Walk past any convenience store in the evening and there's a good chance that there will be a group of kids hanging around outside. The youngsters may not be doing any harm; they may just be chatting or texting their mates. But, then again, they could be drinking or hurling abuse at prospective customers. You get the picture. A group of kids probably won't be much of a threat to a burly bloke, but their presence could intimidate an elderly customer.
Paula Loveridge, manager of the Costcutter in Southborough, Kent, knows all about groups of kids. "We've an ongoing problem with a gang of youths. The community police officer is always coming out to us, but the kids keep coming back."
One of the big problems for Paula is the design of the shop - the exterior has a lip running along it, which makes an ideal seat. "It's perfect for sitting on, so that's what they do," she says.
And unfortunately the 'seat' cannot be removed easily. "It would cost a lot of money to get rid of it and we can't make it unsuitable to sit on by putting studs on it because the younger schoolkids use it and we wouldn't want them to get hurt."
Paula did try a Mosquito, the device that emits a piercing noise that only young people are meant to be able to hear. "We had it about a year ago. It was effective to start with, but then the kids got used to it."
She says the community police officer can't get out to every call she makes, but all her calls are logged. "They pop in to see us but there's not a lot they can do. We're on a parade of shops and the kids are just drawn to us because we are open late. If we ask them to leave then we just get a load of abuse. There is a hard core of problem kids, all of whom have been barred from the shop for things like shoplifting, so they just sit outside and ask other customers to buy them things. The trouble is, some of my customers now say they won't come to the shop of an evening."
The Mosquito from Compound Security Systems (CSS) is being used by hundreds of companies across the UK. It is a high-frequency ultrasonic device that is designed to be inaudible to anyone over the age of 25, but intolerable to youngsters. Teenagers describe the noise as "really annoying", so much so that they just want to move away from it.
CSS says that about 3,000 units have been sold in the UK so far, with approximately 60% going to police and local authorities. The company says many of these have then been put up at store locations. The other 40% have been sold directly to shops and other businesses. Commercial director Simon Morris says the effects can be seen within five or 10 minutes providing the kids are within 20 metres of the device.
At present, the units cost £495 plus VAT, however CSS is launching a MK3 unit at the end of the year which it says will be substantially cheaper. "Our initial product was 'over designed' as it was targeted primarily for use via the police," explains Morris. "Now it has been proved over and over that there are no health or legal issues, we will be making the product readily available shortly."
Various councils that use Mosquitos put them in a protective cage - costing about £35. And fitting costs are estimated to be about £60.
Rob Gough, who has two stores in Barry, South Wales, was one of the first retailers to use Mosquito. "We had a prototype which worked well for a year, but it was replaced with a new model which broke after a couple of months. The frequency of noise dropped so everyone could hear it and it annoyed all of our customers."
But since he's been without his Mosquito his problems have returned. Rob says he has grief from youths on a daily basis - with spitting, graffiti, assaults and muggings. He's always calling the police but he's also a member of PACT - Preventing Anti-Social Crime Together - and he says that helps.
"We pay £100 a year towards the operating costs of PACT and £1.75 a week for the radio. It's a really good scheme because youths can be banned from every business in the area - from shops, pubs, taxis and cinemas. We all get a file with details of banned youths, plus the ones who are a problem but haven't been caught yet.
"When we see somebody who is banned, we radio through so other places can stop them going into their premises - it's much easier to stop them coming in in the first place than it is getting them to leave."
Rob adds that there's a panic button on top of the radio which goes straight to the police. "PACT definitely works. It led to one youth getting an ASBO, then he broke the terms of the ASBO and was sent to prison."
Charlie Kirkpatrick, security controller for Spar chain Botterills in Scotland, says the company has been using Mosquito in four stores for the past few months and it had an almost immediate effect. "In the worse-hit store it stopped the kids hanging around the front door and they moved across the street. A crowd of teenagers outside a shop for the most innocent of reasons can be intimidating for older customers, and that's if they're well behaved - add in drink or drugs and it exacerbates the situation."
He says the company also had a problem with automatic doors, with youths standing in the doorway and using them as a quick escape route when their mates were shoplifting. "We've now taken out the automatic doors from all our stores and put manual ones back in. Our stores with post offices, where we've a lot of older people coming in, have a button they can press to make the doors automatic."
Meanwhile, Glyn Reece of Penny's in Chester, uses a cheaper alternative to the Mosquito - a cat scatterer he got from his local garden centre which cost £9.99. "It emits a high-pitched noise which frightens off cats and teenagers - once they get to 19 or 20 they can't hear it anymore. I can't hear it," says Glyn.
He says kids have been hanging around, 'being a pest'. "We've had no theft, just intimidation and them repeatedly asking customers to buy them booze and fags."
In addition to the cat scatterer, he has just put up three spotlights. "The lights cost me £1.99 each and I had some brackets made so they stick out about 3ft from the wall and the lights point straight down. The whole shop front is lit up now and since putting them in we have had no problems. The kids used to bang on our windows and run away. The lights mean we can see who is doing it."
Putting up lighting and removing seating and walls are common sense moves, but sometimes they are still not enough to deter the loiterers.
Suthan Vivek is manager of the Tesco Express in Isleworth, London. So great were his problems with anti-social youths that police set up a dispersal zone around the store. It was issued under the Antisocial Behaviour Act 2003 which means police had the power to disperse groups causing a nuisance. Those who do not live in the area can be asked to leave straight away and told not to return for 24 hours. And anyone under the age of 16 who is on the streets unaccompanied by an adult between the hours of 9pm and 6am, is returned home.
Says Suthan: "We do have quite a few troublemakers around here, so the dispersal zone has helped." As Convenience Store went to press the status of the dispersal zone was being reviewed and Suthan said it was up to the police whether it was extended or not.
In North Lincolnshire the use of a dispersal zone led to one young male, who continued to ignore police warnings, being prosecuted and receiving an ASBO.
Harrogate Borough Council has come up with a different solution - providing youth shelters. So far four have been erected in the area and requests for more are coming in. Harrogate District Safer Communities chairman Les Ellington was quoted as saying: "Young people need to socialise as part of their normal growth and development. And sometimes they do get too boisterous and show off inappropriately in front of their peers. But it is much better for them to do this in a designated space, out of harm's way, than to try to stop them gathering outside shops or bus shelters and asking police to move them on."
Elsewhere, off licences in Guisborough, North Yorkshire, have banned under-21s from buying alcohol from off licences on Friday and Saturday evenings in a bid to cut anti-social behaviour. The ban means they are not allowed to buy booze between 6pm and 11pm on Fridays and Saturdays. The move follows a successful pilot in Marske and Skelton, which was said to have led to a huge drop in the number of rowdy teenagers loitering outside shops.
Other ideas include installing bright pink lights which show up youths' acne outside shops, and in the West Midlands two dark green electric junction boxes were painted bright pink to deter lads from hanging around them.
It seems that one of the ways to keep youths at bay is to make your store as 'uncool' as possible, and the Co-operative Group has got this down to a tee. It plays classical music outside 200 of its stores. This is described as an "extra security tool" to deter youths from hanging around outside. The group is keen to state that these kids are not necessarily causing trouble, but their presence outside the shops is seen to be intimidating by some customers.
Taped music is broadcast on external speakers controlled by shop staff who can adjust the volume to deter youths who gather outside. David Pettitt, group head of asset and profit protection, says: "Some of our stores have problems with youths who gather outside and they can intimidate shoppers and our staff. Playing the music makes our shops 'less cool' as places for youngsters to hang out, and can make life much easier for our customers and staff."