In the lyrics to the theme tune to the popular American sitcom Cheers, it was proclaimed that you could go to a place “where everyone knows your name”.
Sunder Sandher, who runs a Londis store in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, not only knows the names of most of his customers but he knows most of the names and faces of the troublemakers he has banned from his store over the past 22 years.
Remembering names and faces, however, is only one of the ways he has tried to combat crime and anti-social behaviour in the area.
For starters, you won’t see Sunder rushing out of his store to confront a group of unruly kids. He prefers to go outside and have a chat.
He explains: “We did use to have quite a problem with teenagers hanging around outside, but I would just go outside and stand there listening to what they were talking about. After a while, I think it really freaked them out and they stopped doing it.”
Then there is his other role as local magistrate which has given him an inside line on how to get the best out of a relationship with the local council and local police.
He says: “With crime being so high when I bought the store, I decided I needed to know how to get better contacts with the police. I also wanted to know what my position was in law in regard to stopping troublemakers from entering my store. “So I decided to offer my services as a magistrate. With me on the bench people possibly think twice about doing something criminal to the store.
“It is voluntary work, but it has given me a better understanding of how things work and this has helped when trying to get things done for the good of the community.”
Sunder decided to focus on the store’s exterior in a bid to earn respect locally. He says: “There was a lot of graffiti on the walls around the store and the frontage was old and unappealing. “I painted the front of the store, cleaned the walls and generally tidied the area surrounding the store. I wanted to show the community the store was very much part of it and that they could take pride in it.”
Sunder was determined to get to know all his new customers. He says: “Over the first couple of years, I made the effort to talk to each and every customer, to find out how they were and also to let them know that I was here for the long haul and to make the area better through having a good local store. Over the years, I’ve got to know whole families.”
By building trust and networking, Sunder was able to talk directly to the parents of the majority of petty shoplifters who were targeting his store. He says: “It got to a stage when if I did see someone stealing, I would first tell them to put whatever they had back on the shelves and then speak to the parents about it. The parents were so embarrassed it tended never to happen again.”
While the minor offenders can be dealt with in this way, the more serious offenders are handled differently. “This group is what I would describe as the druggies,” says Sunder. “They are the major problem. They come into the store looking for items to sell on, like coffee and bacon. It is very hard to confront them because they are on edge and sometimes out of it. They are usually in their late teens or older, so talking to their parents doesn’t make a blind bit of difference.”
For Sunder it was time to make use of his role as a magistrate and approach his local police station to get help. He says: “I spoke to them and told them what was happening. I also pointed out that in the centre of the town, where a radio link had been set up between stores, crime had fallen but had been dispersed to the surrounding communities, including my store. We needed to get the radio link to these areas. “They listened and now we are part of that system and can be warned if any troublemakers are around.”
A year ago Sunder joined the local crime and disorder reduction partnership (CDRP) and through his persistence, cameras are now positioned opposite the store and at the end of the road on which the store is located. Both are linked to the local police station.
Sunder is now pushing for a third camera, to cover a group of stores at the other end of the street, to deter thieves and troublemakers.
BOOK OF MUGSHOTS
If undesirables do happen to wander into the store, Sunder and his staff now have at their disposal, courtesy of the local CDRP, a book of mugshots of what he calls the “local riff raff”. The book gives a profile of each troublemaker, explaining if they are violent, what they look to steal, and whether they should be approached.
He says: “I was amazed when I first opened this book because the majority of people in it come through the store’s door. “As soon as they next came in, we banned them. We didn’t do it through anti-social behaviour orders or exclusion notices. I just said ‘this is my store and you are not welcome’. My staff, and what I call my real customers, have really appreciated this stance.”
From that moment on, Sunder says crime in the store dropped dramatically. The decrease has also been helped by the level of investment Sunder has made on security equipment throughout the store, including PC-based CCTV, shutters and extra lighting.
He says: “The cameras are all linked to my computer at home, which enables my staff to ring me and ask if I can identify the person on the camera and whether I need to go down to the store and ask them to leave. “The security measures reassure the staff and allow me to give the police clear pictures of anybody we would like them to deal with. The easier we make it for the police, the more responsive they are to us.”
Unfortunately for any criminals caught on these cameras, or in other small stores in the town, they may also find themselves up in front of the retailer magistrate for sentencing - although he is obviously not allowed to pass judgment on alleged offences involving his own store.
Sunder concludes: “There are times when a criminal will come in who has stolen items from small stores before, and my colleagues would look to give him another fine.
“However, I try to explain to them the effect of these offences and the fact that a stronger punishment is needed for them to be stopped. Thankfully, a lot of the time I can be very persuasive.”