The shop had been ram-raided by a gang of six masked men who made off with its cash machine, leaving the store in tatters. But despite the chaos, Alan managed to keep a cool head. His first concern was for the safety of his staff. “To be honest, I was more worried about whether anyone had been hurt, rather than the store itself,” he claims. “If a member of staff had been on the other side of the window when the jeep crashed through, they could have been badly injured. As it was, the robbers had knocked a gas main when they drove through the front of the shop.”
It was 10pm when the shop was attacked, so thankfully the two members of staff on duty were in the back office and were able to make a quick exit. “I always say to my staff: ‘Don’t ever worry about money, just look after yourselves’,” says Alan.
Although the attack was a traumatic experience for Alan, he has witnessed a multitude of crime during his time as a convenience store owner. “We must have had about 15 robberies in the past 10 years alone,” he sighs. “People have been through the front window and taken cigarettes three times; we’ve had people come through the wall attempting to steal the cash machine; and once someone tried to break in through the roof. We’ve even had the CCTV nicked when the office above the store was broken into.”
When the cash machine was raided three years ago, the ATM company and the police discussed putting an anti-lasso device on the machine, explains Alan. “But it was decided against as both agreed that under no circumstances would anyone be able to pull the cash machine out of the store because it was positioned around a corner,” he says.
They couldn’t have been more wrong. The equipment normally used by ram-raiders, such as metal chains, would have snapped under the pressure, but the robbers who carried out this latest ram raid were clever – they used the equivalent of a bungee chord, relying on its elasticity to force the cash machine out of the building. “They were in and out in under two minutes,” exclaims Alan. “When we watched the CCTV footage it looked like a bomb had gone off because the machine was literally dragged through the wall.”
At first, Alan thought that the robbers were crazy to try to pull off such a stunt when there were so many people around (there was a restaurant full of diners opposite the shop). But the police explained that the robbers chose to attack at that time of night because, once they’d dumped the jeep and switched to cars, there was still plenty of traffic for them to blend in with. This plan worked pretty well; the robber who’s car was carrying the cash machine was caught by a police helicopter called to the scene, while the others escaped in a separate vehicle.
Alan reveals that the stolen cash machine contained just £1,200. Although the police returned this to the store, it did little to compensate for the £30,000-worth of damages. “The jeep drove straight over the top of the freezers and the damage to the gas mains meant we had no gas for five months,” says Alan.
While the repairs were all covered by Alan’s insurance, he was not reimbursed for the customers he lost after the raid. “It scared a lot of people and it’s definitely affected our evening trade,” he says. “It’s only just got back to normal now, but it was really bad to start with. The week after the raid, business dropped by about 60%. Looking at our accounts before the robbery, we were on for a good year, but now it’s a near loss.”
It might seem crazy to consider reinstalling a cash machine in the store after all the trouble it’s led to, but Alan didn’t think twice about it. “Cash machines are a liability,” he admits, “but they’re a big asset to the business. We’ve now got a cash point in the front window of the store. It’s a bank-type machine, which would be very difficult for anyone to remove without a JCB.”
He has also gained approval for the ATM company to install ram-raid bars around the front of the shop.Alan has explored other security measures, too, including smoke cloaks. “They’re supposed to be good, but they’re very expensive and I don’t think it would help for the types of crime we get,” he says. “It’s only because of the total lack of regard for property that the robbers were able to break in.”
However, he concedes: “If you put obstacles in people’s way, then it can put them off committing a crime.”
The store has 20 CCTV cameras, including four outside the store; a locked alcohol unit; and an alarm system. “We have vibration sensors on the walls and roof; the back door has a steel shutter behind it; and the windows are all barred,” he adds.
Still, Alan is keen to take things further. “I wanted to put razor wire around the gutters to stop people getting in through the roof, but the insurance company said that they wouldn’t cover us if we did that because of the risk of someone getting injured.”
He claims that the area is particularly vulnerable to crime because it is so close to the motorway, providing criminals with the perfect escape route. As if to prove his point, Alan’s phone rings while C-Store is interviewing him. It’s the baker down the road, calling to tell him that someone has just broken in and stolen the safe. While Alan is clearly sorry for his neighbour, he hardly bats an eyelid. “That’s what you get round here all the time. It’s all bigger stuff, rather than petty crimes,” he shrugs.
With all the hassle of getting the store back up and running and the constant threat of a repeat attack, no one could blame Alan if he wanted to give up. But he remains determined to fight his corner. “I’ve always said that it wouldn’t be my decision if the store closes,” he says. “I try not to take robberies to heart. I just look at it as a hazard of the business. If you let things get to you, then it would just destroy you.”