: The worst incident happened about six months ago when a man came in and took two bottles of alcohol from behind the counter. He kicked up a fuss when we tried to challenge him and he threw one of the store’s weighing scales at a female member of staff. The rest of the team got sworn at and verbally abused. We reported the incident to the police but are still waiting for a response. I gave the female member of staff a week’s leave on full pay so that she could come to terms with the incident.
Mo: We had one where an elderly man was caught stealing. What was scary was how matter of fact he was when he said if we wouldn’t let him steal from our stores then he would go somewhere else. We also had a lady, who looked like she was under the influence of drugs, who stole from the food bin at the back of the store. She started eating the food and bringing it into the front of the shop. My concern was liability, because if anything happened to her we would have to deal with the effect on our reputation.
Do you think the local police and other agencies are supportive when it comes to business crime?
Ralph: Police say they are stretched with resources, but I don’t buy that they haven’t got the manpower when we have the best traffic police in the world. I can guarantee that if you reported an accident on the road there would be five panda cars there within minutes.
David: I think everyone is stretched. The police have moved everything online because they don’t have the people to deal with it in person, which makes retailers feel like they are not being heard and that crimes aren’t being properly investigated.
Barry: The police don’t seem to want to deal with crime in our stores. We have community police, but they have no powers. It’s becoming a real problem because we don’t know if these people coming into the store have knives or another weapon.
Mo: I don’t think police are very supportive. It’s sad and means the issue is getting worse for retailers and staff.
What security measures do you have in place?
Ralph: We have our cameras tied in with our alarm system, which means if they go off I can see exactly what is going on. We’ve also got shutters on the front of the store.
David: We have high-definition CCTV in all our stores and I can control them remotely to see what is going on when I’m not there. We also have a smoke system in our high street store where we had problems with people stealing from the gantry. I’m considering investing in cigarette vending machines for all our stores, which mean people can only take small amounts at a time. They cost £3,000 to £4,000.
Barry: I went out this morning to buy a 40-inch screen to put in front of the tills in our Axe Close site. It means staff can keep a lookout for shoplifters using the 32 CCTV cameras that we have. Our other sites have about 50 to 60 cameras each and we have shutters and bollards to protect the outsides. We also have panic buttons under the tills so that the police can be called immediately.
Mo: We operate a ‘Staff Safe’ policy which means that cash is transferred through a tube to the back office where it is stored in a safe. This means there is less cash held on site. The second thing we do is make sure that staff wear security watches which when pressed put them through to a call centre that gives the staff member support and encourages any offender to leave the store. They can also call the police if necessary. The system is run by Cougar Monitoring and it’s been really good. It complements the panic buttons under the tills as well as our CCTV cameras.
How much do you spend on security each year?
Ralph: We have a contract with an approved organisation as part of our insurance so most of our security goes through them. They are interested in us having the most up to date CCTV so that our insurance is valid. In total, we probably spend a few hundred pounds a year, not counting insurance or the cost of repairs.
David: I don’t really know how much we spend on security because it is such a hard thing to quantify. My policy is to spend the money that is needed to make sure that we have everything we need to deal with crime. Security isn’t an area that I want to save money on.
Barry: We refitted our two Luton stores earlier this year and installed high-definition CCTV in both. We spent about £20,000 on improving our security systems. We’re always monitoring what more we can do and reviewing how we can improve the footage that we get. It’s worrying that we have to keep on setting aside more to spend on security, but it’s something that we have to do.
Mo: We recently upgraded our CCTV system with better screens, bigger hard drives and more cameras. The update cost about £5,000, which is a big investment. A lot of retailers can’t afford to invest thousands every year on their security. There are plenty who are still using VCR and old cameras for their CCTV. It then makes the situation worse because criminals are going to target those independents who don’t have as good security or who have cut down on staff numbers.