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A 70s story: crime against retail, part one of three

The state has always had a say in tackling crime, by making laws and enforcing them through justice. In the 19th century, it brought about police forces. About 50 years ago, roughly speaking, due to the rise in acquisitive crime in the 1950s onwards, the Home Office began taking more of an interest in crime prevention. That was also partly due to a more assertive state in general, regardless of which political party in power.

The Home Office set up a crime prevention sub-committee on static property, which included a working party on internal shop security. It took in evidence from retailers, such as Boots, M&S and J Sainsbury. Those details, now in file HO 287/1899 at the National Archives at Kew in west London, give a picture of crime against retail.

The file shows that the chain retailers at least had security specialists. Thus among men to write to the working party were JH Wilson, head of security services for Boots in Nottingham; EW Weaver, chief security officer for Tesco, based in Peckham, south London; and TWS Bowman, CSO of John Lewis. Weaver sent detailed crime statistics to the Home Office in January 1973.

His highest returns (that is, crime against the business) were for April and September, which he interpreted with droll humour as: ‘taking our own holiday commitments into consideration, it is apparent that our clientele get ready for their holidays, and recoup in September’. Crime figures for November and December seemed to be lower, ‘but when one considers the crowded shopping areas, detection is obviously made more difficult’.

What Weaver called the ‘troublesome’ age group was still the 18 to 29-year-olds; and the average amount involved per person was £1.77. As a comparison, a worker’s take-home pay in that era was roughly £20 a week.

Weaver saw ‘a marked increase in professional activities in the group 18 to 29 years who use vehicles and visit a number of stores in one day’, a remark that a retail head of loss prevention could make today. The main goods stolen were, first, electrical goods; and then meat. Weaver differentiated professionals from other thieves. These were all comments that hold good today.

The first retailer to give evidence was M&S. SG Reynolds of Marks & Spencer wrote a follow-up letter to the Home Office in January 1973: “We firmly believe that good customer service is always a deterrent to public pilferage,” he wrote; and ‘we have internal auditors who examine the company’s systems and procedures at regular intervals throughout the year. The Store Detectives that we use areal our own employees and have been trained by us.”

In-store layout, Reynolds went on, is a matter for the store operations department, with a store manager; ‘and we would only make comment about losses if there was an absurdity which would give rise to pilferage’.

M&S, he said, would prosecute shoplifters unless a thief had strong mitigating circumstances; such as, they were very young or old, or if pilferage was very small. There were rare occasions, he said, of offences by staff, which were referred to the board before any decision to prosecute staff.

As a further clue to the working party’s thrust, it also called itself ‘internal shoplifting’, and promised retailers its report would not name any retailer. Nor would any printed evidence identify anyone. For instance, the Home Office would not mention pharmacies, as that might identify Boots.

Part two of three; click here; what independent shops thought and did about crime.


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