Appearances can be deceptive. What does a shoplifter look like? Sometimes the most innocent looking ones are the worst offenders.
Down on the East Sussex coast, the sleepy town of Eastbourne manages to pull off a similar trick. With its wedding-cake seafront hotels and genteel promenades, the home of the blue rinse brigade looks like the perfect place to set up business. But ask a local retailer and they'll tell you the town is like the sweet old lady who's been coming into the store for years before you realise she's been smuggling your sherry out in her handbag.
Trevor Wratten, who runs Devonshire Stores, a few yards from the town's beaches, thinks he knows exactly what a shoplifter looks like. In fact, he's so sure, he even puts their pictures up on the wall in his store so that everyone else can see what they look like too.
There's no doubt that the tactic works. With the photos on the front of the till and Shoplifter of the Week scrawled across the top, customers can't help but notice them. "Sooner or later someone will come in and recognise them," says Trevor. "The other day a girl suddenly exclaimed 'Oh, that's my friend Liam!' when she saw it."
Trevor's also seen stock losses decrease massively since he started naming and shaming. "Word goes around pretty quickly," he says. "The lowlife element around here know I'm no easy touch."
Much of the trouble, Trevor has found, stems from a nearby hotel which houses what he terms 'un-desirables' placed there by Brighton City Council. It's home to the kind of people who buy a lot of silver foil, but don't roast a lot of chickens. "One of my regular customers is a member of staff at the hotel, and he'll look at my pin-ups and say, oh that's so-and-so from such-and-such a room," he says. "It's as easy as that."
So it works - but is it legal? Apparently so, says Graham Rundall, who runs the Association of Convenience Stores' legal helpline. There are issues around data protection, but they apply to anyone who installs CCTV and should be sorted out when the system is installed. If the person in the picture could be mistaken for someone else, Trevor could face legal action from the innocent party. He is also taking the risk that his evidence will be deemed inconclusive and, if the charges are dropped, he could find himself facing a potential defamation action.
Trevor has the backing of his CCTV system to clear up any doubt there. With eight cameras - two of them outside the store - he's able to record and retrieve high-quality colour images, and if he spots a thief he'll make a DVD of them entering the premises, pocketing the goods and leaving again. Only then will he put up his posters and contact the police.
"A police officer told me it's a breach of the Data Protection Act, and possibly their human rights too - but I say, let them sue me. I'd like to see what would happen if the case got national publicity. I doubt anyone would dare try, but I'm prepared to go to court to defend my right to do this - and although the police have mentioned once that I shouldn't be doing it, they haven't made any attempts to stop me."
That may be because with Trevor's pin-sharp video recordings, and a tip-off of a name and address, he's handing the police an easy conviction. So far, every incident he's referred to the police has resulted in a prosecution.
"I tell my staff not to approach anyone whom they suspect of stealing. When I come in the next day I'll review the footage and confirm the crime. Then I'll call the non-urgent crime line and an officer will come round. I'll give them a statement and the DVD, and on occasions even a name and address. That's the last I hear of it - I don't even need to go to court." He does, however, like to see the court proceedings reported in the local paper, to remind the local troublemakers that Devonshire Stores is not to be messed with.
Trevor installed the £6,500 CCTV system as part of a refit last September. In its previous configuration, the store had several blind spots and losses were heavy. "I once caught a bloke red-handed, stuffing sandwiches into his jacket, so I locked him in," says Trevor. "I called the police but was told shoplifting wasn't urgent - I'd have to be on the floor in a pool of blood to get them to come round. So I had to let the guy go."
Fed up, Trevor went for the state-of-the-art system and within 10 days of re-opening had his first catch - a young woman who returned three times in less than an hour to raid his shelves, not realising she was being watched. After a customer identified the thief, Trevor went to the police and the woman got six months.
In fact, the tactic of not tackling thieves on the spot means that suspects will, sooner or later, come back for another go. "I keep the 'shoplifter' pictures under the counter and when I see them again I'll show them I've got evidence. Three times out of four I'll just tell them to hop it and not come back, but once in a while I'll pursue the case. Not so much these days, though, as I think the word has gone around and I'm not being targeted like I used to be."
He's also had to have a word with young visitors to the town, who decide to try it on while they're on holiday. "Two lads were in here at the weekend and helped themselves to cold drinks. The next day they came back for another go, so I showed them a picture and gave them a little chat. Hopefully, they won't try the same thing again, so maybe I've done a few other retailers in their home town a favour."
Trevor says his 'Shoplifter Awards' have been a hit locally, with 99% of customers saying it's a wonderful idea. He knows that the reduction in losses is never going to pay for the security equipment, but that's not the point. It's a matter of principle, and Trevor is prepared to go to great lengths to defend his right to protect his stock.