Gerry and the shoplifters: the scam that went horribly wrong

Starting today: a brand new business story, set in the remorseless world of retail shopping!

The Atrium was the name of the brand-new gleaming shopping mall in town. It didn't call itself a mall, which was felt to be a bit down-market (it called itself The Shopping Experience), but that it was, an American-type shopping mall under glass. It was like a greenhouse, except that instead of tomatoes and grapes it grew only boutiques and exciting food shops - yes, thrilling little greetings-card shops, toy shops, kitchen shops, candle shops, and so on. And that was not all. There were also shoplifters, and security men.

The security men were meant to catch the shoplifters.

But they didn't have much luck.

"We're not catching many shoplifters, Gerry," said Don.

Don was the general manager of The Atrium. Gerry was the head of security.

"OK, I grant you that some shops have had bad experiences," said Gerry, "but a lot of shops have a clean bill of health, never seen a shoplifter, never complained of shoplifting."

"Of course they haven't," said Don. "That's because they sell cards and candles. Shoplifters don't nick candles and cards. They don't need to. So candle and cards shops are unaffected by shoplifting."

"I don't see why," said Gerry. "Shoplifters get affected by power cuts same as the rest of us, and need candles. They have mums and dads same as the rest of us, so they have to send birthday cards. I think it's to our credit that no cards or candles have been lifted."

"Gerry!" said Don. "I want the volume of shoplifting to drop! The shopholders are breathing down my neck. They want to know why your security men aren't nicking more shoplifters. So do I."

"Well, Don, it's partly because my security men walk up and down importantly all day with their walkie-talkies but people deep down don't believe they could arrest anyone. They need credibility."

"Then get them credibility!"

As Gerry walked back from the meeting he felt bruised. But he also felt the germ of an idea. If people saw his security guards arresting people and dragging them off, it would send out a message to the shoplifters. Maybe, if he laid on a few fake shoplifters ...

And that is how Gerry came up with the idea of hiring an actor to masquerade as a shoplifter. This was the scenario. Actor runs dramatically along the main glass corridor of The Atrium, pursued by two security men. He bursts out of the building, but the brave guards bring him back. Bully for them, thinks the public. This is bad news, think the shoplifters ...

Back in the security office, men let man go, handshakes all round, you were marvellous, darling, etc.

And so it came to pass. Gerry hired a half dozen actors who: a) had no work; b) looked somewhat villainous, or at least hopeless; c) could run quite fast; d) were not from the area, so would not be recognised as out-of-work actors. And he coached them in the art of running away from his security men.

"That's all you have to do!" Gerry told the first actor, whose name was Lenny. "Leg it out into the street! Let my men overtake you! Be apprehended and come back looking crestfallen and thoroughly ashamed of yourself! Then you can change and go."

"And how do you want me to motivate myself?" said Lenny. "Do I play the art of a delinquent with a troubled background? As a kid doing it for kicks? Am I portraying someone whose economic distress has slightly affected his sense of reality?"

Gerry had never encountered actors with motivational problems before, but gradually he convinced the actor that all he had to do was play the part of a shoplifter who is short of worldly goods.

In fact Lenny was quite good at it. As pre-arranged, he grabbed a jacket from the clothes shop and ran with it. As pre-arranged, two of the security men took off after him. As pre-arranged, he got out into the main street and ran along, with the two men shouting "Stop thief!" behind him.

What was not pre-arranged was that, before the real security men could catch up with the pretended thief, a genuine member of the public should heroically leap forward and go on the attack.

Not against Lenny, whom he saw as the victim, but against the two security men, whom he managed to disable, while Lenny got clean away with the jacket.

As a PR exercise, it was a disaster.

"As a PR exercise, that was a disaster," Don told Gerry at the post-mortem.

How will Gerry bounce back? Read tomorrow's thrilling denouement!