There's not a lot in terms of retail crime that surprises Mark Cleary, who owns seven Spar stores in and around Manchester with his brothers Ian and Michael. Shoplifters are a constant blight on the Clearys' business and with a number of the stores on tough estates, dealing with criminals has become second nature for the brothers.
A typical problem, though, is getting people to report incidents. According to Mark, there's still the attitude that being a 'grass' can be worse than committing the crime itself. He's confident, however, that his latest idea could hold the answer: an anonymous phone line similar to the hugely successful Crimestoppers' national scheme.
"A few shoppers will help out and tell me when they've seen something happen, but there's a big problem with not wanting to be seen to be a grass," he explains. "I'm hoping the phone line will help. I'm going to put up posters around the store, urging people to report anything dodgy they see going on. It'll be aimed at everyone; for staff to report customers, customers to report staff, customers other customers and staff other staff, all without the fear of reprisal."
Given the high level of crimes such as shoplifting that Mark and his brothers have to endure every day, as well as serious violent incidents - which include Mark's eldest son being threatened with a machete at the age of 12 - you wouldn't blame them if they had switched careers a long time ago. Instead, the criminals have strengthened Mark's resolve, in spite of not always getting the help he feels he needs from the police and local authorities.
"I understand the police have a very hard task, but I'm also concerned they're not really interested in what retailers have to say."
He adds: "Police officers will say to me that 'It's only £3-worth of stock that's been taken'. They don't see shoplifting as real crime. The only reason they come most of the time is to hand out a crime number. I've had positive relationships with some
individual officers, but they're often extremely overstretched."
However, Mark is adamant that it's vital he and other retailers report every single incident. This, he says, shows the criminals he's not going to take it lying down.
While reporting crime plays a major part in Mark's battle against the bad boys, prevention remains his number one priority. "One thing we do is put an extra member of staff on at some of our stores so they can concentrate on the security side of things," he explains. "It means we miss out on a bit of profit in wages, but it also means there's an extra pair of eyes available."
Stocktakes for higher-value items are carried out on a more regular basis, and many higher-value items are often placed behind the counter, something Mark would prefer not to do as he knows it means he misses out on some genuine custom.
"We have to plan the whole store so that the high-value items are close to the front," he says. "It can be awkward, but unfortunately it's
a necessity. We also have all the usual measures in place, including CCTV, alarm systems, shutters, and we use Raid-control. We've got
security mirrors throughout the store and we try to keep the height of the shelving down."
Mark encourages other retailers to install a modern CCTV system with a hard drive in place and adds: "It means we can view the images on a laptop and with the digital system there's pinpoint accuracy. We can react quickly as there's no need to wind a tape back to a specific time. We make sure we keep upgrading the system so that it's as useful as it can be.
"We're considering putting in a vending system for cigarettes behind the counter, which only dispenses one pack at a time, meaning thieves can't just make a grab for them. I've also decided to look into installing a mosquito device, which might solve the problem of teenagers hanging around outside our stores causing trouble."
The Spar stores have a strict No ID No Sale policy in place but this doesn't stop the local teenagers from trying it on, says Mark. "Along with the dominance of the supermarkets, the fear of being caught illegally selling age-restricted products and handed a huge fine is a big worry," he says. "Trading standards are always looking to trap small retailers and catch us out rather than working with us. I really believe we're unfairly targeted and that the onus is always on us as retailers. Not enough is being done to tackle the kids that are trying to buy the products."
A percentage of the responsibility for teenagers buying age-restricted goods should fall on parents, says Mark. "It's a big problem that lots of parents don't see it as a issue if little Billy has a bit of vodka on a Friday night," he explains. "We often take products popular with teenagers off the shelves on Friday and Saturday nights. It's about time other people took more responsibility.
"I can't see why the government can't issue National Insurance cards which double up as ID cards. A proper scheme which would mean all teenagers would be given an official ID card automatically at the age of 18 would help solve a lot of problems."
While extreme incidents of violence are thankfully relatively rare at the Cleary's stores, they nevertheless remain a major concern for Mark.
"Criminals are not afraid to rob you when you're open as they see it as easier, he says. "The worst actual physical incidents have been members of staff being punched in the face, but there have been at least 10 major threats of violence and robberies over the years. My own son was threatened with a machete at the age of 12 when he was helping to sort out the newspapers one morning. When things like that happen, it's very easy to lose staff quickly.
"The advice we give staff is to hand over whatever they are asking for. I used to chase criminals a lot more but I don't encourage my staff to do the same. It's very hard not to take it personally though, when it's a blatant attack on your business and your staff."
Mark freely admits that the retail industry is extremely hard work. However, with concerted effort from local police and other authorities, he strongly believes that things could be a lot easier. He adds: "I still thoroughly enjoy being a retailer but we could all do with having a bit more help."