Perched on a hill overlooking the beautiful Gloucestershire countryside is Hill Shop & Videos in Stroud. With what retailer Steve Lord describes as its million-pound view, it's hard to believe the store would be the target for shoplifters, to the extent that £30,000 leaked from the business in Steve's first year of trading.
After seven further years of more downs than ups, Steve - a former builder who runs the shop with wife Michelle - has a smile on his face after going from being ready to chuck it all in, accepting the loss and moving on, to seizing control of the store's problems and taking on another shop. That they turned things around is testament to Steve and Michelle's resolve to make a success of their business.
They began their careers as retailers feeling delighted to have picked up a business of their own, but things went downhill fast, and after just a few months they discovered the store had some serious problems with crime. "We noticed that stock was going down really rapidly, but there was no profit there," recalls Steve. "After the first three or four weeks we knew we were buying this amount and selling that, but there was no money in the bank."
They immediately invested in epos, which cost about £10,000 including all the back office, till and scanning systems, to give them a better idea of what was going on. "We spent about a week getting the stock on the system, and realised how much stock we were losing and how much everything was massively overpriced. We then realised the previous owner had such a bad shoplifting problem that he'd increased the prices to compensate. But all that ended up doing was getting rid of the good customers and leaving those who were shoplifting.
"We put in some CCTV cameras and got to the stage where we were catching three or four shoplifters a week. I would chuck them out and ban them, but that didn't help because they would tell their mates to come to my shop because all I would do was kick them out."
Steve then installed a couple of extra cameras, but wasn't pleased with the system. "You could record on one camera and then it would cycle on to the next camera. One day I was watching a guy on the monitor fill his coat up with goods, then it all fell out onto the floor and he shoved it back in. I thought I had it all recorded, but when I went back to review the footage, I could only see one or two items going into his jacket. I also got a picture of him walking out with a big smile on his face, and from that moment on I knew I wasn't going to put up with it any longer; I would deal with it."
Steve decided to install a second CCTV system, adding more cameras, giving him eight in total, recorded all the time onto video tape, but this still wasn't satisfactory. "I found that if I had an incident, I would have forgotten to press record that morning. I was getting people hoofed out and calling the police at least seven times a week."
Several system upgrades later and Steve reached the point where he'd kicked out and reported to the police about 300 people, but could only think of five or six prosecutions.
An innocent moan about the lack of prosecutions to a customer in 2004 then sparked a turn of events that changed their fortunes. The shopper turned out to be a reporter from the local newspaper, who wanted to pick up on the story. "He really did us proud," says Steve. "I thought it would just be a small story, but we got coverage on the front page and the centre section of the paper. Then TV and radio stations took a keen interest and it became a big thing. I was on Sky News, and GMTV did a broadcast from the shop."
He adds: "It wasn't really the police who I had a problem with; it was the Crown Prosecution Service I was always having a knock at. The police were responding - a bit after the event, but at least they still came. But even though we were producing reasonable evidence, I couldn't understand why the CPS wouldn't prosecute.
"I was getting really vocal about it, but it got to the stage after the media picked up on it that I would phone the police and they'd be here within the hour. They were good at keeping us informed and we started getting more and more prosecutions."
Steve began to notice that crime rates were falling in his store, and last year just two shoplifters were caught. He operates a zero tolerance policy on adult shoplifters, but tends to deal with the kids through their parents.
"We still lose bits and pieces, but it's nothing like it was. It's been a massive change. If it's kids shoplifting, I deal with the parents. The video side of the business has helped us there. The kids blag their parents to join so we have on file the names and addresses of the parents and we know whose kids are whose.
"I have been surprised, though, when some parents have said that they've had enough of their kid and for us to phone the police."
Steve says his biggest problem is shoplifters with drug and alcohol abuse problems. "It's not as bad as it used to be; they now tend to steal for the sugar fix or to sell the product on. When we installed epos, we discovered that 130 rolls of tin foil had been stolen - it's part of the drug paraphernalia. Scale Away, which you use to de-scale kettles, was disappearing as well. Apparently, they mix it with the drugs."
Over the years, Steve has constantly upgraded his CCTV system and now has 16 cameras - a camera for every two square metres of store.
He has two specialised mobile cameras that can follow people around, infrared cameras for recording at night when the lights are off, and cameras outside the shop, which also benefit the neighbours.
The latest system, which was installed two or three years ago, stores footage to the hard drive on the computer, records the cameras all the time, and also picks up sound.
"The sound function has been useful because we had a member of staff who was being racially abused by a customer. We put the microphone up and were able to catch him, so we threw him out and banned him. The CCTV systems allow us to drop our guard a little bit. When the shoplifting was at its worst, we would be chatting away to a customer and then get distracted by a shoplifter. Now we can relax a bit and rely on the cameras.
"We had a call from the anti-CCTV crowd and some guy screamed down the phone at me. He told me I was racist because he said more black people are caught than any other race, but I've never even caught a black person shoplifting, so I was the wrong shop to have a go at."
Steve has spent £22,000 on security equipment over the years. "If I bought one now, I could install the whole system for less than £8,000, but because I've built it up in bits and bobs it's been more expensive. The way I look at it, if you stop one person stealing £1 a day, it's worth it. When you lose one item, you've got to sell nine or 10 of the same thing to get back to where you were before it was stolen. When people say 'well, you're insured', that's a joke. I would never be able to afford the insurance to cover all the losses."
Steve advises all retailers to ensure they are properly equipped for security. "I don't understand people who don't have CCTV. The police won't act without evidence.
"I have recently been going for the £80 fixed-penalty notice. It's a misconception that the notices let people get away with it. If they get another one, the police and courts take the past one into account. The fine is also quite a lot of money if you haven't got any."
He adds: "I used to chase shoplifters, but when a guy pulled a knife on me after I'd chased him two-and-a- half miles, I decided that wasn't a good plan. The police caught up with him and he got a caution because he was drunk and 'not of sound mind'."
Steve has some strong views about the way retail crime is dealt with and believes a zero tolerance policy would pave the way for a better future. "About 99% of those caught here have previous for shoplifting or another offence. If they dealt with crime at this level they probably wouldn't have to deal with the bigger crimes later on. For example, I first caught a local lad shoplifting when he was 14 years old. By the age of 16 he was committing robberies all around Stroud, but kept getting slapped on the wrist. He was involved with drugs by the time he was 15 or 16 and then robbing cars and houses after that.
"Then he committed a serious assault and ended up taking a drug overdose at 18. If they had dealt with him when he was 14, he might not have gone off the rails. That might not work with everyone, but if you could get a result with 50%, you could reduce crime by 50% in the future. It could take 10 years and a lot of money before you started to see the results of a zero tolerance policy, but it would be worth it."
Today Steve and Michelle's future in retailing is looking very bright. Hill Shop & Videos is fully under control and they've just taken on the lease of a nearby c-store. "We took a loan out in the first year to put stock on the shelves - that's how bad it had got. It was a difficult time and we thought we had made a real mistake. At the time, there were two ways we could have played it: put our hands up, surrender and walk away; or fight till we win or lose. I think we made the right choice."