It’s an expensive, persistent and growing issue affecting forecourt operators and their staff: crime – whether we’re talking shoplifting, drive-offs or no means of payment (NMoP). But does it have to be this way?

The national media, particularly what used to be known as the tabloids, carry reports of retail crime almost every day; the more serious media tend to raise the topic whenever some trade organisation issues a press-release with new statistics – as we saw recently from the ACS (the Association of Convenience Stores) and BOSS (British Oil Security Syndicate).

Whenever the subject re-appears, the outcome is almost invariably the same: some or other politician will stand up and demand that the police do more; and the police will reply with some new initiative involving retail lobby groups. The reality is that the police really can’t do more. Like every other public services, they are faced with an apparently inexhaustible demand for their work, but are under-resourced and constantly being diverted into further fields by the demands of politicians. From terrorism, organised crime, knife crime to hate crimes it’s hardly surprising that retail crime is only given any priority when it also involves violence.

At some point, the retail industry in general, and forecourt retail in particular, has to take a long, hard look at itself in relation to crime, which affects the safety and wellbeing of its staff as well as its bottom line. Look at that ever-present bugbear: Drive-offs and NMoPs. How many hours of forecourt management time are spent reviewing video footage of cars speeding off a pump without paying, just to find that most of the licence plates are stolen or cloned anyway? How many hours are spent pursuing claims against those who’ve come into the shop and declared that they have ‘no means of payment’? Bad enough the cost of the stolen product, the management time spent trying to recover it is likely to far outstrip that. But why is this still an issue today, when the solution has been around for decades?

Go into a pub and order a pint. Chances are that it will only be put down in front of you when the server has seen the colour of your cash, or the card reader has confirmed that the transaction has been authorised. But the majority of the petrol retailing industry insists on allowing its customers to fill up their vehicles with a very expensive liquid before coming in to pay for it. And it is the majority – but not all of the industry. Go to Costco and you have to put your payment card into the pump for it to be pre-authorised up to £99.99 before dispensing. Go to most supermarket forecourts and they have pay at pump options on all of their pumps – although these seem to be largely ignored in favour of pay in shop. The technology has been available for decades – from memory Shell was one of the early pioneers installing pay at pump on its company-owned forecourts in the mid-1990s. There are very few sound reasons why drive-offs should still be any real issue in 2024.

The current operational model of petrol forecourts really dates back to the late 1960s when self-service fuel pumps became widespread in the UK with several aims. If you’re below the age of 65 or 70 it may come as a shock to realise that it wasn’t always like this. First, making the customer themselves fill up meant that you could eliminate the cost of the usually old boy on the forecourt who used to do it for them. Secondly, throughput would be quicker if there were four cars being filled at the same time, rather than waiting in turn. Thirdly, by making the customer come into the shop to pay for their fuel, they were more likely to buy something else as well – on impulse, as it were. More throughput, plus impulse buys with lower staff costs equals more profit. That has been the theory, at least, for over 50 years. And it’s still why most conventional petrol retailing operations don’t want to utilise pay-at-pump: the fear that it would jeopardise their essential activity – shop sales.

The big question is whether pre-authorisation or pay at pump really does reduce shop sales, apart from virtually eliminating drive-offs. I would suggest that there probably hasn’t been any proper scientific research done to answer that question in many years; the current model is likely based on an assumption about customer behaviour dating from the 1960s, most likely from the USA at that. The interesting thing is that a technological change being forced onto the fuel retailing industry – in the form of electric vehicles (EVs) – may provide alternative evidence.

As far as I’m aware, there’s no problem with drive-offs regarding EV charging points: you either have to have an appropriate payment account on your mobile phone or you have to insert a valid payment card into the charger before you get anything out of it. Nobody in their right mind would even think of installing a charger that allowed customers to fill-up before going into the shop to pay. So why still do that with petrol? That leaves the question of whether EV drivers, having sorted payment for their fuel at the point of delivery, spend money in the forecourt shop – and how their spending compares to petrol customers who have to come into the shop. Again, I know of no scientific study to date, but anecdotal evidence suggests that EV customers at forecourts spend at least as much in the shop as do their carbon fuel contemporaries – possibly because they have more time to kill, but that’s another assumption.

As for in-shop crime (and this applies to all retailers, not just forecourts), this too might be reduced by looking again at the prevailing retail trend since the 1950s and 1960s of eliminating customer facing staff wherever possible, and replacing secure stock room space by putting everything you sell out in the shop. Sound familiar? Yes, employing staff is expensive, but when shoplifting has become an epidemic of organised crime, has anyone sat down and calculated the possible benefits of a reduction in theft and violence if more shop staff were employed to serve customers with goods that were behind a counter, and compared that to the possible cost of employing those staff? I rather doubt it.

Retail crime costs billions of pounds every year; there’s not much that any politician or senior police officers can do about it. At the very least the retail industry should be taking a long, hard look at the conventional operating models and their underlying assumptions, and try to find the equation comparing the current cost of crime and the cost benefit of taking steps to reduce that. This isn’t about victim blaming, by the way. It’s about not doing the same things, the same way, over and over again while expecting a different outcome – one definition of madness.

- Jan Mikula, EKW Group.

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