Brian Sims

Working Together to Fight Retail Crime

HAVING SPENT the last 16 months and more living with a variety of COVID-19 restrictions, we finally made it to so-called ‘Freedom Day’ in England: a landmark moment whereby we can return to meeting inside without limits on numbers, attending live concerts and seeing sports teams play in stadiums. While this is all excellent news for retailers, it’s important for organisations in this sector to remember that not only are sales likely to increase as footfall on the High Street rises, but incidents of retail crime will likely rise in tandem. Here, Barrie Millett outlines the latest thinking when it comes to a strategy for combating the criminals.

From the physical and mental effects on shop workers through to the financial costs for companies, retail crime has a big impact on the UK. Criminal activity such as theft or violence against shop workers directly affects more than 160,000 front line employees and costs businesses more than £1.3 billion per annum.

That’s why, in partnership with independent charity Crimestoppers, we recently brought together representatives from the Association of Convenience Stores, Police Crime Prevention Initiatives, the National Business Crime Centre and Humberside Police, along with some of the UK’s major retailers, to take part in our inaugural Retail Crime Thought Leaders Round Table.

By bringing together these key organisations, we were able to share our insights and experiences with each other and also discuss how we can join forces to fight retail crime on a bigger scale.

Hidden victims of retail crime

Crime is never victimless. As retail crime is carried out by perpetrators with very different profiles, incentives and modus operandi, its victims are rarely just businesses and employees. Such criminality affects local communities as well.

Retail crime is often considered a ‘low risk and high reward’ activity. That being so, shops are one of the most common targets for burglaries and robberies led by both organised crime groups, organised retail criminals and also prolific criminals acting alone.

The activities carried out by these criminals not only make a big dent in businesses’ pockets, but they also fund the perpetrators’ other activities (often more serious and violent crime). Indeed, organised crime is among the most frequent threats to members of the public and causes more deaths in the UK each year than terrorism.

According to the British Retail Consortium, around 75% of businesses’ financial losses due to retail crime can be traced back to theft. As shop workers and security officers are the ones watching to help keep stores and customers safe, they’re likely to be the first ones to notice and confront people who are stealing. Many individuals may respond to this with physical or verbal abuse against shop workers. Indeed, since the pandemic began, episodes of violence and abuse against retail staff have been on the rise.

It’s not just those undertaking criminal activity who are acting violently, either. Shop workers are increasingly facing abuse while requesting shoppers to follow safety guidelines such as the wearing of face masks or social distancing.

We’ve all recognised just how important our nation’s shop workers are during the COVID-19 pandemic, with these individuals rightly acknowledged as some of the UK’s vital key workers. However, they are often the hidden victims of retail crime, too. Tackling this issue is not just about businesses. It’s also about keeping the people who have helped our country to run as smoothly as possible throughout the pandemic safe as well.

Investing in safe spaces

With those workers based in stores often acting as the first line of defence, investing in new training and technology for security officers can make a big difference when it comes to reducing the volume of crime.

Security providers and retailers alike have focused on trialling a host of new initiatives to help limit the impact of criminal behaviour. For example, providing conflict management training for retail security officers can help colleagues to de-escalate and diffuse difficult situations.

However, de-escalation and conflict management techniques are not always successful. To support these situations, Mitie – working in partnership with one of our customers, namely the Co-op – has equipped security officers with a special forensic spray. Using the SmartWater solution, officers under attack can deploy the spray on violent offenders which then marks the latter with an identifiable ‘tag’ not visible to the human eye.

Given that the spray can be used by the police as evidence in cases against criminals, the initiative has also helped deter attacks against shop workers as well as support prosecutions against criminals who abuse store staff.

In line with de-escalation training, officers are all trained to first warn that the spray is about to be deployed and then state impact of this on the individual. This two-pronged procedure can often work to de-escalate an attack, with the SmartWater forensic spray only used as a last resort.

Problem shared, problem halved

Historically, most businesses have focused on tackling the impact of retail crime alone. However, as instances of abuse against shop workers and the financial cost to retailers increase, and as criminals become ever-more sophisticated, it’s clear that we need to join forces from a safety and security perspective.

The importance of collaboration in fighting retail crime is not a new idea, of course, but with policing resources becoming more limited, Police and Crime Commissioners and chief constables are being urged to step-up collaboration with retailers such that they can then better understand local crime patterns and formulate their priorities.

Helping to bridge the gap between public and private sector organisations and keep customers and communities safe has long been a priority for Mitie. We absolutely recognise that we can do so much more to tackle retail crime if our sector works together on this issue.

For example, through our technology-led security solutions, our national retail customers are sharing information on criminal behaviour among each other on an anonymous basis. This allows them to track trends and identify where a small number of organised crime groups or organised retail criminals may be responsible for a large number of incidents.

Indeed, with approximately one fifth of those involved in retail crime also carrying out other types of criminality, these perpetrators are usually well-known to local police forces. By sharing this intelligence, we’ve been able to support the authorities in building cases and keep criminals off the streets.

Promoting collaboration  

We remain committed to leading and promoting collaboration in the security industry. That’s precisely why, at the beginning of the year, we developed our industry-first partnership with Crimestoppers. This has enabled us to step up our information sharing efforts as we work together to share details on criminal behaviour gathered by businesses which can then feed into police investigations.

We’ve also been able to support Crimestoppers in creating new relationships with some of our customers, encouraging more businesses to take part in the important work being transacted to prevent and solve crime.

Public and private sector security collaboration is not only about sharing information. It’s also key to finding new ways in which to prevent crime occurring in the first place. Indeed, we recently partnered with the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology to undertake the UK’s first research into how technology and on-site security personnel can be leveraged to help businesses reduce cases of theft and violence against shop workers.

As well as using the research findings to help keep our customers’ stores safe, the results will be published to create the first evidence-based approach to retail crime. To ensure that this research has as wide an impact as possible, it will be openly available to police forces and other organisations in the retail and security industries alike.

Additionally, in a joint effort with our supermarket clients, we’re sharing our experiences and expertise to advise Police Crime Prevention Initiatives and the National Business Crime Centre on the most effective measures to help fight retail crime in the UK. The latter will use these insights to develop and implement strategies to tackle the biggest causes of retail crime, such as shoplifting and fraud, that cost businesses millions of pounds every year.

All together now

From employees and customers through to local shops and on again to national chains, retail crime affects people and businesses from every walk of life. With policing resources increasingly stretched, it’s now imperative that we all work together to tackle it.

At Mitie, we’re particularly proud to be driving this agenda and bringing together organisations from across the public and private sector in a determined bid to change how our industry approaches fighting such crime.

As the first event of its kind, our Retail Crime Thought Leaders Round Table was just the start of our ambition for creating a culture of open communication and collaboration across our sector. By working together and sharing our experiences, there’s much more that all of us can do to keep our colleagues, customers and communities safe from the scourge of crime.

Barrie Millett is Director of Assurance at Mitie Group plc

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