A matter of off-licence protection

09 March, 2007

How do drinks retailers and their staff cope with armed raids and other forms of violent robbery? Emma Eversham reports on the lastest crime prevention measures

M ost employees wouldn't expect to be threatened with knives, guns, or other dangerous tools during a normal working day. For staff in the off-trade, however, this is something that increasingly seems to go with the territory as the number of armed robberies rises.

But when the culprits have fled and the police have taken statements, what happens to the victimised members of staff and do companies learn anything from the incidents to help stop them happening in the future?

Lynne Whiteland, manager of the Hop Inn, Caversham, Berkshire, was threatened at gun and knife point by two men during a robbery in January.

When two hooded robbers burst into the shop on a busy Sunday evening, Whiteland initially thought they were customers playing a joke on her. However, when one pinned her against the wall brandishing a knife, and demand that she open the till, she quickly realised it wasn't a prank.

After grabbing cash from the till, the bandits headed for the back office, so Whiteland took her chance to push the shop's panic button. They fled, leaving her shaken but unhurt.

"The police were quick," she says. "But I later found out that a customer had seen it happening from outside and had called them. They were very good with me and the female police officer even walked me to my car."

Whiteland returned to work almost immediately, taking just one day out to enjoy a spa day organised by her boss.

She says: "Anyone else of a more nervous disposition might not have been able to return so quickly, but I'm not the type to be fazed by it. It's something you expect to happen in this job."

Whiteland says she has learn t lessons from the incident and decided to give her staff extra training.

"Whatever you do, you have to put yourself and your staff first. Money is not as important as a life," she says.

Dealing with the trauma

Not all staff are as resilient as Whiteland, however. Following a violent raid in February at The Vineyard wine merchants in Belfast, two members of staff resigned.

They had been subjected to a traumatic experience by two masked and armed robbers . One sales assistant need ed hospital treatment after he was hit over the head with a gun.

Shop o wner Tony McGurran says he installed all security measures, such as CCTV and a panic button , but it didn't prevent the robbery. The shop had also been raided three weeks beforehand so he could not guarantee to his staff that it was a one-off incident.

He says : "It's the nature of retailing in the small environment. It's very difficult for us. Supermarkets have security guards and city centres have a lot of CCTV cameras, but the outlying regions like where we are don't have that protection."

One way McGurran does hope to stop future robberies in his store is by keeping less cash in his float safe, which he says will make it less of an incentive for robbers to target his business.

A call for swift victims' support

According to Usdaw's health and safety officer, Doug Russell, the best way to help and retain victimised members of staff is to give them practical and sympathetic support directly after the incident.

Research carried out by the British Occupational Health Research Foundation, which tracked victims working for the Royal Mail Group, found that employees regarded "good" support as an "empathetic response from the line manager and prompt practical support in dealing with the situation and getting back to normal". The study also found that absence levels were much lower if practical support was offered immediately after an incident.

"They found that the most important bit was the first stage, which involved the line manager seeing if they were OK, talking to them and seeing if there was anything they could do for them," says Russell.

Prevention is better than cure

Of course, the best way retailers can help their staff is to do all they can to prevent robberies happening in the first place.

All 2,000 stores in the Thresher Group are now installed with Staff Safe, a system which allows staff to contact a remotely-sited monitoring station either overtly or covertly if they are under attack.

Thresher chief executive Roger Whiteside says: "Action can then be taken as required, including summoning police assistance if the situation demands it and directing staff as to what to do to keep themselves safe."

But, he adds: "Despite all of our pro-active measures, it is a sad fact that we still do experience incidents of robbery and violence. When any such incident does occur we have a stringent process of post-incident assessment, which begins immediately after the incident is reported."

In Bury, Lancashire, police have pro-actively set out to prevent shop robberies by giving 10 businesses in the area financial help to install security devices. Stores would then be accredit ed by the crime prevention initiative Raid-control .

By the end of March, six off-licences and four Co-op stores in that area will have the three security measures that they need to install to be accredited - CCTV, a time-delay safe and a device called "smoke note", which dyes bank notes if the till is forced . Staff will also have received training in how to deal with robberies. Once devices are in place, retailers can display a Raid-control sign in windows as a deterrent .

Gaynor Mason, crime reduction adviser at Bury Police, says: "It's been quite useful in other areas. Bargain Booze is one of the main ones we have been installing them in and the staff said they felt better that they'd got accreditation."

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