This year’s Zero Tolerance awardwinner stood up against anti-social youths to turn the business into a thriving community hub, writes Aidan Fortune

Spar Pike Hill’s tale is an all-too familiar one. Its problems started like so many do when it became a meeting point for local youths. But then the kids loitering outside the Burnley store began to intimidate people going into the store, and it wasn’t long before business really began to suffer.

James Ratcliffe was manager at that time. “Kids were hanging around outside, abusing customers and causing trouble,” he says. “There was a bit of pilfering going on, but it wasn’t the worst of my problems. The main issue was that they were stopping people coming to the store, which was having a huge impact on the business.

Zero Tolerance Award for Crime Prevention

The team’s hard work in cutting down on anti-social behaviour was rewarded recently at the Convenience Retail Awards. Their efforts to protect both the store and the local community and their strong working relationship with local police helped set them apart from the competition for this year’s Zero Tolerance Award for Crime Prevention. 

Award sponsor Loomis and the judges were impressed by Spar Pike Hill’s willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty to cut crime in the neighbourhood.

“Loomis has always worked with retailers to combat crime in all its guises and, because of their collaborative approach, is extremely proud to award Spar Pike Hill for their inspiring actions,” says Loomis commercial director Stuart Bartlett. “James, Dave, Carol and the members of BEAT IT, are an example to us all.”

“It was worse at night. We open late every evening but, because the store had a bad name, locals would no longer shop there,” he explains. “I have a few friends in the area and even they were saying that they wouldn’t go to the store at night because they would get hassled by the kids outside.”

Staff morale was at an all-time low and the local police force were questioning why the store was such a magnet for crime.

Staff and management decided that they had had enough and embarked on finding ways to reduce anti-social behaviour and rebuild the store’s reputation.

The turning point came when Burnley PCSOs visited the store due to the number of incidents being reported. James began working with one of them, Dave Johnson, to find a solution.

Johnson advised James to invest in technology and in 2008 the team installed a Mosquito device, which emits a high-pitched tone that can only be heard by younger people. “The device was quite controversial at the time, but the store had such a bad name at that stage that something had to be done,” says James.

He says the result was instant. “We put up a camera in the car park to see what the gangs were up to around the same time as the Mosquito was installed and we would watch them when we turned on the device,” he says. “They’d move away after a couple of minutes and not come back. Sometimes they’d just move to the other end of the car park, but that was okay as they weren’t near the front door disturbing customers.”

James set it up so that it worked for 15 minutes at a time. “It’s not something that we wanted to keep on all day as it could drive away genuine customers who may have been able to hear it,” he explains. “Instead, we used it whenever there was a gang of youths outside. It was very effective, even when used for short only periods of time. In fact, the store hasn’t had to use it in two years because people know that it’s there and don’t bother hanging around outside anymore.”

Just beat it

Spar Pike Hill also got involved with the local business crime prevention group Burnley Employers against Thieves in Town (BEAT IT). Even though the store is a couple of miles outside of the town centre, James Ratcliffe joined with other local retailers to create a network of crime-fighting stores. “We all keep in touch with each other and let each other know if someone has tried anything at one store and may try the same at another.” 

Being part of BEAT IT means that if someone is caught shoplifting at one store in the group, they are banned from all of them for 12 months. And if they attempt to enter one of the stores during this period they can be arrested and possibly face a custodial sentence. James says that this scheme has worked really well for the store and several habitual offenders no longer visit the store as they know the police will be called immediately. “More often than not, the police know where these people live and can pick them up if they have been in the store,” he says. “There were some shoplifters who were constantly targeting convenience stores in the area as they thought that they were an easy target, but now they know not to.” 

James makes sure the team know who is banned from the store by putting pictures of offenders in the staff room. 

He was also willing to put differences aside with the manager of the nearby Tesco store in order to better protect the area. “We are in direct competition, but I would give him a call if I spotted something suspicious, and he would do the same,” says James. “We all have to help each other where we can.”

Rather than constantly being at odds with the young people of the area, though, James decided to reach out by letting local kids use the car park to hold a sponsored car wash to raise funds for a skate park. “They may have even included some of the same kids who were hanging around outside, causing trouble, but once we helped them work towards something, there wasn’t nearly as much hassle from them,” he says. “Often in gangs there will be one or two ringleaders and the others follow. Then one of them takes over the gang and the cycle begins again. Since we’ve put the effort in we haven’t really seen this happen.”

The hard work from the entire team has paid off and James says that there is a completely different working environment compared with when he took over four-and-a-half years ago.

“It’s friendlier now,” he says. “There’s a much better atmosphere than there was four years ago. There are no more staffing issues, either. It used to be difficult to get people to work evenings they would call in sick rather than work late shifts and there was a high turnover of staff, but that’s all changed now. Plus, we’ve seen a huge growth in turnover since then so the business has definitely prospered from the changes.”

He says that Johnson’s help has been invaluable to the progress made at the store. “I’ve worked at some stores where store crime wouldn’t be a priority for the police and we wouldn’t get this level of help. The police just wouldn’t bother coming out if there was a problem. But Dave is around on a regular basis and lets us know what is going on in the area.”

This relationship works both ways and store staff have helped out Burnley Police on several cases. “We’re happy to share our CCTV footage if there has been a crime in the neighbourhood,” says James. “There’s a lot of car theft in the area and since we are located on one of the main roads out of Burnley, the police can use our cameras to determine which direction they went and at what time.

“We also offered up our footage when a gang from Manchester raided a nearby cash machine, and it was instrumental in helping the police to catch them,” he says.

James also invited Johnson to open a police surgery in the store every month. Johnson says this is a great opportunity to hear any problems the public might have. “Sometimes people are wary of calling the police or visiting the station, but I set up a table in the store and give them the opportunity to talk to us,” he says. “It gives me a better idea of what’s going on in the area and if there have been any incidents that the police should know about.”

James’ staff also do their bit to cut down on crime in the store. Since James moved to another store in Accrington in January, deputy manager Carol Mason has been one of the driving forces behind helping new store manager James Wellwork continue the good work.

Best Multiple Store

As well as fighting crime on their doorstep, the staff also had to battle fierce competition. Their efforts were rewarded and they scooped the Best Multiple Store award at this year’s Convenience Retail Awards. 

When a Tesco opened in the area, then-manager James Ratcliffe and his team decided to up their game and the result was a 12% year-on-year increase in sales, which impressed the judges. 

“Rather than just roll over and accept defeat, we fought hard to hold our own against the store,” says James. “We did some research and anything we thought they were poor at, we would concentrate on doing better. You have to accept that there’s always going to be some competition in retail, but the team really pulled together and worked hard to make the store a success.”

“I’ve often stood in front of the alcohol walk-in fridge when there’s someone who is known for shoplifting in the store and refused them entry,” she says. “I don’t put myself at risk or expect any of the other staff to do so, but anyone trying to steal from the store needs to know that they are being watched and it will not be tolerated.

“I made sure one of the first things James Wellwork did when starting was to meet Dave Johnson,” adds Carol. “This way, they can build up a similar working relationship that benefits the store.”

James Wellwork understands he has some big shoes to fill when it comes to tackling crime in the store, but he’s ready for the challenge. “I’m keen to continue what has been already started here,” he says. “I used to work here several years ago and knew the reputation of the store and how it has been turned around. I want to make sure that the store doesn’t slip back into the trouble it was in before.”

With the store in safe hands and incidents falling, the team’s enthusiastic efforts to cut down on crime make them worthy winners of this year’s Zero Tolerance Award for Crime Prevention.