United Co-operative will never stand still in its mission to cut down on crime.

Removing the opportunity for crime is a mantra United Co-operative’s loss prevention team continually repeat as they strive to make their stores safe.

Without the opportunity to commit crime, United Co-operative believe that criminals and troublemakers will go elsewhere and leave their 468 c-stores across the North of England and Wales in peace.

Not that this approach comes without cost and a lot of ongoing hard work. Over the last two years the company has spent £400,000 and a great deal of time making each store as crime proof as possible.

United Co-operative has explored every avenue to make its staff and customers feel safe - from white noise and smoke alarms to protection screens and classical music.

However, before any investment was made or decisions on what security initiatives would work best, each store was sent a risk assessment document to fill out.

United Co-operative’s group loss prevention manager John Hilbert says: “Rather than purely basing our risk assessment on statistics, we sent the form out and people told us their gut feelings about what they were facing. In some areas with serious crime issues, retailers have developed a high tolerance level to crime. As a result they don’t even report it, which doesn’t help at all. We can only react, as can the police, if we know there’s an issue to deal with.”

When the assessment forms were returned, Hilbert and his team sorted each store into three categories - A, B, and C, with stores facing the most serious crime labelled A.

He continues: “The money needed spending where it was most required. We couldn’t just throw it at the entire estate of stores without having a plan of action for each store to back up the investment.

“We concentrated on making sure the stores labelled A were looked at first, followed by the Bs and Cs. We tried out different approaches and equipment in each store. It was trial and error because what worked in one store wouldn’t necessarily work in another. We have a good structure, with myself, Paul Winstanley, the regional loss prevention manager, and four other people who work under him, visiting each store in their designated area to make sure each one is as secure as possible.”
By the end of 2003 the company had seen a 41.7% reduction in the number of break-ins, and by 2004 this figure had been reduced by a further 27.6%.

The majority of the company’s stores are situated on housing estates, which as Hilbert points out, can be a breeding ground for anti-social behaviour and crime, making the need for staff to be well trained in handling incidents, a priority.

He says: “Our staff are trained thoroughly at security workshops, which are constantly being run because of staff turnover. However, as the stores have become safer, staff turnover has dropped. Our staff know that you can’t reasonably expect to make a store completely safe.

“One of the main pluses is that during the last few years we’ve only had a couple of incidents where a member of staff was hurt during a robbery. The training means they know what to do: step back and let the robbers take what they want. What we can so is to make sure that it’s as hard as possible for the criminals to get what they’re after in the first place, and that’s where the investment in security equipment comes in.”

Anti-social behaviour was a major issue at the company’s Windmill Hill store in Runcorn because of its location: opposite a wood, with two tunnels leading into the trees. It quickly became the perfect place for youngsters to hang out in the evenings.

To combat this, United Co-operative worked with its local Crime & Disorder Reduction Partnership (CDRP) to install extra CCTV cameras and lighting, and adopted the approach used successfully by its fellow Society, the Co-operative Group: playing classical music.

As United Co-operative’s regional loss prevention manager Paul Winstanley explains: “When we first put classical music into the store the kids didn’t know what to do and started hitting out at the guttering and store front because the speakers are built into the roof. They then brought a ghetto blaster along to try and drown out the classical music - but our music lasted longer than the batteries they had in their machine. Eventually the kids moved on.

“Our Windmill Hill customers have told us that they feel less intimidated now that the teenagers have dispersed. In fact, some of them have even complimented us on our choice of music!”
Winstanley also believes that retailers can combat anti-social behaviour by changing the
environment outside their stores to make it as unaccommodating as possible for gangs to hang out.

He confirms: “You can use extra lighting or even, with the appropriate permission, take away small walls or benches where people sit to make the space outside the store less attractive to crowds. Our whole approach is a flexible one, based on having several different measures that can be tailored to the needs of individual stores faced with different types of problem.”

Hilbert, who has two teenage children of his own, sympathises with many teenagers because he realises that there really is nothing for that age group to do.

He explains: “We’ve gone through a phase where you didn’t have kids on the streets because they were indoors playing computer games, but now they’re being told not to be couch potatoes and to get out and be active. But there’s nothing for them to channel their energy into, such as a youth club.

“At the end of the day kids want somewhere to hang out and talk without being bothered by adults. Most of them are fine and just hanging around, but this can still be intimidating to customers. It’s not an easy problem to solve.”

United Co-operative also knows that it has a role to play in helping other retailers.

Hilbert says: “By reducing crime in our stores we may have displaced it elsewhere, and unless these
criminals get caught, other stores will face the same problems.

“Hopefully, if we can raise the benchmark for what’s expected by retailers when it comes to protecting stores, we can take other retailers with us and make whole areas safer. The challenge is to maintain the momentum we’ve built up by looking at more initiatives to best protect our stores.

“You can never fully eradicate crime but that doesn’t mean we won’t stop trying.”