A dispatch from the security services.
‘Listen lad, if you don’t let me past I’m going to bounce this off your fuckin’ head.’
These were the words of a furious man about to steal a microwave; words I will never forget.
I didn’t choose the supermarket security life, the Asda chose it for me. To get off the dole in 2016 I applied for the Asda recruitment pool. For reasons still unknown, they chose me, a man in his early twenties with no prior experience and the body mass index of a chopstick to deter shoplifters and keep the retail peace.
The microwave incident happened two weeks into the job and made me realise what I would and wouldn’t do for the minimum wage. I would happily turn up and stand there; I didn’t fancy being bludgeoned to death by a man wielding a domestic appliance. Three months later, a man was stabbed in the car park by another man with a samurai sword over a parking dispute. This was a further moment of clarity.
My role was that of a glorified scarecrow, a last resort to keep losses down. Stand at the front, show people you’re there, watch out for theft on CCTV, check receipts on the door. And call the police if it really kicks off. Early on, I shaved my hair off in the hope of looking hard, but it just made me look even sicklier.
The Asda in question was in Hunt’s Cross in Liverpool: a crossroads between the grittiness of Speke and the footballers of Woolton Village. I was lucky enough to watch Coutinho, Mane and Lovren shop live. I also watched the shoplifting greats – the tinfoil-lined Bag for Lifers, the trolley full of meat battering rammers. Now and then, you would rumble someone who had just been putting everything through as a carefully curated mixture of fruit and vegetables on self-service. They’d been doing this for months, whole family shops for under a tenner a go.
And then there was the refined teamwork of the tiki-taka basket crew. They worked as a unit. One would come in and fill a basket full of expensive items like printer cartridges or razor blades and leave it somewhere. Someone else would come in and move the basket to a camera-blind spot to remove the tags. The others would stand around a high-value area as a ruse while someone else wheeled the untagged goods out in a trolley. Sometimes these people were foiled, other times they got away with it.
While I now appreciate that most people see supermarket security as a team of fleece-clad grasses, there was no moral judgement. There were times when visibly desperate parents, kid in tow, were caught stealing the basics and the customer service desk just paid for it. No questions asked. Occasionally colleagues would go to the toilet or on their break if a shoplifter that lived nearby came in. Nothing to do with inside jobs, just a sensible way to not get your windows bricked.
Aside from all the shoplifting, there was a culture of gentle fuckery inherent to every retail outlet across the land. Unpoliceable shithousing that helped to break up the day. For a while, someone would come in, Rainbow Six style, and rearrange the alphabet candles to spell ‘TWAT FLAPS’.
Shoals of teenage wheelie enthusiasts would ride through the store at random on their bikes. A daily task would be patrolling the toilet roll aisle every few hours. Kids liked to burrow behind the toilet rolls, make a den and pea-shoot unwitting shoppers with straws from McDonald’s. The kids would furnish these dens lavishly with items from the George homeware section.
The myth and legend of supermarket security swirled throughout. Stories from the Breck Road branch were a reminder that it could be worse – a place where branded cheese was rumoured to be security-tagged. It was once said that a shoplifter bailing out of the Smithdown Road store escaped through a fire exit and straight onto a bus, only to be thwarted when the bus stopped at a red light outside, security dragging him off and back into the store.
Moments in time came and went. The ramping up of CCTV with self-service mirrored cameras and body-cams. Limits were put on buying baby milk to stop illegal exports. People queued into the night for physical copies of video games. Supermarket security top brass held emergency meetings, fearing the advent of smart shop. A small dispute over whether we were allowed a chair at the CCTV podium was ground out when someone threatened to get the union in.
A mysterious turd once appeared in a toilet cubicle, discovered by a cleaner on the night shift, despite the toilets being locked hours before. Some crimes can’t be explained or policed. Two shoplifters once sang ‘happy birthday’ to me while they waited to be picked up by police.
One time, a phalanx of employees stood on the front door side by side in an attempt to stop a prolific fragrance thief. She used to crack open the security boxes at the back of the freezers, pretending to rummage for chips or peas. I remember at the time thinking how wonderful she smelled as I watched her run away through the car park on CCTV.
Sometimes I still think about that man with the microwave. Whether he sold it or kept it. Whether he chuckles to himself when it pings, about the soft lad at Asda that asked him for his receipt.