Crime is a virtual stranger at the Tates Spar store in Bentley, West Midlands. With no ram-raids, no hold-ups and minimal shoplifting, you might be wondering why we're even including this shop in a Zero Tolerance article.

Allow area manager Nigel Bostock to explain: "We're in an area where crime could be a problem, so we work with local residents and police to take steps before anything happens. We don't wait for trouble to develop - we'll defuse any possible areas of conflict before they become an issue."

Although the shop has always taken a pro-active approach to crime reduction, store manager and former policewoman Jo Ward's input has really made a difference. "With her past experience in the sector [14 years working at Alldays] and time in the police force, she approached anti-social behaviour with lots of ideas," says Bostock.

When Jo joined the store two-and-a-half years ago, she was quick to take action. She started by putting up signs in the store's car park, asking people to be considerate and keep noise levels down. "The signs don't necessarily stop people being noisy," explains Jo, "but it shows the community that we care."

Next was to make her presence known among the locals and initiating a number of charity events. "We were the top fundraising store for Tates last year and we run a lot of events in our car park, such as book sales, cake sales and even a Greek-themed day," says Jo.

Although fundraising isn't an obvious crime-fighting device, it helps to gain the trust of the local people and this can have a real knock-on effect when it comes to reducing anti-social behaviour. Bostock explains: "You're not going to get youths offending if their parents are connected with the shop, because they'll be asking: 'Where are you going tonight? Don't you go messing around outside that store!'"

Jo has another strategy for dealing with the local youths, too. Far from being intimidated, she has made a conscious decision to build a rapport with them. "We have a Mosquito unit, but we barely use it. I prefer to talk to the kids - just light-hearted teasing - and then they don't want to play up," she says. "I've got an 18-year-old son and a daughter who's 16, so I know how to talk to teenagers. Society thinks every teen is trouble, but it's not true."

Her policy of having good banter with the locals certainly pays off if they get carried away at the pub next door. People who have had a few too many are not always the easiest customers to deal with, but Jo is more than capable of handling tricky situations. "When people come in after the pub has closed, then it's usually more high jinks than actually wanting to cause trouble," she claims.

In fact, Jo is so confident of her team's ability to cope that she has removed the store's security guard. "The fact that we're here 24 hours with the doors open and no security guard says a lot about Bentley," says Jo. "We used to have a guard, but it tended to aggravate customers and added tension when there was none there to start with."

Bostock is of a similar mindset. "The staff here know how to avoid provoking people who've had too much to drink," he says. "There's too much of the attitude that if you're open then you need a guard," he says. "If a guard kicks someone out [of the shop], they'll stand outside the store with their friends and taunt the guard."

Personal touches

Bostock explains that because the store's staff are familiar with most of the locals, they are able to adopt a rather more personal tack. "Our night staff simply say 'Go home or I'll tell your mum!' and they're gone in a shot," says Bostock.

In addition to an effective approach to anti-social behaviour, the staff also know how to handle shoplifters. For starters, Jo is extremely vigilant. "I know how criminals think - I have a keen instinct and I just know when people are going to try something," she says. "It can be obvious signs, for example, if someone is carrying an oversized bag or wearing a big coat on a sunny day. But it can also be something more subtle. For example, if someone comes in asking a silly question, such as if we sell sink plugs, then I would be aware that they may well be trying to distract me for some reason."

The store's radio link system helps to keep track of any unlawful goings on, too. "We're connected to other stores and if they have a shoplifter then they'll let us know and we can then turn them away at the door," says Jo.

On top of the problem

Even when shoplifters are caught in the act, the store thinks twice before calling the police. “Too many businesses will have a problem and call the police without thinking things through,” says Bostock. “Dialling 999 isn’t always the answer as the police have limited resources,” he says.

“You’ve got to realise that if a kid’s nicked a Mars Bar for a few pence, the police aren’t going to be interested in prosecuting. You have to take matters into your own hands – call the young person aside and give them a stern talking to.”

Although they are called out only for serious crimes, the police are regular visitors to the store, thanks to another of Jo’s canny ideas to reduce crime. “I encourage the police to come here for a coffee-stop,” says Jo. “They used to come in quite often anyway to look at our CCTV [a 20-strong set of cameras which monitor both the store and local area], but now that we’re offering them a drink they visit almost daily.” She notes that a strong police presence puts would-be criminals off offending and makes customers feel safe.

Indeed, the store has certainly played its part when it comes to making Bentley safer. “We were approached about funding a couple of police pushbikes because there’s a lot of alleys around here that cars would be too wide to fit through,” says Jo. The bikes were purchased by Spar for £800 and presented to the police earlier this year.

Jo makes sure she has an ear to what’s going in the community and makes a point of attending local residents’ meetings to keep abreast of key issues affecting the area.

The residents meetings have led to the introduction of a community box. “In some stores we have a sign up telling shoppers that police will be in-store at 10am. But the problem is that many people are at work then, so they don’t get the opportunity to air any problems and also they may not want to speak to the police face-to-face,” says Bostock. “With the Bentley store’s system, residents who don’t want to go directly to the police can write down what they want to say and put it in the box.”

To some it may seem that the store goes above and beyond the call of duty, but Bostock claims that nothing could be further from the truth. “It sticks out like a sore thumb if a store is trading locally, but then not taking a part in the local community,” he says.

He claims that there is no quick fix when it comes to reducing crime, and that while security equipment is important, it’s the people running the store that really make the difference. “There’s no silver bullet to cure anti-social behaviour. There are lots of things you can do at lots of different levels. CCTV is good, but it only shows what’s already happened.

“The staff are the main crime prevention tool in this store and Jo’s probably the best manager I’ve got when it comes to dealing with these kind of issues.”

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