From CCTV to a police station in the store, Beth Phillips looks at how indies are taking a lead in deterring criminals
With a quick look over the shoulder, the woman in the black top appears to slip something into her bag before strolling off to another aisle. She will leave the store untroubled by security guards, but soon after, stills from the grainy CCTV footage of her suspected crime will appear on TJ Morris' Crime Busters website and on posters in its Home Bargains stores. A lost opportunity? Not so fast.
Two months after it was launched, Crime Busters has already led to two prosecutions, including a jail sentence for one offender. But the retailer is one of an increasing number of independent retailers who believe retail crime is getting worse, and have decided to take a stand before the vital Christmas trading period.
Retailers estimate crime costs their businesses roughly 2% of their annual turnover - a worryingly high figure in the best of times but even more alarming in the current economic climate. The Federation of Small Businesses puts this figure at an average of £13,354 per business per year, while the British Oil Security Syndicate estimates total losses from forecourt stores alone in 2008 was a staggering £29.9m.
And these losses look set to increase if previous experience is anything to go by crime levels worsen as a country comes out of recession, according to a loss prevention manager for a leading independent retailer. "Every recession is followed by a crime wave, and the statistics show robbery and violent crime increase the most."
So how are retailers tackling the criminals, and what support is out there for them? Some, such as TJ Morris, have introduced their own initiatives to fight crime. The schemes may incur set-up costs but once operational have the potential to save companies thousands of pounds a year. "We want to show we won't just roll over if people come to our stores to commit a crime. We will do, and are doing, as much as we can to prevent it," says TJ Morris operations director Joe Morris.
C-store and forecourt retailer Harry Tuffins is another business taking the matter of security into its own hands. It has noticed an increase in the number of drive-offs when people fail to pay for fuel since the economic situation worsened. Although police are happy to deal with drive-offs, operations director Richard Whittall claims they often "turn a blind eye" to another major problem that can lead to serious criminal acts: antisocial behaviour.
"The biggest problem we have is youths hanging around the entrance to stores. They come into the store in gangs and threaten the staff. One of our lads was hit over the head with a fire extinguisher on his way home because he worked for us."
Harry Tuffins now has security guards on the door and in the past two weeks has installed the Mosquito device, which emits a high-pitched sound only audible to under-25s. The device is controversial, but Whittall is unrepentant. "It's our responsibility to protect our staff," he says.
Harry Tuffins isn't the only independent retailer who's unimpressed by the police's attitude to shop theft. "The police don't take our issues seriously," claims another owner, who doesn't want to be named. "They don't seem to care but it's a real issue for us." The retailer has joined a civil recovery agency and is also considering installing CCTV above its tills to check on staff.
But James Graven & Sons MD Jonathan James believes the police can and do help. "It's a case of you work with them and they'll work with you. The retailers who whinge the most are the ones who are not interested in working with the police."
In March last year James famously offered police use of an office at the back of his Budgens store in Soham, Cambridgeshire. Since the opening, the fall in crime at the store has been "immediate and significant". "The police station has been absolutely superb," says James. "There has been a significant decrease in antisocial behaviour and shop theft, and the staff are happier because of it. We've got four police community support officers based at the store, so there's always a police officer about and a police car out the front."
The station has been so beneficial that James is in talks to make a locker available to the police in his new forecourt store, due to open early next year. "The locker will allow police to keep extra equipment such as waterproofs in it, so they can stay out on the beat rather than going back to the station for them," he says. "It also means police could turn up at the store at any time, which will put off people planning to commit crime."
Ensuring a police presence is a tactic he already employs at his forecourt store in Ely. He offers his jet wash facilities to the local police at half price, so police cars are often on site waiting to be washed.
There is also evidence the police are taking a tougher stance against shoplifters. In July, the Ministry of Justice changed the guidance for police issuing penalty notices for disorder, or fines, for retail crime. Police can now issue fines to first-time offenders if the goods stolen are worth less than £100, replacing previous guidance that allowed police to use their discretion.
The government is also turning up the pressure on retail crime. In August, the Home Office and the BRC launched the National Retail Crime Steering Group Action Plan a strategic approach to tackling retail crime. As part of the plan, retailers in 50 priority areas were able to apply for grants of up to £3,000 and spend the cash on security devices. Partnerships of smaller retailers could also bid for grants of up to £50,000. According to the Home Office, it received about 2,000 grant applications up to the 30 September deadline.
In September the Home Office also launched a competition for designers, challenging them to develop new ways of tackling retail crime. The competition, run in conjunction with the Design Against Crime centre at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, is looking for ideas like new types of anti-theft packaging or shop layouts that make it harder to shoplift.
"We aim to inspire designers to be more ingenious than shoplifters by using their creativity and cunning to come up with designs that increase the risk of being caught," says Dr Lorraine Gamman, the college's professor of design studies. A previous anti-crime competition run by the college produced an M-shaped bike stand that allows users to secure both wheels. It was rolled out by councils last year.
With store owners fighting back, Home Office minister Alan Campbell promises the government is taking crime as seriously as the causes of crime. "I'm determined to ensure small businesses are not taken advantage of in these hard economic times, with real help now adding up to a £5m fund to pay for extra security."
But will it be enough?