Drain on tills as high streets counter crime

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A TOWN crier shouts out the names and addresses of convicted shoplifters before placing their photographs in a 'rogues gallery' for the public to view.

This is perhaps not the solution the chairman of the electrical group Dixons envisaged when he spoke out last week against the thieves who steal millions from his stores. But this drastic action, which the owner of a West Country chain store hopes to introduce, is an indication of the desperation felt by many shop-owners. Last year an estimated pounds 2.5bn was taken from the shelves, stock rooms and tills of Britain's stores.

While many retailers report a new trend involving armed gangs, others - repeatedly burgled or ram-raided - cannot get insurance. Shopkeepers feel under siege and their premises increasingly resemble fortresses.

Some of their frustration was expressed by Stanley Kalms, of Dixons, which lost pounds 20m through crime last year. At a London seminar, he derided the police who had 'given up detection' and law- makers stuck in a 'time warp'. Dixons recorded 10,000 incidents of theft, violence and fraud at its 850 shops last year, but Mr Kalms said he could count the convictions on his fingers.

Nationally, recorded thefts from shops have been rising for five years and were at a record high of 289,000 in 1992. The number of people prosecuted successfully or cautioned for shoplifting has dropped significantly since the mid-1980s. More than half of those convicted are under 21.

For 25 years Roger Smith and his wife have owned a newsagent's in Nottingham. After it was burgled four times in four weeks they fitted an alarm and steel doors. About seven months ago the shop was rammed on two occasions by a high-performance car and goods were stolen. Now a huge security grille covers the front.

Mr Smith said: 'We still get gangs of young shoplifters - some of them are only about 10. We have caught them steadily, but there's nothing you can do - normally you get a mouthful of abuse. We have informed the police but nothing really happens.'

Not only small corner shops are being targeted. Grenville Peacock, chief executive of Bentalls, which has seven general department stores in the South-east, said: 'Shoplifters are becoming increasingly blatant - they almost dare you to stop them. Subterfuge and subtlety has been replaced by threats and aggression. They don't even care about being caught on our surveillance cameras. We get schoolkids who steal in teams and the police don't want to take any action.'

Marks & Spencer lost pounds 30m to crime last year and spent pounds 21m in an attempt to combat it, including the installation of zoom-lens cameras. Brian Hudspith, M&S spokesman, said: 'It's frightening how violent and organised it has become. Guards and staff have been threatened with shotguns, knives and syringes. We have caught youths with lists of clothes they have to steal - including sizes and colours.'

Security guards, closed-circuit television, bullet-proof glass and panic buttons for shop assistants have become part of the fixtures of most large retail outlets. Now many are looking towards hi-tech solutions. In Harrods, for example, security tags splatter blue indelible ink if tampered with, making stolen garments valueless.

Dixons, whose electronic goods are prime targets for thieves, guards against ram raiders and burglars with 24-hour camera surveillance, security shutters, car traps, and reinforced bollards at front and rear.

The company complains, however, that some local authorities have blocked security measures such as shutters because they are considered unaesthetic.

Dave Briers, a security consultant to the Alliance of Independent Retailers, believes scant regard is given to theft by staff. 'Most of the stuff - 60 to 70 per cent - goes out the back door. It's either staff theft or collusion involving them, but many chain stores don't like to admit it because it spoils their image.'

Meanwhile, in Cornwall, Bruce Robertson, chairman of Trago Mills, which has three out-of- town retail centres, is waiting to hear whether his scheme to use a town crier and picture gallery to deter shoplifters is legal. An employee at Trago Mills said: 'His father, Mike (the former owner), had much more extreme views about shoplifters - he was keen to put them in stocks and dye them with blue paint.'

(Graph omitted)

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