Justin Tunstall of Town Mill Cheesemonger shares the highs and lows of life as a cheese seller

“Shrink to fit”

Recently I was captivated by the story of 11 blocks and truckles of cheese that had been stolen in a heist at a cheese show. What was to be the fate of the prize-winning cheeses? Served at an unscrupulous gangster’s party, trumpeted as a “Supreme Champion”, while stolen grand masters looked down on the occasion? I was thinking of a Ernst Stavros Blofeld/Dr Evil type lair. Or might the 220kg of cheese be anonymised, stripped of all provenance and sold as commodity bulk cheddar via shady markets for a knock down price, even lower than the cost of the milk? Apparently the cheeses were all recovered within 24 hours, their intended fate unknown

Seemingly, cheese is a popular thing to steal, particularly from supermarkets. As we well know, cheese is a fantastic concentrated food – very attractive if you are genuinely needy/hungry. It also fits into a category described by criminologist Ron Clarke as ‘craved items’. Most such items are now tagged in major retailers - the mass availability of razor cartridges of dubious origin at car boot sales in the 1990s led to the development of an alarmed outer plastic shell to deter shoplifters. Bottles of spirits get the same treatment, but this isn’t really feasible for portions of cheese in an open fridge.

In seven years running a small cheese shop, I think I was only victim to one cheese theft. I’d like to think that that the 500g of 1833 went to a desperate and needy family, rather than an opportunist, but it didn’t stop me from using an open multi-deck, rather than keeping all the cheese behind a serve-over counter. Small retailers with personal service seem to deter shoplifters and apparently thieves still prefer to rob corporations rather than individuals.

Loss of stock to theft, or ‘shrinkage’, as the polite euphemism would have it, may not be a significant problem for most small retailers, but some thought as to layout to remove unwelcome temptation is worthwhile. We’re all about persuading shoppers that they want our goods, but not to the point of making it easy to whip them out of the door rather than passing by the till and settling up. Cases of wine by the door are not an uncommon sight in many shops, yet so easy for a thief to lift and get out of the shop in a jiffy, if staff members are busy elsewhere.

A friend runs a lovely bakery-cum-coffee shop, where customers are encouraged to help themselves, then declare what they’ve eaten when they get to the till. I once asked him whether many people were dishonest and under-reported their consumption. ‘A few’, he said. ‘What do you do about it’, I asked. ‘Nothing’, he replied. He knows that imposing pre-payment systems, or heightened supervision would spoil ‘the vibe’ – the very essence of the store’s proposition – yet probably have little effect on his lost turnover.

It may be morally repugnant to allow ‘customers’ to steal from us, but we do need to remember that our retail brand values should incorporate friendliness and openness, rather than a Terminator type control over our punters.

There’s much to be gained from concentrating our efforts on the vast majority of honest shoppers, and not gearing our operation to manage the actions of a very small minority.

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