Dealing with groups of school children running amok in a store is a game no retailer wants to play, says Tracy West

Earlier this year Tesco attracted some negative publicity after banning a whole school from one of its shops. And the branch concerned wasn't a small Tesco Express but a full-blown superstore, based in Park Farm in Ashford, Kent.
The case came to light when an 11-year-old boy was dropped off there before school, by his mum, to pick up his lunch. Because he was in school uniform and was not accompanied by an adult he was not allowed in. Apparently, other pupils at his school, Christ Church, had been accused of shoplifting and anti-social behaviour.
The boy was upset and his mother was livid. She was quoted as saying: "I might be one shopper in a sea of billions and it won't make any difference, but the way I feel now, I won't be going back there."
A spokesman for Tesco said the Ashford incident was an isolated case and the ban was used as a last resort. "We had received a high volume of complaints and we do have to look after the safety of all our customers. Of course, children are our customers too and this was only a temporary solution," he said.
There was also a report in an East Sussex newspaper of teenagers being banned from a Tesco Express store in Eastbourne. Although in this case Tesco said the company had not gone through with the ban, it's clear that the country's biggest retailer is struggling to cope with school kids. But are smaller retailers any better at dealing with youngsters?
Navin Patel of Raj's Newsagents in Ashford (a mile or so from the Park Farm Tesco that banned the whole school) has two large secondary schools near him, but says he doesn't have a big problem with the children. "There are three staff in the shop and every morning and afternoon for 20 minutes or so when all the kids come in, we make sure we keep an eye on them. We don't do any other jobs at those times; we just watch the kids.
"If kids start stealing from your shop then word can get round - 'Go to Raj's, it's easy to nick stuff there' - so we make sure that when we catch someone people know about it. We tell the person who's been caught to tell their friends, too. At times I have had to get in touch with the schools and they talk to parents and I generally get an apology."
Navin says he's thought long and hard about putting in a 'two at a time' rule for school kids, but has decided against it: "We actually tried it a few years ago but it was more trouble than it was worth because kids kept asking why they were being stopped coming in when adults weren't."
Kevin Bewick, who has a Londis in Ramsgate, used to have a 'two at a time' rule in his store when it was just 600sq ft. However, in 2000 he doubled its size and since then has had no trouble with kids. "We used to be inundated with big groups and only one kid buying anything, but we really don't get the problems any more," he says.
But Chris Attridge, who runs Crick Post Office & Stores in Northamptonshire, knows what a headache groups of children can be. "The school bus stops right outside the shop so we get children in here every morning and afternoon.
"In the morning it's not too bad because they all tend to come in during a 15- to 20-minute slot, and are in and out, but in the afternoons they hang around much more. We obviously get very busy and it can be a problem keeping an eye on all of them, but the CCTV has helped enormously. It's been a great deterrent, especially since we've caught a couple of shoplifters on it and word has got round.
"Some of the kids know we're really busy and definitely take advantage. They'll hold up a bag and say there's 20p-worth of sweets inside knowing full well I haven't time to check it. A couple of the lads from the school actually work in the shop and they're pretty loyal so I'm sure they'd tip us off if there was a big problem."
Chris takes quite a laid-back attitude to the kids - as long as they don't interfere with his other customers. "I don't want to be so draconian as to upset people. After all, these kids could stay in the village and be my customers of tomorrow."
Appean Sharma has a Costcutter in Eltham, South East London, which he's run for 26 years. He says: "I've certainly seen a lot of change. Going back 20 years we had to put up with a lot of racist taunts, but people now realise we are their local shop; we are there for them and the kids know that if they want their kids to have such good facilities they've got to behave."
He believes communication is the key in dealing with children. "We're here for their benefit and we reinforce that message. Yes, we're making a living, but we are investing in facilities and offering them goods at a reasonable price."
He reckons you need to show that you care about your customers and says he helps them as much as he can. "We have some scallywags who try it on. If we catch them stealing we call them to one side. We try to do it with privacy and decency. We have a word and hopefully it stops, but some kids are beyond help and then we have to take it further."
Ben Patel's Londis store in the village of Minster in Kent is a magnet for groups of teenagers who like to hang around outside. "I can understand why they want to hang around here because it's a busy place where a lot happens," says Ben, "but it can cause problems. For instance, it can put women or elderly people off from coming inside."
When it does become a problem, Ben likes to take a softly, softly approach, entering into a dialogue with the children. "I like to chat with them first and if that doesn't work then I'll talk to their parents. All the kids are local so I know where they live and mostly their parents shop with us. Some parents are willing to listen, but unfortunately some think the sun shines out of their kids' backsides and don't co-operate. I always try to reason with the kids and their parents first, but if I am forced I will take further action."
Ben says that unfortunately loitering will never go away completely. "You have one gang causing problems for two or three years then the kids grow up, get jobs and move off and another gang takes over. The key thing is to 'tame' the kids as quickly as possible."
Ben says shoplifting isn't a huge problem and is usually nipped in the bud: "It's a small village and people don't want to be known as the local shoplifter."
Minster does have a community warden. "The warden is a brilliant idea," says Ben. "However, they are employed to work office hours only and most problems occur in the evening or at weekends, so they're never there to see the problems first hand."
Yvonne Cashin from Turnbulls News Shop in Market Weighton, East Yorkshire, says she has few problems with kids and that's all down to her secret weapon: her big mouth. "I have a very big mouth so can really shout and all the children are terrified of me. If I hear them swearing in the shop I say 'Excuse me, I won't tolerate that language, please get out'. And if they are messing around I'll tell them to get out. Luckily, we are a small town so I know nearly everyone and don't get many problems."
It's great to find so many retailers taking a commonsense approach to children who, after all, do have money to spend. Charlie Kirkpatrick, security controller of the 46-strong Botterills chain in Scotland, says he thinks Tesco went way over the top with its ban: "It's very dangerous to tar all kids from one school with the same brush," he says.
He admits that some Botterills stores get an "invasion of kids" especially during the lunch hour but says they have ways of dealing with that: "If we've a store near several schools we put a member of staff on the door at busy times and limit the number of school children we allow in at any one time to about six. But that number depends on the size of the store."
Kirkpatrick says the person on the door doesn't get a lot of abuse and mostly the kids abide by the rules. "You have to be careful when dealing with kids because they are valuable customers and spend a considerable amount of money with us over the course of a year. You've got to apply common sense to the situation. On their own these kids are fine, but when they get together in a big group they can get carried away.
"Sometimes we have to ban kids from our stores, but that's only when we have proof that they've been shoplifting or involved in disorder and it would only be the same as banning an adult who'd been involved in some trouble."