War on high-street crime: Retailing: Rising theft is requiring more sophisticated counter measures

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The Independent Online
AFTER the Christmas rush and the January sales, Dixons, the electrical retailer, will close its branch of Currys in Marlborough, Wiltshire. The problem is not the recession, but a succession of ram-raids and burglaries that have hit the store.

Dixons had wanted to put a sophisticated security grill on the front of the shop but says it was barred by the local council, which felt the grill would be unsightly.

Dixons is not the only retailer with such a problem. Marks & Spencer says it loses more than pounds 60m a year from theft and has suffered a spate of burglaries recently. A newsagent in Marlborough was ram- raided three times in a week and now clears the shop of all valuable stock at night.

Christmas is the worst crime time for shopkeepers. The stores are busy, making it hard to keep an eye out for those with light fingers. And the employment of less-experienced temporary staff makes the shops more vulnerable.

The total losses of retail crime are difficult to quantify, because only a small percentage of incidents are reported to the police. A survey two years ago by the management consultancy division of Touche Ross estimated the cost of retail shrinkage at around pounds 2.5bn. Since then, crime has become more blatant and violent. Marks & Spencer says staff have been threatened with knives and syringes.

Now there are some concerted moves to help the industry address the problem. In May, Dixons seconded one of its directors, Philip Edwards, to the Crime Prevention Unit of the Home Office to help investigate the size of the problem. The British Retail Consortium has set up a crime initiative (again with some ex-Dixons staff) and is conducting a survey of retail crime, to be published in February.

Dixons, which loses pounds 20m a year to retail crime, has done more than most to stem the flow of stock out the door. The strategy has come from the top, where chairman Stanley Kalms has criticised the police for an inadequate response to high- street theft. The anti-crime group, led by Tony Burns-Howell, a former commander in the Metropolitan police with a PhD in crime risk management, has tried technology and a more stringent recruitment policy. Starting in problem stores such as Brixton and Lewisham in south London, Dixons reduced the amount of stock on open display and put more in glass cabinets. Valuable items were attached to computer-linked electronic protection devices. If a product was stolen, the computer would log the time, the shop and what was taken.

When recruiting, references were followed up thoroughly, and successful candidates were told at interview that staff thieves would be arrested. Staff were selected from a broader age range to include more people over 40 (half the crimes in Britain are committed by people aged 18-25). The experiment worked. Crime in the south London stores fell by 30 per cent, compared with a rise of 18 per cent in the shops operating under the old system.

Now the tactics are being used in other stores. Closed circuit TV is being introduced and Dixons is helping the Home Office with funds to research facial mapping technology, so that individual criminals can be more easily traced from video film.

But the store has had mixed results with security guards. Tony Burns-Howell explains: 'Sometimes shoplifting increases in stores where guards operate, because other store staff become less vigilant.'

Marks & Spencer still adheres to the security guard approach but is spending pounds 6.5m on introducing closed-circuit television in all its 290 shops by next Christmas. Preventing staff theft can also be a problem. Even Marks & Spencer, which prides itself on the quality of its staff, admitted it had a problem. Following alarming theft losses at its flagship Marble Arch store in London, management interviewed large numbers of staff to ask them whether they knew any workers who had been pilfering.

Some towns have started to work together to combat the thiefs. Wolverhampton and Coventry have schemes whereby retailers have radios connected to the local police station. Birmingham, Newcastle and Northampton also operate schemes where high streets and shopping malls club together to fight crime. 'For me the big issues are high streets and car parks, good policing and good lighting,' says Mike Brazeley, Marks & Spencer's head of store security. 'We may need to get more police on to our high streets.'

(Photograph omitted)

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