Smashed windows, youths hurling abuse and staff always on edge - there was a time when Spar Gatley in Cheshire was not a nice place to be. Owner Jonathan Clarke was tearing his hair out trying to find ways to beat the criminals.

"Robbers would break the store windows, so we introduced shutters, but they wrecked them, too," he recalls. "Then we used padlocks to make their lives a bit harder, but this just led to them attacking in the daytime."

The robbers arrived armed and were abusive towards staff. They were after cash and cigarettes, and word soon got around that the shop was an easy target. "We were getting hit time after time," says Jonathan. "Morale was at an all-time low."

But he wasn't prepared to give up without a fight. "We invested in CCTV and dye packs disguised as cash," he explains. "In the till it looks like £1,000 in £20 notes, but once in the hands of the robbers it explodes and marks them with dye."

Unfortunately, his efforts were in vain. "The first two times the dye pack was stolen the police didn't trace the criminals, and the third time the robbers didn't pick it up."

Part of the problem was that the crimes were committed so frequently that the police weren't always able to react. "It got to the stage where staff would ring me before the police because I'd get there quicker," says Jonathan.

It wasn't that the police were completely unhelpful; they did make a number of suggestions to try to stop the robbers, but none of their ideas were workable. "They advised us to hire a security guard, but it simply wasn't economical. Plus, if people come in with weapons an unarmed guy isn't going to put them off," says Jonathan. "They also talked about putting screens up, but we didn't want to work like that!"

So he chose a different tack. Instead of focusing so heavily on stopping the robbers breaking in, he would make the robbers' targets unobtainable. For example, rather than keeping large amounts of cash in the tills, he had it stored in capsules, which would regularly be taken out back and stored in a secure underground safe.

He also found a secure means of storing cigarettes. "We finally solved the cigarette theft by sourcing and installing a state-of-the-art cigarette vending machine," he says. "It cost £12,000, but was worth it. By enabling staff to dispense cigarettes one pack at a time, it prevents robbers from carrying out smash-and-grab raids. Also, it means we're prepared if the tobacco display ban comes in."

But although the new methods reduced the number of robberies, there was another storm brewing.


Troublesome teens


The store had begun to attract a large number of teens, who hung around outside the store each evening and asked customers to buy them cigarettes and alcohol. It was affecting turnover badly because, feeling intimidated, customers wouldn't visit the store after 7pm.

"Many of the kids would congregate in a nearby playing field and then head down towards our shop," recalls Jonathan. "At first it wasn't too bad, just five or six lads, then 10 or 11, but before we knew it there were about 40 kids hanging around. Once girls joined the group, the boys would want to impress them, so they'd start to bring booze and harass customers to make illegal purchases. "If the police ever tried to catch up with them, they would just run to the field and disperse in different directions."

While Jonathan was confident that most of his customers would ignore the kids' demands, he had to make certain that this was the case. The store put up a series of hard-hitting posters, warning people against buying cigarettes and alcohol for underaged youths. But although adults were put off getting involved in proxy sales, the kids still continued to pester people.

"It was particularly bad at weekends," he sighs. "We lost 4-5% of sales over six months."

Desperate to do something about the problem, Jonathan called on others for help, but it was an uphill struggle. "I was at the end of my tether, having contacted my local MP, three councillors and the area police inspector," he says. "My MP Mark Hunter did visit, but you have to remember that MPs only have a certain amount of time and it was going to take more than one meeting to solve the problem."

Then Jonathan happened upon the Gatley Village Partnership (GVP) - a group of local people and businesses who had banded together to tackle local issues. "As part of the GVP, I had a much louder voice," he says. "We also had a new councillor, Mick Jones, who lives in Gatley and agreed to attend GVP events."

The group's meetings meant that the store became a focal point for crime prevention in the area and with the help of the community support officer (CSO) they set up an intelligence sharing scheme.

"The CSO gives us information regarding problems in and around the area and in turn we give him information about problems and potential future problems that require preventative measures," explains Jonathan. "We're able to tell him about persistent offenders and he may be able to link them with other crimes in the area."

The CSO has been able to organise extra patrols on Friday and Saturday evenings, which has worked wonders in deterring the teens. "It stops trouble before it starts and has improved locals' confidence in the police," says Jonathan.

The store's sales have now recovered and the atmosphere is positive. Says Jonathan: "Staff are a lot happier and more relaxed. That means they're friendlier towards customers and no longer eyeing them with suspicion. The store is a much more pleasant environment in which to work and shop."

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