More than a year ago Southern Co-operative, which runs 93 c-stores in the South East, walked away with C-Store’s first Zero Tolerance Award for crime prevention.

As he accepted the award, the group’s loss prevention manager Gareth Lewis confirmed that the company wouldn’t rest on its laurels but would continue to explore all avenues to make its stores, staff and customers as safe as possible.

Now, as I listen to the impressive Lewis explain what the Society has been up to since that Awards night, I quickly realise that sitting back is something that would never be on the agenda.

Indeed, a week after our meeting at the company’s headquarters in Fareham, Hampshire, Lewis picks up an award from C-Store’s sister publication OLN at its Responsible Drinks Retailing Awards, for a project he had started to develop shortly after collecting the Zero Tolerance Award.
The project being honoured is the Buckland Partnership Alcohol Concern Project, which targeted adults in the Buckland area of Portsmouth.

It aimed to highlight that it is illegal to buy alcohol for anyone underage and is just another example of the group’s commitment to working in partnership with local authorities to help not just its own stores but whole communities.

Lewis says: “It has maybe become a bit of a mantra for us but we believe in working in partnerships. Whether it’s with local police, local councils or trading standards, it’s vital in tackling crime. The more people you can get on board, the more people you can reach and the more effective an initiative should be. We have been lucky because we have tended to deal with proactive police forces and local authorities.”

For the Buckland Partnership Alcohol Concern Project, the company worked with Portsmouth City Council and Hampshire police. Leaflets with the heading “What sort of person buys alcohol for a child?” were sent to every postal address in the area and handed out to anyone buying alcohol in the group’s stores.

Lewis continues: “As with all the stores we run, we constantly monitor the problems each faces. They can range from anti-social behaviour to shoplifting. In this case it was kids obtaining alcohol, and through our own test-purchasing we realised that because they were unable to obtain it they were getting adults to do it for them. There seemed a real lack of awareness among adults that supplying alcohol to anyone underage was illegal, so from that we developed the leaflets to put across the message that it was most definitely illegal.”

The company is in talks with Portsmouth City Council to spread the scheme city-wide, while licensing minister James Purnell, who is working with the Home Office to tackle underage alcohol sales, has also expressed an interest in launching the project nationally.

“There is no excuse for anyone in the Buckland area to not know their responsibilities. We are in talks with the city council to develop the scheme further and hopefully we can do that soon. If it goes further than that, then that would also be great because if we are to tackle retail crime effectively, sharing initiatives nationally is an important step towards that goal.”

While national exposure is nice, Lewis has no time to dwell on the plaudits the company’s work is gaining. He has already moved on to his next project, a drop-in centre above the group’s c-store in the village of Yampton, West Sussex.

Again working in partnership, this time with the local parish council and local police, the company is converting the top floor of the store into a place where local residents can talk about cases of anti-social behaviour in the area.

The project, which is expected to be up and running in the new year, is another example of the group researching each community its stores are located in and reacting with an initiative to match the problems it finds.

Lewis explains: “The area has a well-known problem with anti-social behaviour from gangs of youths. Since the police closed their local office there, the feedback we got from local residents was that something was needed to allow not only residents to voice their concerns but also for the police to gain intelligence about what was going on in the village.”

The centre will be manned at various times of the day and evening by members of the parish council, local police or community wardens, who will be on hand to discuss issues with local residents. Lewis also acknowledges that having the new drop-in centre above the store will give added protection to the outlet.

“Word of mouth about having the office above the store and the fact that it will be manned at times by the police will most certainly give staff and customers an added sense of security,” he admits.

While Lewis waits to put the new drop-in centre into operation, he will be assessing whether the state-of-the-art tagging alarm system he received from Zero Tolerance Award sponsor ADT is ready to be rolled out to more of the company’s stores.

The AssetPro system is currently being trialled at the group’s store on Hayling Island, Hampshire, and Lewis is waiting to see its effect on shrinkage over a six-month period before committing to installing it in other stores.
Initial signs are that Lewis is pleased with the alarm’s performance.

“It’s a bit early to say, but talking to the store manager and looking at early data reports suggests that the message is getting across to shoplifters that luxury items in this store are harder then ever to steal,” he says.

His next task is reviewing security needs at the chain of eight David’s c-stores that the group has recently taken over on the Isle of Wight. Lewis will be looking at initiatives needed at each store as it is converted to the Southern Co-operative fascia throughout 2006.

Lewis says: “We are already in discussions with Cowes police about combating the serious anti-social behaviour problems they have faced this year on the island, and especially in the Cowes area. For the first time this year, visiting sailors have been attacked in the streets and we know from our store in the town that the problem has got worse over the past year, with gangs of youths hanging around.

“Obviously, we have put extra security in our stores but we want to get to the heart of the problem to help the community. We have talked to the police and set up a basic Shop Watch scheme, but we are looking to go further than that. We want to set up something along the lines of a business warden and are in discussions to do this.”

Knowing Lewis and the initiatives he has already instigated, the stores in Cowes won’t be waiting long.