With police cuts in full swing, businesses are facing up to the reality of trading with reduced support. Aidan Fortune meets a retailer who had to find ways to tackle a rising tide of shoplifting.

ne unfortunate result of the era of austerity is that the government is slashing police numbers. More than 15,000 officers are expected to be taken off the force by 2015, and with £500m-worth of cuts due to be implemented this year in London alone, retailers have to face up to a future with reduced police support.

A major casualty of these cuts are Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs), who provide an important line of communication between retailers and the authorities, as well as creating a police presence on our streets.

Their reduction in number is being felt all over the UK, including Luton in Bedfordshire, where the Nisa Local store at St Dominic’s Square is having to find ways to cope after the support from PCSOs dried up.

Store manager Scott Jell says that shop theft had always been a problem, but it really started to escalate once the PCSOs stopped coming around as often. “Before the budget cuts we had two PCSOs covering the entire estate and they would be around every day, which was perfect as it showed a police presence,” he says. “As soon as they stopped visiting, the shoplifters realised and would target the store.”

The store is on a square along with six other shops that have also been victims of crime. Its close proximity to several schools and a council estate makes the shops the perfect targets for shoplifters, Scott believes.

Cuts mean that fewer PCSOs have to cover a larger area, leaving Scott and his staff without enough support. “There are other estates in the area that have problems as well, so the PCSOs tend to focus on them,” he says. “I understand that there are only so many of them to go around, but we have to look after our own business.”

He says that it isn’t just the presence of police in the area that he misses. “Every week one of the PCSOs used to give us and other shops in the square a top 10 list of offenders with photographs so we would recognise them,” explains Scott. “It was perfect as we would be able to keep an eye on the shop floor and if one of them came in we could watch them and know that the police would respond quickly if we called them.”

This all changed when the cuts were made. “As well as the lack of PCSO presence, the police would be reluctant to come to the store for shoplifting offences,” he says. “And if they did, they wouldn’t punish the offenders harshly enough. In one case, I saw the police handcuff a shoplifter who stole some lager, take him out of the shop and then release him.”

Scott and his team would call the police for any shoplifting offence, but soon became frustrated with their response. “If it was an adult who was stealing from the store, we would call the police no matter how small the product was, but the police became less likely to come out as quickly as they felt it wasn’t worth it.”

To compound the matter, Scott believes that criminals have learnt quickly that they will get away with it and so would target the store more often. “One person in the area has 267 convictions for shoplifting and is barred from the store, but it doesn’t bother him. He keeps sneaking in and doesn’t care if he gets caught as he knows that all he’ll get is a night in the cells,” he says.

Fed up with the theft and lack of support, Scott realised he would have to come up with strategies himself to protect the store’s stock and staff. His first move was to band together with other retailers in the square to discuss what could be done. They decided to contact the local press to air their concerns, prompting the police to respond.

“It’s had both a positive and a negative effect as the police started paying more attention to us again, but also some customers came in and said they didn’t realise how easy it would be to steal from the store,” he points out.

As well as taking calls from the store more seriously, one of the remaining PCSOs decided to make more of an effort to get involved. “He’s serious about helping and we had a meeting with him and some of the other store owners just before Christmas about what can be done,” says Scott.

“We’re looking into setting up a Business Crime Reduction Partnership, which will give us a louder voice when dealing with the police and local authorities. It’s early days yet, but it’s a positive step.”

The store owners are showing solidarity by banning shoplifters from all stores on the square if they are banned from one. “It’s what used to happen years ago, but it’s something that fell by the wayside once the police support finished,” he says.

“It shows we’re serious about crime and that criminals won’t get away with it.”

High-value products such as nappies and cleaning products are popular targets for the thieves, with £80-worth of detergent being stolen in one visit alone. “They would be sold by the thieves in the local pubs,” reports Scott. “Meat is another target, as it can be sold on quickly. People are looking to save money where they can and sometimes that means buying cheap stolen meat.”

Scott was so wary of stock going missing that he almost missed out on a sales opportunity. “We had a Diageo rep in the store who wanted us to start stocking spirits on the shop floor,” he says. “We almost laughed at them as we knew they’d be stolen straight away. But he gave us security caps and nobody has even attempted to steal them, they provide a real deterrent.”

Changing the store around in order to protect high-value items has proved an effective move, too. “We rearranged some of the stock so we could keep a better eye on it,” he says. “We moved the items that are targets closer to the till so staff could see them at all times. We also have a CCTV system with a screen in front of the till that staff can see and I can see if I’m in the back office. It’s quite prominent so customers know straight away that they’re being watched.”

Although Scott and his fellow retailers are fighting back, he believes more needs to be done to protect shopworkers. “The job is difficult enough as it is without having to deal with crime,” he says. “We’re lucky that nothing more serious such as a robbery or a physical assault has taken place, but other retailers haven’t been as lucky.

“I’m not sure what it will take for the authorities to do something to ensure that retailers and their staff are protected.

“Shoplifters know that nothing much will happen to them and ASBOs have no effect,” says Scott. “In fact, in one case it made the situation worse as the police had to show the person receiving the ASBO who had requested that it be given, which meant he knew exactly which retailers had gone to the police.

“Thankfully, there was no retaliation, but there doesn’t seem to be any protection for those who want to get the police involved and do things by the book.”

Scott is hopeful, though, that the measures he has put in place will improve things. “Theft is reducing here. Hopefully with an increased police presence and a united front it’ll get better rather than worse.”•