Malcolm Walker Retail Week Columns

It’s time for zero tolerance

The authorities have turned a blind eye to retail crime for too long, says Malcolm Walker

As David Cameron and Theresa May found out the hard way, August is never a good time to go on holiday. It’s the month when wars break out. Though even I was surprised to find battle being joined on England’s high streets, with many Iceland stores in the front line.

There is quite simply no excuse for this. We are not living under an oppressive dictatorship, or in unbearable poverty. Living standards in this country have improved out of all recognition since I started Iceland in 1970. The sad fact is that standards of education and behaviour have moved just as sharply in the opposite direction.

Interviews with the louts who trashed our city centres, and with the parents who failed to control them, usually revealed a depressing inability to string a simple sentence together. For them, reading or writing would no doubt represent a challenge of Everest proportions.

This is an all-round failure: by teachers, politicians, the police – and by the rest of us for failing to put our feet down years ago and demand change. I have written before about the utter wrongness of treating shoplifting as a minor, victimless misdemeanour. Our store staff are regularly terrorised by individual shoplifters and gangs, yet find the police almost always “too busy” to turn up to do anything about it.

It’s just a change of scale to have thousands smashing windows, clearing whole stores and then burning them down.

Yet I detect no reluctance to enforce the law on those who are unlikely to fight back. Only last week a local authority found the time and resources to send a 17-year-old stooge into one of our stores to buy alcohol, which will land one of our checkout assistants with a criminal record for mistakenly selling her a bottle of wine.

In North Wales, where we have our head office, the last chief constable was dubbed “the Mad Mullah of the traffic Taliban” for his zero tolerance approach to speeding motorists. Doing 34mph in a 30mph zone still invariably results in prosecution, and I regularly see five patrol cars within a mile monitoring the traffic on my journey home.

Yet where were the police when terrified retail staff were trying to barricade themselves inside their stores as frenzied mobs rampaged in the streets outside? Hanging back because they have had it drummed into them that these days they are a service, not a force?

I know that many people see Iceland as an advertisement for management continuity, and it is certainly true that it wasn’t a conspicuous success when I took a period of enforced leave for the four years before 2005.

But we’re far from a closed organisation and would never have thrived as we have done if we were not receptive to new ideas and new blood from outside.

The police too could do with a firm reminder of just what they are there for, and some fresh thinking on how to achieve results. If that means breaking up their insular closed shop and importing some expertise from the US, it certainly gets my vote.

It’s high time for a zero tolerance approach to theft, criminal damage and abusive behaviour in Britain’s shops. So let us all hope that David Cameron has got the message from the events that dragged him back from Tuscany.

That way we will be able to look back on the riots of August 2011 as having a positive outcome: making politicians and police alike finally twig that crime against retailers really is crime, and that it matters.

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