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We were losing £26,000 to shoplifters each year. A secret weapon changed that | Tech News

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We were losing £26,000 to shoplifters each year. A secret weapon changed that | Tech News

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Vince (L) and Fiona (R) have transformed their shop with AI (Picture: Vince and Fiona Malone)

Ping!

Another video popped up on our phones.

Our hearts sank, and we thought ‘not again’ – while simultaneously feeling grateful to have the video at all.

It was 8:00pm on 24 September 2023. We were at home in Tenby, West Wales, and we were looking at the third video that day of the same two men shoplifting alcohol from our convenience shop.

It was a video we had thanks to AI. But technology never used to be at the forefront of our business.

We took over Tenby Post Office in 2015, and quickly added a convenience shop. In 2020, we moved to a new location up the road, and purpose-built a joint convenience shop and post office.

We now employ 14 people and we sell food, alcohol, stationery, magazines, cards and lots of local produce, like traditional Welsh cakes.

It’s incredibly hard work, but it’s very rewarding, too. Customers send us gifts and letters of thanks – one 85-year-old customer wrote thanking us for delivering her paper every week.

And we’ll think, ‘That’s why we do it’.

Fiona (L) and Vince (R) say the subsequent loss of money was a real kick in the teeth (Picture: Vince and Fiona Malone)

But, as things started getting back to ‘normal’ after Covid, we started to notice things missing from the shelves.

We’d do a stock check, go through our CCTV, identify certain patterns – and it shocked us to see the granular detail of what was being stolen. Alcohol was a major item, and pet food was another.

We realised we were losing around £26,000 per year to shoplifting – and we were horrified.

We felt angry, because we provide a service to the community and these shoplifting individuals were letting us down.

Plus, although we are a successful business, we’re not making millions. We’re paying our mortgage and surviving, and this crime – and subsequent loss of money – was a real kick in the teeth. It actively impacted our quality of life and the things we were able to do with our children.

At the same time, though, we felt compassion for some of the people stealing from us – those fuelled by drugs or alcohol, for example. While they’re impacting our lives, you’ve got to look at their lives and realise there’s a reason for what they’re doing.

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We moved our spirits and expensive bottles of wine behind the counter (Picture: Vince and Fiona Malone)

You can feel angry at someone and sorry for them at the same time.

But we knew we had to do something.

There were certain steps we could take. We’ll never have anyone lone working, for one thing, as this can leave a team member in an unfair vulnerable position, so there are always at least two people on a shift.

Plus, the people stealing alcohol were often alcohol-fuelled. These thefts were easier to identify, because they weren’t sophisticated – so we moved our spirits and expensive bottles of wine behind the counter.

But even taking alcohol out of the equation, we were still losing a significant amount of money; because the subtler thefts were harder to monitor.

A group of two or three people would come in. One would make themselves known to a member of staff, being very chatty and pleasant – deliberately stopping the staff member from looking around, which meant their accomplice could take things off the shelves, unhindered.

We couldn’t afford to have another member of staff constantly scanning the shop floor – so we went to a technology show in May 2023 and had a look at some options.

If someone were to grab something from a shelf, it’ll immediately pick up on that grab motion (Picture: Vince and Fiona Malone)

That was where we came across the x-hoppers headsets and cameras – and since then, everything’s changed. There was a cost to installing this technology, but it’s far outweighed by the benefits.

The headsets act as a communication tool; but also, if a staff member is having a conversation with a customer and is worrying for their safety, they can record the conversation on their headset, allowing other staff members to listen in.

We also now have 29 AI cameras installed which are plugged into our CCTV; and the cameras analyse customers’ behaviour. If someone were to grab something from a shelf, it’ll immediately pick up on that grab motion. This might be flagged as a shoplifting incident, and a video will be sent to each of us and to our shop manager.

An AI reading of a potential theft will also trigger a tannoy system, which says: ‘Please be aware, if anyone were to be caught shoplifting, we’ve got 29 cameras and we monitor them constantly’.

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We want our staff to feel safe (Picture: Vince and Fiona Malone)

Sometimes, of course, the ‘incident’ picked up by the cameras isn’t really an incident at all. It might just be someone leaving the post office and putting a letter in their bag.

Other times, though, it’s bang on – like with the two men who were stealing alcohol that night in September.

These two men had already stolen £20 or £30 worth of alcohol from us twice that day. The AI system had picked them up, but they were in and out of the shop incredibly quickly.

This time, even though we were at home, we could see it was the same people – so Vince went into town to check on the team who were working that shift, with our 19-year-old son.

By pure chance, as I (Vince) was walking past a supermarket on the way into town, I saw the same two men leaving it – arms full of alcohol.

I challenged them on their behaviour, and it got a little heated – so we called 999. When the police arrived, I showed them what the men had stolen from us, together with the video of them taking the alcohol in our shop and leaving without paying.

Fiona (L) and Vince (R) feel compassion for shoplifters (Picture: Vince and Fiona Malone)
It’s not just about money (Picture: Vince and Fiona Malone)

With all that evidence, they admitted to it. A few days later, they were in court and then prosecuted. All thanks to our AI cameras.

We recently saw that Co-op is installing AI in its supermarkets after a rise in retail crime – which just reinforces our belief that it’s an effective use of technology.

Before installing AI, we were losing around £200 or £300 a week at this quiet time of year; and we can confidently say that we’re now losing around half that amount. It’s an enormous relief.

As we’re a seaside town, we’ll get a better indication of where things are this summer.

We suspect the AI acts as a deterrent just as much as a solution. Whenever it helps us catch someone stealing, we make a point of telling everyone exactly how they were caught. Word gets around.

But it’s not just about money.

Vince (L) and Fiona (R) say what sets them apart is their character (Picture: Vince and Fiona Malone)

We want our staff to feel safe. Stealing isn’t the only issue – there’s a risk of violence, too. We’ve heard stories of other retailers having their shops smashed up just for refusing to serve someone alcohol, and we don’t ever want our staff to feel vulnerable or scared.

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We’ll definitely be using AI indefinitely – but we never want to rely too heavily on technology, because we want to keep our personality.

There are nine places in town where you can go and buy milk. We’re all very similar in price and milk is milk. But what sets us apart is our character. We care, and we take the time to talk to our customers. So we don’t want to go too far down the technology route.

That said, AI has transformed our business, and we’re proud of it. A lot of people might assume the technology could only be in a big supermarket – like Co-op – but, while we’re a smaller store, we want to be a safe haven for everyone.

We’re not here to make millions. We’re never going to do that. But we’re here to provide a function for our community, and if AI can help us do that, that’s great. It means we’ll be here, serving our community, for many years to come.

Vince Malone is the Wales District President for The Federation of Independent Retailers (The Fed) and is supporting The Fed’s ‘Safe, Secure, Supported’ campaign. Fiona is the Non Exec Director on the Independent Retailer Board of the ACS. Find out more about the campaign here.

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing jess.austin@metro.co.uk

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