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Attracting a higher calibre of thief

Trying to sell some more expensive brands had unexpected consequences for Michael Ashison

Like any successful business, we are always looking for ways to maximise sales. This entails identifying our bestsellers and figuring out ways to expand their key selling points, which involves a bit of lateral thinking.

Phenomenal sales of higher-priced Ugg footwear gave us the confidence to introduce higher price points not only in our footwear stores, but also in our clothing shops. We figured that instead of having, say, leather bomber jackets only in our usual £85 to £100 price bracket, we could include some at £200 to £300. If we can sell Uggs for up to £200, we should have no problems attracting a similar class of customer to our clothing shops.

But little did I know we would also attract a better class of thief. As soon as leathers hit the shop floor, the thieves became more ambitious, with groups of up to three trying to distract our sales assistants and make off with our stock.

A vigilant member of staff recently caught a suspected shoplifter trying to use a security tag remover. When challenged, she put it down her top, claiming it would be assault if the male assistant tried to remove it. Even thieves know their rights. But when we called the police they made it clear they had better things to do than deal with this particular problem.

The episode threw up more questions than it did answered. Have thieves always been active in our shops? What should we do about them? And is this par for the course? Our CCTV footage showed that yes, the shoplifters had been in before. But because the police don't seem to be interested, thieves have no fear and return even when banned.

My family originates from Ghana in West Africa, where most shoplifters are glad of police intervention for fear of being beaten to death. I'm not proposing that here, but some mild form of torture wouldn't go amiss. A missing digit here and there would a powerful deterrent.

I jest, of course. The answer lies with our employees; no amount of security or surveillance can beat well-trained staff. I am forever telling them about eye contact, and approaching suspected thieves like bona fide customers. This isn't easy when confronted by more than one, but in my experience thieves go where they feel comfortable. Our job is to take away that comfort zone.

We discussed it with other retailers and agreed that higher prices do attract shoplifters, but when properly managed the benefits outweigh the negatives.

This issue may be known as shrinkage, but it's thieving. While large retailers build losses into their profits, we smaller operators can't. And ultimately the customer ends up paying for it.

- Michael Ashison co-owns footwear business Bullfrogs in London.

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