Intimidated staff too scared to do their jobs was the scene that greeted manager Matthew Pout. Aidan Fortune examines how the store was turned around.

hen shoplifting, threatening behaviour and youths loitering outside become everyday occurrences, it’s clear that things are pretty dire. That’s what Martin McColl faced when it took on a store in Grangetown, Middlesborough, back in 2009. The store was battling against the odds, being surrounded by a tough estate that was plagued with anti-social behaviour. Almost 5% of the store’s turnover was being lost to theft, and the terrified staff felt powerless to do anything about the situation.

But in February 2010, the reins were handed over to manager Matthew Pout, who felt that he could make a difference. Having previously worked at a different McColl’s nearby, he had assisted the Grangetown manager in getting the store up and running when McColl’s bought it. “As I had helped at the store when we first took it over I knew how bad it was,” admits Matthew. “I had some experience with loss prevention, so I put myself forward to manage the store.”

It was a brave move. The situation was so difficult that staff felt unable to do their jobs properly. “They wouldn’t ask for identification for age-restricted products in case they were threatened - it was a terrible atmosphere,” recalls area manager Andrea Turner. “It was so bad that staff members were afraid to report crimes for fear of reprisal. One staff member who did had her car windows smashed in. They were all living in fear. “

The first job for Matthew was to tackle the shoplifting plague. “It was mostly customers who were stealing. There was a small amount of shrinkage from staff, but once they realised it wouldn’t be tolerated it stopped and we could then focus on cutting down shoplifting,” he says. “We decided to look at what products were being stolen to see how we could stop it,” he says.

Matthew, aided by Andrea, started off by rearranging the store so that at-risk items were more difficult to steal. “The usual items were being taken - alcohol, fresh meat, cheese, washing powder, coffee and baby food,” he says, “anything that can be sold on easily.”

To counteract this, he put plastic strips on the front of the shelves to prevent people from running off with armfuls of products. “Shoplifters were running their arm along the shelf and shoving detergents into their bags,” explains Matthew. “With the plastic strips they can’t do that. The most they can pick up at one time is one box or bottle.”

As well as lowering gondolas by one shelf to improve visibility around the store, Matthew came up with a novel way of stopping thieves from making a quick getaway. “I changed the direction the entrance door swung so that it has to be pulled open for someone to leave,” he says. “Beforehand someone would grab a couple of trays of beer and shove the door open when running out, but now they have to put the trays down to open the door. It’s worked really well and led to a lot of confused and embarrassed shoplifters.”

The entrance was also the scene for a lot of opportunistic theft, with shoplifters opening it slightly and reaching in to grab some soft drinks in the adjacent chiller. To put a stop to it, Matthew erected a wooden screen with a window to block any reaching arms. “It was a simple deterrent and, thanks to the window, staff can still see the soft drinks area,” he says.

Tackling the culture of fear that existed among the staff was the next hurdle. Matthew and Andrea came up with a system for reporting crimes that staff would be comfortable with. “Each staff member would be assigned an identification number so their name wouldn’t go on the record, and Matt would report the crime for them,” explains Andrea. “It was a bit tricky at first, but when staff realised that they wouldn’t be named they were more open about the crimes that were going on and would report everything that happened.”

Gradually the atmosphere got better and of the 10 staff members who worked at the store when it was taken over, six still remain. But they’re no longer afraid and, as witnessed by C-Store when we visited, are asking for ID with confidence, nipping any potential issues in the bud by asking for ID while people are in the queue rather than letting them get to the counter. The store has also passed its last five test purchases.

“The team are a lot happier,” states Matthew. “They are no longer fearful and enjoy working here in a safe environment.”

Preventative measures

In an effort to prevent crime rather than constantly having to react to it, Matthew and Andrea started to work with the local authorities to reach out to the community and tackle the anti-social behaviour of kids hanging around outside the store, causing trouble and intimidating customers.

“I contacted the local police and the chief inspector came to the store to speak to everyone, which was a big help,” says Andrea. “At first there was a constant battle between the police and the store because we would call the station everyday and that was driving their crime numbers up. But once they realised how bad the situation was, they were more responsive.”

Police presence

To encourage the police to have a greater presence in the area, Matthew offered some space in the back office for them to use. “They appreciated that and we now see them a lot more,” he says. “We also agreed that we wouldn’t call them for offences worth less than £5, letting them know about it when they were in instead. If the crime became persistent from one individual then we would call the police.”

The team also worked with the police to try to educate youths in the area, rather than slapping on the handcuffs straight away. “We would meet with the culprits and their parents and ask them if everything was okay,” says Matthew. “We would ask them if this was their local shop, and what would their parents do if they were barred or, worse, if the store was forced to close. They realised that their family depended on the local shop and that if it shut, their parents would have difficulties on a day-to-day basis. It really hit home, and the parents appreciated this as it meant their kids had a second chance rather than getting a record straight away.”

The store was also pro-active in engaging with young people. “The local fire brigade were looking to do some work with local kids, but didn’t have any communication with them, so we arranged that if kids managed to stay out of trouble, they would be able to go on a camping trip with the brigade,” says Matthew. “It helped us get to know the kids. We’ve also got involved with painting and gardening projects. Now we know more of them by name and they know us and there’s less trouble. Some still come into the store - but as customers rather than thieves.”

Matthew says that the improvements have helped both staff and the customers. “We didn’t want to barricade ourselves behind screens and iron bars,” says Matthew. “We wanted to be able to offer our customers a full range of products that they can browse in comfort, without feeling threatened or intimidated.”

Andrea is extremely proud of Matthew and the work he and his team have done. “It was a very tough job. We had set a target of 1% theft, but for Matthew to get it down to 0.56% is amazing,” she says. “He and his staff have worked so hard to create a better atmosphere for the staff and customers.”

She says that as well as crime at the store reducing, the entire area is starting to turn around. “When we took over, we were the only shop on the parade but in the past year or so a shop has opened across the road, and the local pharmacy has moved next door,” says Andrea. “Businesses are coming in and it’s providing more support for everyone.”

Even the front of the store, once constantly adorned with graffiti, is mostly left alone. “When we painted it white, in line with the new McColl’s style, customers predicted it wouldn’t stay that way for long, but it did,” she says. “It’s only been in the past couple of weeks that there has there been a little graffiti, whereas it would have lasted only a matter of hours before.”•