The past 12 months have seen a year of progress in dealing with retail crime. The riots in English cities and the plights of retailers affected brought the issue to the mainstream and proved a catalyst for change in sentencing and reporting of crime against business.
Changes included new guidelines for the sentencing of burglaries, meaning that those who burgle non-domestic premises now face a jail sentence of up to five years, an increase from four.
There have also been unprecedented levels of co-operation regarding sharing of information and best practices. In March of this year, an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Retail and Business Crime was set up with the aim of “bridging the gap between industry and parliament to raise the profile of retail and business crime matters”. The group comprises 31 MPs and met with the then crime prevention minister Baroness Browning to debate how crimes are reported and logged.
The fight went online as well. The website www.tacklingretail crimetogether.co.uk was launched by the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) and the British Retail Consortium in October. The site contains details of what retailers are doing to cut down on crime, as well as downloadable materials for store owners.
Despite all of this good work, the threat of crime is still very real and convenience store staff continue to be seen as easy targets for criminals. Last month a retailer in Manchester was threatened with a machete by a thief whose target was a packet of crisps. The retailer escaped unscathed, but the incident could well have ended in tragedy - all over a product that costs less than a pound.
Criminals’ perception of convenience stores as soft targets and the impending police budget cuts, which will see 16,000 police officers and 1,800 PCSOs taken off the streets, have raised concerns about the level of support those working in the retail industry will receive.
James Ratcliffe of Spar Accrington, Lancashire, and the 2011 winner of the Zero Tolerance Award for Crime Prevention, says retailers will miss regular visits from PCSOs when the numbers are cut. “Our local PCSOs are fantastic and always remain in regular contact with us,” he says. “They help us out if there’s an incident and pass by several times a week to make sure everything is going okay. I’m not sure we would get that level of service from regular officers who are extremely busy. Hopefully, the cuts won’t make it more difficult to get a police response, but they will be quite stretched.”
In the face of criticism over budget cuts, crime prevention minister Lord Henley stressed that the government is taking retail crime seriously. Speaking recently at an ACS crime prevention forum, Lord Henley said there had to be a move away from the perception that crimes against businesses are ‘victimless’.
He called on retailers to do their part to tackle crime. “Only by everybody getting involved can something be done about retail crime,” he says. “The police can’t do it all by themselves so it’s important that retailers do what they can to help.”
Head of the Metropolitan Police Flying Squad Mark Beale says that the first thing store owners need to do is to take a look at their current security measures. “We ask retailers if they have self-assessed their crime prevention measures and most haven’t even considered it,” he says. “If people spent as much time and consideration on crime prevention best practice as they did on health and safety then stores would be less vulnerable to crime.”
He urges retailers to look beyond the initial loss suffered in a robbery and think about how it could affect them long-term. “Some retailers may think that it’s more cost-effective to suffer some theft rather than invest in crime security measures, but they haven’t factored in elements such as injury to staff, closure of premises for police investigation, having to recruit new staff and time spend at court appearances, which all adds up.”
Beale advises retailers that have security equipment to ensure it is used to its full potential. “We see retailers who leave safe doors open, or the time-delay on them is too short,” he says. “If retailers have invested in this equipment, they need to utilise it properly to ensure they are getting the most out of it.”
He says he sees the same issues again and again hindering police investigations and leaving stores more vulnerable to crime. “Quite often CCTV is not fit for purpose,” he says. “It’ll be not pointing at the right area or aimed at a wall, which is useless as evidence. Poor CCTV footage or the cameras not recording is also an issue. Retailers need to ensure that their systems can produce footage that will stand up in court and that it is backed up to a secure hard drive so there is no danger of it going missing.”
He adds that magnetic locks not working properly can also increase the risks. “The whole point of having them is to control who can come into the store,” says Beale. “If they don’t work then that control is taken away and the store owner and staff are much more vulnerable.”
Beale says that cash safety is another area that should be examined. “Too many stores count out the cash from the till on the shop floor, which draws the attention of any would-be criminals,” says Beale. “Also, not having proper till limits, or staff exceeding those set up, also creates a massive risk. If a store is robbed and the till is full of money, it will be targeted again. However, if there is only a small amount available, it won’t be worth the risk for thieves.”
Beale says that retail crime prevention partnerships are also crucial to curbing transgressions against businesses, but nobody should expect overnight results. “They are an excellent way of making progress, but it can take months for you to see results,” he says. “The important thing is that you don’t give up and keep working together.”
Birmingham retailer Parminder Singh understands the importance of this. After suffering a robbery in his store, Parminder decided to help retailers come together to tackle crime. A former President of the National Federation of Retail Newsagents, Parminder initiated the National Business Crime Forum as a means of getting businesses, authorities and suppliers around the same table to discuss security issues concerning them.
Parminder says that unfortunately retail crime can become a ‘blame game’, with nobody wanting to take responsibility for it. “Retailers say the police should be doing more the police say the government should be doing more and the government says retailers should be doing more - and then nothing gets done,” he says. “The point of the Forum is not to point fingers, but to find the solution by everybody sitting down together and discussing it.”
He says that even though retailers are busy, they need to find the time to get involved. “Even if they contact their regional crime prevention forum and introduce themselves, it’s a start,” he says.
“Retailers can feel very isolated so even just talking about their problems can help with the burden. They will see that they are not alone, and possibly be able to work towards a solution. If they spend just a couple of hours a month with other retailers it goes a long way to solving the problem.”■