By its very name, this column has traditionally been based on statistics. However this month marks something of a change. It’s a basic fact of EKW’s business that we speak with large numbers of petrol retailers each month and sometimes the feedback that we collect from them, spread across the whole country, becomes so consistent that it almost takes physical form. One such manifestation has been quite obvious over the past couple of months, but it is almost impossible for us to quantify in our preferred way with any degree of accuracy: theft.

Retailer after retailer has complained that theft, in all its various guises, has become their number one headache since the latter part of 2007. Theft has always been with us, but something seems to have happened in recent months with retailers telling us that it is an all-pervading factor in their daily site operations and, on average, it is costing them hundreds of pounds per site per week. That average isn’t a figure that we can calculate since theft is not always recordable but if they’re right, then those hundreds of pounds per week, if applied across most of the 8,000 or so active sites in the UK, represent a huge burden on our industry.

Take drive-offs. According to many retailers, the first thing that made petrol retailers think something was changing for the worse was a rapid increase in the value of drive-offs as fuel prices hit £1 per litre. Suddenly they were seeing individuals taking not the ’typical’ £20-£25 of fuel, but more like a whole tankful - worth £45-50 at a time. And according to some retailers that is now happening every couple of days on sites that used to see no more than three a month.

Of course statistically, if every retailer treated drive-offs as a specific cost line, in theory we should be able to identify the trend. However some retailers don’t bother to strip drive-offs out of general cash losses. Others record them together with things like rejected credit cards and banking shortfalls, so there are no hard and fast figures available.

After the surge in drive-offs, came a surge in casual theft out of the shops. Typical stories go along the lines of a retailer placing some new, premium sales line on the shelves one day and coming in the next morning to find that it has apparently sold like the proverbial hot cake. Only none of the staff can recall actually selling any of it. Lo and behold, having speeded-up several hours of video recordings there’s the evidence - the products have simply been lifted by the light-fingered ’customers’ when the staff were busy at the tills. Of course that’s just the theft that’s obvious, but retailers are also telling us that many of their staff are too intimidated by some ’customers’ to challenge them when they believe that the customer has actually presented only a few items at the checkout while the children standing behind them have been loaded-up with a lot more goodies than are being paid for. But then who’s going to get into a slanging match (or worse) with customers when they’re earning £5 an hour? Again, retailers tell us that things like this have reached almost epidemic proportions - but there aren’t hard figures to illustrate it, since stock that’s stolen usually ends up in the same figures as stock that’s been written-off, as a simple reduction in the overall gross profit figures at the end of the month - and that assumes that anyone has the time to do a physical check and adjust the stock on the computer.

Let’s be very clear here: there are retailers who’ve been clients of ours for over 20 years and we know that they usually run a tight ship. When these individuals all begin independently to tell us similar stories, we have to take note. Unfortunately there is no simple set of figures that we can isolate that will actually illustrate the extent of the problem that they’re reporting. Even more unfortunately, that applies across the whole of the petrol retail industry. There is no consistent standard accounting or reporting treatment for various categories of theft - any so-called ’industry figures’ are at best a ’guesstimate’, and according to some retailers there are various interested parties who would prefer it that the true extent and rising nature of the problem wasn’t identified too readily. After all, if it was plain to see what the total cost really was, people might start asking awkward questions about the inability of the industry to put security before volume, but that, as they say, is another story.