Born out of tragedy, the Open All Hours retailer safety scheme is designed to protect store owners from crime. Aidan Fortune reports

With crime an ever-present threat to local shops, and cuts in police numbers possibly on the way, it's now more important than ever for retailers to protect themselves by grouping together. Violent attacks, store robberies and burglaries are still all too common, and retailers need to act.

A number of store owners in the West Midlands are taking a proactive approach to fighting crime and working together to defend themselves. Made up of more than 50 stores in the Bromsgrove area of Worcestershire, the Open All Hours scheme was set up to create lines of communication between retailers and the police to protect local businesses from crime.

The scheme is spearheaded by Judy Hodson-Walker, of Fairfield Post Office and General Stores. She knows far too well the risks of being a retailer, having lost her son during a raid on her store 18 months ago.

In January 2009, 29-year-old Craig was in the flat above his parents' post office when three men entered the store and demanded money from the till. Upon hearing the commotion in the store, he rushed to his father Ken's aid. When he and Ken refused to hand over the money and tackled the raiders, Craig was shot in the chest and died almost immediately from his injuries. The raiders escaped empty-handed, but were eventually caught and sentenced to life in prison.

Judy says that unfortunately it sometimes takes such an event for retailers to realise that there is a constant threat of crime. "Retailers often don't understand how much danger they're in," she told C-Store. "They need to be on their guard every day and make sure they and other retailers know what's going on so they can protect themselves."

Judy says that West Mercia Police were instrumental in the setting up of Open All Hours and she encourages anyone wanting to build a similar scheme to get their local force involved. "It's important to build up trust between you, your fellow store owners and the local police. When we first had a meeting about the scheme, we found there were retailers who lived and worked just two miles apart but didn't even know each other, let alone keeping in touch about crime.

"Through the scheme, retailers are now able to warn each other if they see someone suspicious, or if something happens in one of their stores," she says. "We have a Ringmaster telephone that connects everyone and acts as a hotline to the police."

Communication is key

The officer responsible for Open All Hours, District Inspector Julian Smith, explains the principles behind the safety group: "The scheme is a constant flow of information between the police and the stores," he says. "Should there be burglaries, robberies or suspicious incidents at any of the stores in the scheme, or robberies at other stores in West Mercia and surrounding forces, we are informed and make it a priority to notify all the stores in the scheme."

In turn, the retailers involved contact the police with useful information. "If any of the stores in the scheme notice anything suspicious at their premises, they inform us and we share the details with the other stores," says Smith.

Information is often passed on to retailers in person by the police, creating a visible presence in the community and allowing retailers to feel more secure as they go about their business.

Schemes such as Open All Hours are helping to remedy the belief among retailers that police treat shop crime as a low priority. Judy herself has had mixed experiences in the past regarding the level of help she has received from the authorities. "Unfortunately, I've seen bad policing as well as good policing, and there have been times when I've reported shoplifting and nothing has been done about it," she says. "But with this safety group we've built up a relationship with the police so they'll respond to every report, and retailers don't feel like they're wasting their time when reporting an incident."

Vicky Perry, who owns Vicky's Convenience Store in Lickey End, Bromsgrove, is also part of the scheme. She was invited to join by the local police after they were concerned about the level of crime in the store. "In the past 18 months we've had two burglaries, two knife-point raids and one distraction robbery," she explains. "The scheme is definitely needed as crime puts a huge strain on us and our staff."

She agrees that the police now take incidents of store crime more seriously, and they have also encouraged her to use the emergency number more often. "Previously, I had always been told to ring the station, but I tried 999 the last time something suspicious happened and the police managed to catch those involved, so it shows they're prioritising business crime in the area."

Useful info
Want to set up your own retailer safety group? There are two key organisations that may be able to offer advice: 

Association of Business Crime Partnerships tel: 020 3142 5225 

Home Office
When Open All Hours was first set up, West Mercia Police visited all the stores in the area that might be vulnerable to crime. C-stores, petrol stations and post offices were all priorities, especially those premises that open late or have 24-hour opening. Judy hopes that this will be expanded to include businesses such as pubs and restaurants in the coming months.

Although the scheme has been running for only three months, Open All Hours has already helped local police catch several criminals wanted in Bromsgrove and neighbouring areas.

"So far, the reaction from the stores has been positive throughout and we've made six arrests as a result of stores calling in suspicious activity near to their premises," says Smith.

Both Judy and Vicky advise retailers in other areas to work together to protect themselves. "We need to stop seeing each other as competition and start working together," says Judy. "For schemes like this to work, communication is essential."

Retailers need to stand up and show that crimes against staff will no longer be tolerated. "Because they're crimes against businesses, the human element is often forgotten. Retailers need to work together and fight back against these criminals to make them realise that we'll prosecute if necessary and that we're not a soft option."

Smith adds that retailers who want to start a similar scheme but are unsure of how to go about it should not hesitate to contact their local force.

Time is of the essence. Don't wait for crime to strike your store, or for another retailer to lose their life.