Convenience retailers can be tough cookies. Not prepared to let criminals rob them of their livelihoods, there's an army of shopkeepers who are ready to risk their own safety and put up a fight to stop robbers and shoplifters from attacking their businesses.
A brave shopkeeper in Hinckley, Leicestershire, recently fought off three men in balaclavas armed with a machete who tried to rob his store. A struggle broke out and the thieves left empty-handed. And Mohammed Issa, who runs a store in Denny, Stirlingshire, pressed the panic button and defended himself with a crate and pole when two lads stormed his shop armed with a knife and baseball bat. The boys demanded vodka but Mohammed's bravery sent them running and they're now safely locked up in jail.
Paul Hodgkiss, who runs two Spar stores with his brother in Birmingham and Sutton Coldfield, will stand up to thieves at all costs. "We've got a CCTV monitor by the till so I can see what's going on all around the store," he says. "If I see thieves trying to pinch something, I let them attempt it, and then catch them. I grab them and detain them in the store or chase them down the road. If you show you're scared they'll walk all over you. You've got to stand up to them - but you can get hurt."
Paul has learnt that the hard way. He's been bitten on the arm, punched in the face and poked in the eye, but still it doesn't deter him from
defending his store. "When you catch them it's an adrenaline rush. It's an instinctive thing - it's our money and it gets on my nerves when they get away with it. If someone broke into your house and you thought you could handle them, you'd stand up for yourself.
"I know that if they get away with it, they'll be back in the store again. You've got to get across that they can't pinch. That's how you keep shoplifting down."
Paul prefers to catch a shoplifter himself and recover the loot rather than call the police. "It's not worth bothering the police because it takes up so much of your day if you have to go down the station. The police are there if we need them, but most of the time it's wasting their time and ours because these thieves haven't got any money."
However, he does call the police occasionally. "At our store in Sutton Coldfield we nabbed a young lad who really put my back up. I'd dragged him out to the stock room and he was laughing at me. He was struggling so I pushed him. He was saying 'you ain't got the balls' and laughing in my face, so I said I wouldn't drag myself down to his level and called the police. I then found a note from the night staff saying they'd caught a lad, called the police and left the crime number for me, but they didn't have time to look at the CCTV. When I viewed the CCTV afterwards, it was the same guy. He'd been done 30 times and the police found a list of toiletries in his pocket so he was nicking to order."
While Paul is reluctant to let anyone get away with stealing from his store, he doesn't put himself in unnecessary danger. "You have to weigh it up. I've seen some really rough guys and if I ask them for the stuff back and they say no, I keep my distance. I'm not a fighter but if I think I can handle them I will, but you have to be careful."
Nigel Dowdney, who runs two stores in the Norwich area, will chase and detain shoplifters even if it means getting hurt himself. "I've been thumped a few times, been whacked on the back of the head with a piece of wood, been chased around the store by a guy with a knife, and been threatened with a hypodermic syringe which the guy said contained the AIDS virus, but it's an instinctive thing - it's my business and my livelihood."
Nigel regularly hurtles off down the road in pursuit of shoplifters and if he recognises them or catches them, he'll always call the police. "I don't advocate my staff put themselves at risk but it's my personal policy to do whatever I can to get my stock back. I advise my staff that if they see anyone acting suspiciously they should go and stand by them to prevent a theft happening in the first place. It's important to always call the police because the more times they're contacted about problems, the more times they have to keep a record of them. You have to make the point that this is happening and they should be looking at it."
While most people wouldn't blame anyone for putting up a fight to protect their business, there is the danger of becoming a criminal
yourself, as a hardware shopkeeper in Penzance, Cornwall, found out to his cost last month when he was landed with a £250 fine and a criminal record because he fought back when attacked by shoplifters.
The Times newspaper reported that the retailer chased three hooded youths out of his shop when he was set upon. He was kicked in the groin by one - who had stolen cans of spray paint - and hit back, punching one youth to the ground and then kicking him. The police issued fixed penalty notices to the shoplifters but charged the retailer and a colleague with assault. In court, the prosecutor said the aggravating factor of the case was the shop staff taking the law into their own hands.
PC Phil Russon, a crime reduction officer for West Midlands Police, warns retailers against going too far. "We would not advise that they put themselves in danger and can't advise them to fight back. However, if they do decide to make a stand, they are allowed to use as much force as is reasonable to defend themselves or their property. We as police officers have to abide by the law so if a retailer goes over the top, they have to be dealt with accordingly; but we are on their side."
What is 'reasonable force'?
A joint statement on the use of force from the Crown Prosecution Service and Association of Chief Police Officers says that anyone can use reasonable force to protect themselves or others, or to carry out an arrest or prevent a crime.
The statement says: "You are not expected to make fine judgements over the level of force you use in the heat of the moment. So long as you only do what you honestly and instinctively believe is necessary, that would be the strongest evidence of you acting lawfully and in self-defence. This is still the case if you use something to hand as a weapon.
"As a general rule, the more extreme the circumstances and the fear felt, the more force you can lawfully use in self-defence. If you are in your property and in fear for yourself or others, you don't have to wait to be attacked first.
"If the criminal runs off and you chase after them, you are no longer acting in self-defence and so the same degree of force may not be reasonable. However, you are still allowed to use reasonable force to recover your property and make a citizen's arrest. You should consider your own safety and, for example, whether the police have been called. A rugby tackle or a single blow would probably be reasonable. Acting out of malice and revenge with the intent of inflicting punishment through injury or death would not."