Independent retailers' organisations are redoubling their efforts to move the issue of crime affecting the sector up the political agenda in 2016. So how serious is the situation for UK retailers today and are things about to change? Asian Trader investigates.
Of all the issues facing someone running a small retailing business, a particularly infuriating one for many retailers is the hands-off attitude some police forces can have to the vexed issue of handling retail crime and associated antisocial behaviour.
When problems in store such as shoplifting or physical and verbal abuse occur, many retailers feel that they can be sometimes be treated like a problem rather than a victim. In 2014 for example, Wiltshire Police drew condemnation when they announced that, as a cost-saving measure, retailers would have to mail in CCTV recordings of in-store shoplifting offences at their own expense.
But in an era when many retailers find themselves subjected to close scrutiny from central government, local authorities, police and trading standards about how they run their businesses, this attitude is also being challenged on a growing number of fronts by retailers and their representatives.
A growing problem?
Retailers' groups like the National Federation of Retail Newsagents (NFRN) or the Tobacco Retailers Alliance (TRA) have long campaigned to get industry issues like crime prevention, antisocial behaviour, and illicit tobacco smuggling higher up the political agenda at Westminster. The convenience sector seems to be getting more organised in its lobbying, but retail crime remains a serious problem.
In January the BBC revealed that crime in the retail sector was at a ten year high, costing the UK retail industry as a whole £603m. Shoplifting, cyber-crime and fraud recorded by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) were up 18% in the year from 2013-14, with the majority of fraud and 40 percent of all shop thefts estimated to be carried out by organised criminal gangs.
Thefts and fraud were only two of the risks staff and businesses faced; since stores often contain expensive goods, controlled substances or cash, some criminals don't stop at deception to get what they want. Furthermore shop workers are often targets of lower level anti-social behaviour, being a source of age-restricted products like alcohol and cigarettes that teenagers or drunken customers might be refused when they try to buy. The BRC's report said that UK retailers reported suffering a total of 58,014 incidents of violence and abuse in the year from 2013-14.
The picture of retail crime as it affects the convenience sector is slightly different to retail as a whole, but is tracked by a number of bodies.
A survey of self-reported crimes was complied by the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) through its Crime Report 2015. It reported 1416 instances where violent crimes resulted in injury to independent retailers, and 35 where a weapon was used.
But in good news the percentage of c-store owners who had fallen victim to shop theft had declined from 91% in 2012 to 74% in 2014. This had pushed down the cost of shop theft to the convenience sector from £44m to £35m a year.
But this development had to be balanced against the costs of protecting businesses from criminals. Independent stores each spent an average of over £1700 on crime prevention measures such as CCTV, product tagging and anti-theft devices over the course of the year.
Nor is all retail crime in the sector being reported to the authorities to be officially recorded.
In March the NFRN released the results of a survey of 400 independent retailers conducted jointly with the prestigious Policy Exchange think tank. Half of those retailers questioned had been a victim of two or more shoplifting incidents in the last three months, yet less than one in 10 instances of shoplifting was being reported to the local police.
In its briefing the NFRN revealed that 20 percent of retailers questioned said they did not bother to report the crimes since “police don’t come” while 35 percent doubted the police’s ability to successfully prosecute the offenders. One respondent was even told not to report the crime because the value of stolen goods was too low and because police had other priorities.
Talking about the survey results, NFRN chief executive Paul Baxter commented: “Shoplifting and property crime is a problem that blights the businesses of independent retailers every day. We have long been concerned that not enough is being done to tackle the issue and the findings of the survey lay bare the lack of confidence that small shopkeepers have, either in police response times or a successful prosecution being achieved.”
What is being done?
Over the last few years a growing number of initiatives have been launched by industry groups to tackle the multifaceted issue of crime and antisocial behaviour affecting independent stores.
The TRA recently launched their 2015/16 campaign 'A Fair Deal For Small Shops' to lobby the government for changes they would like to see in the industry. One of the aims of the campaign is crime prevention, and the TRA team have worked out a short programme they would like implemented on this issue.
This includes a guarantee that police will attend a convenience store when a crime occurs and make regular stops at corner shops. Other plans are to offer retail workers the same legal protection as emergency workers and to introduce a retail crime 'key performance indicator' for police forces. The group is also called for a review of Fixed Penalty Notices, sentencing and other sanctions against offenders.
The NFRN has been highlighting its efforts to bring the issue of retail crime and the impact it has on independent retailers to the attention of Parliament.
It recently welcomed the news from the Chancellor in his Autumn Statement that police budgets would not be cut any further. Pundits had predicted a fresh attack on tight police budgets, on top of cuts which have already seen a big force like Greater Manchester Police fall from 8,200 officers to around 6,500.
The NFRN also helped set up a new All Party Parliamentary Group on Retail Crime (APPG) last summer. It has been working in parliament with Guto Bebb, MP for Aberconwy, to raise awareness of the problem of retail crime and its impact on the convenience sector.
The new APPG on Retail Crime quickly met to discuss the Policy Exchange report jointly released with the NFRN. More recently in November it organised a parliamentary reception for MPs to speak to independent retailers about the crime issues that they have faced in their work and to raise awareness about the types of incidents affecting small businesses. Ultimately the group is working towards securing a Parliamentary Debate on the issue.
Also in November the ACS called on retailers to share their experiences of retail crime over the last 12 months as part of its Crime Survey 2016. The ACS survey asks retailers to outline the number of incidents of crime they have experienced, including shop theft, robberies and anti-social behavioural incidents. It also examines causes and crime prevention measures retailers are using in their stores. The aim is to feature the results at the annual ACS Crime Seminar in March.
ACS chief executive James Lowman urged retailers to take part in the Crime Survey 2016, saying the survey informed the group's work with government and the previous report in 2015 had been a great success.
Meanwhile the NFRN and the ACS both reacted positively in October to new guidelines from the Sentencing Council for England and Wales increasing penalties for shop thefts.
The Council's updated guidelines now stress that the emotional distress, property damage and effects on a business should be taken into consideration when sanctioning offenders. These will take effect from February next year and were part of a package of measures sought by the industry.
The ACS welcomed the change but also voiced worries that the measures still did not include a separate assessment for repeat offenders.
Its chief executive James Lowman commented: “We fought hard when the Sentencing Advisory Council consulted on this and called for a separate sentencing table to be included within the guidelines with tougher penalties for repeat offenders. We are disappointed that the Sentencing Council’s new guidelines do not distinguish between repeat and first time offenders.”
It seems the message from the convenience sector to the authorities is starting to get through, but much more remains to be done on the issue to lift the burden and costs from independent retailers' shoulders.