The Co-operative Group has always vowed to put the safety of its customers and staff first, but by placing a police office in one of its c-stores, it has taken this one step further.

More bobbies on the beat is the common cry from retailers when asked to give an answer about how to stop crime in and around their stores.

In other words, a deterrent or a presence is needed to put the criminal fraternity on the back foot and let retailers get on with making their stores a success.
So what about having a police presence at your store from the moment you open until the time you close?

A dream you may say, but for the last four months this is exactly what has been happening at the Co-op Welcome store in Westhorne Avenue, Eltham, South East London.

Launched by Home Office minister Hazel Blears in April, this specially designed police office was inlcuded as part of a refurbishment to provide a permanent base for police officers to patrol the local streets.

Situated at the back of the store, the office is base to a six-strong team of neighbourhood police officers, who patrol the local area from 7am to 10pm.

Developed in partnership with the Metropolitan Police, Greenwich Council and the South Greenwich Regeneration Agency, the initiative has, says Co-op Group head of loss prevention Dave Pettit, given the local community and the store staff “their confidence back”.

He explains: “Having the police office here has really improved morale. The store is situated across from a council estate, which had a lot of issues with anti-social behaviour that spilled onto the shopping parade. The fact that the office is here has had a positive impact on this, with the staff and customers feeling safer. The new initiative also means that when staff face a problem in the store, they can go and talk to the officers straight away. Word of mouth about the office has also helped cut down on the number of incidents in the store and outside.”

Having a police office on site is just the latest in a number of initiatives the Group has explored over the years to reduce crime across its estate of 3,000 c-stores; these are usually found in communities “other retail operators would class as no-go areas,” says Pettitt. It means staff training has to be a priority.

He confirms: “We have developed policies and procedures within the organisation to ensure that staff have clear directions in how to deal with incidents in-store. We are always reinforcing the message that people come first and profits and property come second.

“What we tell staff is that once a shoplifter or troublemaker has left the store, don’t chase him or her down the street. You used to get store staff and managers taking the issue of theft personally because it’s their store and their property, and when they see someone stealing something, they want to try and recover it. That eventually leads to store staff chasing shoplifters or robbers down the street and then turning a corner to find a group of this person’s mates waiting to jump them because they know people in that store have a history of chasing troublemakers.”

While staff get the basic training on crime prevention, each store is risk-assessed. The Co-op tries to pinpoint all internal and external risks before coming up with the most appropriate measures of dealing with them.

Pettitt says: “We are constantly trying to find innovative methods to tackle the problems, which aren’t going to cost an arm and a leg and make the store unprofitable, but do engage with the local community, so they also take responsibility for the local issues. We also talk to the police and local authorities so we can deliver a strategy for each store where everyone is involved.”

It’s through this contact with local Crime & Disorder Reduction Partnerships (CDRPs) and local action groups that the Co-op is highlighting the problems created by displacing crime from one area to another.

Pettitt explains: “We often meet with local crime partnerships, especially in town and city centres. We try to get these groups to recognise that when you have partnerships in central areas you displace crime to secondary locations - where our stores are.”

According to Pettitt, town and city centres are very easy places to locate a partnership because you have a captive audience, compact areas which can utilise existing equipment like CCTV, and density in retail staff and security personnel. “However, when you then come to a secondary location you either have one store or a five-store shopping parade with individual retailers, no security and no external CCTV; this is seen as an easy target for criminals,” he says.

“Circulating pictures of known troublemakers and establishing a radio link between stores in these areas is fine, but where’s the physical support for these stores? It’s something we’ve been trying to work on with the police.”

Famous for its work in local communities, the Group has also become well known in retail circles for using classical music to combat anti-social behaviour.

Pettitt says: “I had heard of a local authority about five years ago trying a similar exercise and having mixed results with it around bus shelters. About 18 months ago we decided to explore whether it would have an impact outside our stores. A c-store in the middle of a housing estate is often the only place open after 6pm and so it becomes a natural meeting place for teenagers.”

Pettitt points out that some of the kids are well behaved and just want to sit and chat to their mates, but a minority see it as a chance to get adults to buy them cigarettes and alcohol, causing problems.

Pettitt continues: “If this doesn’t happen they get abusive, stand in front of the doors, intimidate staff in the store and put off customers.”

A prime example of this was at one of the group’s stores in Worcester that suffered anti-social behaviour problems year in, year out.

Pettitt says: “We put the music system in there and the problem completely disappeared because it annoyed the kids but not our older customers. We installed it outside, but the first night it was vandalised, so we built a protective cage around it. The staff put it on if they think kids are starting to hang around; it continues to be a success.”

He concludes: “We are always trying to find new and smarter ways of doing things. It’s not all about spending money, it’s about engaging with the right people to get the results. It‘s also about a group of people taking responsibility for the issues affecting a local community - not just putting initiatives in but actually trying to tackle the cause. If this happens then everyone will be a lot safer.”