What can shop owners do to protect themselves?

Wholesalers often display signs claiming no liability for any theft on their premises, so it’s up to shop owners to protect and insure themselves from theft. Manjit Samra, of Samra Supermarket in Wolverhampton, explains: “Retailers need to make sure they are covered for loss of goods while in transit.” Asked about the most dangerous cash and carry in his area, he responds: “I’d stopped going there because the car park was badly designed. It allowed anybody parked up to intercept shop owners on a long walk back to their van near unsecured entrances.”

The former NFRN district president also advises: “Shop owners driving to a depot to make a bit more margin on cigarettes need to consider whether it’s really worth it. You may pay a charge for a delivered service, but this should be balanced with the risk of crime, the added insurance and your time.”

However, evidence also suggests criminals are increasingly targeting tobacco deliveries to stores as well. Nisa recently warned its partnered stores: “There is an increase of cigarette theft while deliveries are being made to stores, so please take extra care.” The company said stores in the wider Birmingham area were worst affected.

At least 11 retailers in Surrey were robbed of their stock while at cash and carries in a two-year period. Dipak Shah, who runs H&R News in Camberley with his wife Jayshree, tells betterRetailing: “I’m always careful to park right in front of the depot, even if it takes a little bit longer. I’m especially cautious at cash and carries where there’s no controlled car park access. I usually get a staff member to help me to my car when loading in tobacco.”

Police stats reveal shocking crime rate: 18 cash and carry robberies every month

The Federation of Wholesale Distributors (FWD) also advises retailers not to leave stock unattended in the car. One of the retailers who was robbed during the period in Surrey tells betterRetailing that failing to heed the FWD’s advice had cost them thousands of pounds. “We got followed from one cash and carry to the next, which was at least 20 miles away. When we went inside, they hit the van,” they explain.

FWD director of communications David Visick adds: “If you see anything suspicious, such as two or more people watching you from a car, report it to the depot staff.”

Asked for its advice to retailers, Bestway suggests they should keep doors locked when moving stock from depot to vehicle or vehicle to store. A company spokesperson explains: “As tempting as it is to leave the doors open for ease of movement, it’s too easy for goods to be stolen if not vigilant. While we accept cash as a method of payment, customers also have the option of paying by card, which is safer.”

“I’m always careful to park right in front of the depot”

Tobacco track and trace legislation makes it harder for illicit sellers to sell on stolen stock. Each pack is registered to the victim retailer, so if it is scanned by law enforcement during a search, it can be returned to the victim, according to Imperial Tobacco’s anti illicit trade manager James Hall. However, some shop owners are taking matters into their own hands to allow stolen stock to be tracked instantly.

Vas Vekaria, owner of Premier Lever Edge in Bolton, explains: “To combat the theft of tobacco from cash and carries, I chuck an old iPhone in each cigarette bag and connect it to my account. Once a bag gets snatched, you can locate it with Apple’s Find My Phone service. Old iPhones are around £30, so it’s a reliable system. However, whether the police act on it is another matter.

“I use three phones and for the cost, it’s a no-brainer. Make sure to leave the phone in an envelope so it doesn’t look suspicious if snatched.”

Are cash and carry wholesalers doing enough to protect retailers?

The FWD says crime levels have remained “broadly the same” since it started measuring it eight years ago. “It’s an issue that affects all cash and carry operators equally,” says Visick.

However, crime data suggests measures by cash and carries are having an impact. From 2017 to 2018, the total number of robberies identified in the police records seen by betterRetailing fell by 30%, while thefts from wholesalers themselves fell by 25%.

In addition, nearly every retailer spoken to by betterRetailing said the level of car park security in different cash and carries has affected crime. Richard Johnson, of Peppers Convenience Store in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, was the victim of theft at Booker in Nottingham in July.

He tells betterRetailing: “I’ve heard from retailers and depot staff that though other nearby companies such as Dhamecha have secured their car parks, it is pushing the crime to unsecured cash and carries.”

Describing the incident as “the final straw”, he called on cash and carries to install secure fences and an entry and exit system, to restrict access to customers only, and to accompany retailers while unloading.

Lock and look

Despite the criticism, Johnson praises Booker for what he describes as new steps to tackle the issue, including new leaflets on security for retailers in-depot, a security guard, and plans for number plate recognition that would identify vehicles being driven suspiciously.

Booker has confirmed that it had upgraded its CCTV and made the cameras and warning messages more visible ‘to raise awareness to our customer base and would be offenders.’

A spokesperson for Booker adds: “We also deploy security officers where necessary, hold crime prevention days, and install barriers, fencing and corrugated sheeting around the car park to prevent offenders watching customers load vehicles, specifically around tobacco. We will also escort any customer to their vehicle with their goods.

“We have WhatsApp groups set up with all our regions so intelligence and incidents can be shared immediately for branches to respond if an incident has occurred locally to them. We have had a superb response from branches where we have seen a reduction of confirmed incidents recently by 52% by staff deterring incidents on the back of these groups being in place.”

The FWD’s Visick says wholesalers are already working together to tackle the problem. “Our members share intelligence through FWD, and this recently led to a police operation and arrests being made in the North West,” he explains.

Booker says that it is “working in partnership with crime agencies and the FWD”. Its spokesperson adds: “We have driven two police operations in recent years, which led to 10 people being arrested, seven of whom were charged and given custodial sentences; the other three were arrested recently and are currently on bail – we are awaiting updates.”

Asked about what steps it has taken to protect retailers, Bestway says it keeps “the detail around our security measures secure” in order to keep criminals in the dark.

“I had issues getting the wholesaler to hand over the footage”

However, the firm’s spokesperson adds: “We can reassure retailers that just our visible security measures include CCTV cameras in depots and gates and security in car parks. We also only allow registered customers into depot and take customer numbers before allowing entrance. To protect employees and customers, our depot cash points are separate to the check-outs and the staff members sit behind glass.”

Retailers also report issues relating to access to CCTV footage, with some cash and carry wholesalers refusing to release footage of the incident to the victims, citing GDPR privacy laws.

“I was violently attacked at a depot during a robbery and lost thousands of pounds. On top of this, I initially had issues getting the wholesaler to hand over the footage to either myself or the police,” says another shop owner.

However, rather than GDPR denying retailers access to the footage, the law actually stipulates the opposite – anyone is entitled to any personal data, including video footage of them, held by another business. Wholesalers that fail to comply could be fined by the Information Commissioner’s Office.