The Big Issue

Bank charges are a big issue with retailers at the moment. Bernard and Adrian Shotter, who trade as LB Shotter and Sons, Waterloo Ave Garage at Leiston, Suffolk sent me the following email: "My brother and I read your piece regarding bank charges (Forecourt Trader September). Mr Vann from Harrogate is extremely fortunate paying only 25p per thousand pound cash. We have paid 45p per hundred pound cash to our local Barclays for several years.

Can you confirm the charges for Mr Vann and tell us how we can get similar terms?"

Tony Vann had complained that charges for his Woodlands Stop & Shop and BP forecourt had gone up to 25p from 15p per thousand paid in cash to Barclays which meant £300 per quarter or £1,200 a year straight off his bottom line.

Tony is currently on holiday for a couple of weeks so I cannot confirm how he managed that 15p per thousand in the first place. However I’ve had feedback and advice from others on how to avoid or keep bank charges to a minimum, particularly to the Advice Centre that I handle for Forecourt Trader’s sister paper Convenience Store magazine where it has been discussed at length. I’ll distil some of the best bits here.

Kevin Jones, from Shotton, Deeside, told me that, when his bank called him in for his annual business review he was informed that his charges were going up from around £800 to £3,500 for cash handling. "They said for every £100 we deposit in cash, we have to pay 55p." He does all he can to alleviate this with a self-fill ATM and a cash-back offer to customers. "Clearly we need to do our own money laundering these days. One way to reduce charges is to ensure that all income tax, PAYE and VAT are paid with cash using a bank giro paying-in slip. The VAT office will even supply them if you ask.

Direct debits are expensive!"

Meanwhile a Newquay retailer recommended a business account with the Nationwide building society. He wrote: "It’s free to pay in cash they even give you interest you can’t go overdrawn and you get five free cheques a month. So we pay in cash all week," he adds, "and then we pay one cheque into Barclays. Barclays gets almost nothing out of me which is incredibly satisfying!"

And Tony Harris, who runs Hawthorn Stores near Chippenham in Wiltshire, and who has clearly studied the subject, called with a lengthy list of tips.

"I believe that all banks are being forced to get as much out of customers as possible," he says, "so customers should request a breakdown of charges so they can check for accuracy. Are the figures historical or not? If the takings are down then it should be reflected.

"Don’t bank at a different bank to your own," he adds. "If you’re with Barclays, don’t put the money through Lloyds as they will pass on the charges and your charges will be higher.

"If customers have no other facilities like loans or an overdraft then they should look at transferring their account to, say, Alliance & Leicester."

His tips go on: "See if suppliers will take cash. I probably pay around £1,000 a week in cash to small suppliers. And make sure you don’t put any private bills, such as National Insurance, through your business account. And, if that retailer in Shotton pays himself a couple of thousand in cash instead of by cheque, that also reduces it."

Best asset or nightmare?

Customers can be a challenge but then again, so can staff. They both thieve. Not all of them all of the time, obviously, but some of them some of the time. And staff, otherwise known as your best asset, can be a nightmare when they go wrong. The most recent person to get in touch, whom I am keeping anonymous on request, had just fired a long-standing member of staff. He is brand new to retailing. Just three weeks in the job.

He was alerted by the fact that, on takeover, there was £8,000-worth of cigarettes in the stockroom and the regular order was £4,500-a-week. He introduced a locked steel cabinet and noticed that cigarettes were almost instantly over-stocked. Only £2,000 a week was leaving the stockroom for the gantry.

On studying the newly-installed cameras he discovered that the woman who had worked at the store for 10 years, was stealing telephone top-ups, daily newspapers for both herself and boyfriend and, of course, cigarettes.

On my advice the retailer rang ACAS and an advisor said lock the shop if you need to and confront her. Now. He did this and she admitted to stealing something like £200 a week for the past 10 years. Go figure. The sums are frightening. This long-serving member of staff is also an ex-police officer and had had her CRB (Criminal Records Bureau) checks done because she also works in a local school. The retailer is not prosecuting but did instantly dismiss her for gross misconduct. We are pretty sure there will be no comeback from her.

Other experienced retailers tell me that you need cameras every which way: outside the store, at the entrance, at the rear, near the alcohol section and trained on your staff.

A second system of covert cameras disguised, for example, as a smoke alarm over the till will keep an extra eye and also acts as a back-up against a break-in where thieves have wised up to stealing the camera’s hard drive.

You do not have to warn anyone specifically about covert cameras. The Information Commissioner recommends a general sign informing people that cameras are at work for security purposes.

You don’t have to tell them where the cameras are.