Arresting the high street heist

Materials World magazine
5 Nov 2014

Diamonds are a thief’s best friend, along with watches and expensive handbags. But how can we keep these magpies from stealing our shiny things? Eoin Redahan found out at the Luxury Retail Theft – Smash and Grab workshop. 

You are shopping on Bond Street on a sleepy Saturday morning when a car smashes into a jewellery shop across the road. At first you think it’s an accident until you see a group of louts crunching over the shattered glass and plundering like the hordes of yore. Within a minute, the car’s wheels grip and the thieves are gone, leaving the gutted store to its siren’s wail.

Believe it or not, incidents like this imagined scenario (starring Nicholas Cage as the kind-hearted crook) happen all the time. This method sounds crude, yet it is effective and costs high street retailers and insurers billions of pounds each year.
In the carpeted confines of London’s Carlton House, a group of retailers, insurers, materials experts, UK Government and police representatives met to solve the problem.

Methods for the madness

One prominent high street jeweller has long suffered at the hands of the unscrupulous. The company has lost £4–5m in stock as a result of raids and has been struck three times already this year. A similar story echoes forth from the halls of a prestigious five star hotel in London, where brigands on bike-back burst into the hotel’s forecourt, smashed through the jewellery cases and escaped within 90 seconds.

According to an insurance expert present, one large insurer has paid out almost two billion pounds in jewellery claims in the past 10 years alone – a trend that is showing no sign of stopping. ‘I would say frequency has decreased,’ he said, ‘but the severity has increased. The gangs are getting more experienced. More professional.’

The culprits are also more intimidating. Speakers mentioned gangs of drug-addled, fearless twenty-somethings, armed with guns, crowbars, clawhammers and angle grinders. Heists are better organised and researched these days, but they are no less vicious.

World of pane

So how do you make a store impregnable? Sadly, you can’t, though the aforementioned jeweller has made it more difficult for thieves to prevail. A £1m refit included window-backed enclosures (so thieves essentially have to break-in twice), a cloud of dense smoke that billows as soon as the store is illegally breached and a heavy-duty 16.5mm polycarbonate storefront. So formidable is this glazing that a thief’s speeding car bounced off the surface, knocking him out in the process.

Encouragingly, high-end security glasses are making robbers work hard for their loot. To illustrate this, a representative

from a leading glass organisation played a video that revealed the changing state of a high-end security glass during testing. For a full minute, the glass received a pounding by way of crowbar, clawhammer, sledgehammer and axe, but apart from a foggy spider web of cracks, it remained in one piece.

Other delegates actually showcased their glazed products. A plastics specialist spoke fondly of polycarbonate glazing, in all its ductile, resilient glory. While glass boasts superior light transmission properties and scratch resistance, polycarbonate is less brittle. To demonstrate the strength of his company’s product, he invited delegates to smash a polycarbonate pane with a hammer, though he warned of the pane’s resilience. In a previous exposition, a fervid delegate struck the polycarbonate, only to watch the hammer rebound and clock him in the head.

Generally speaking, these glasses protect against hospital visits, as is the case with this company’s bulletproof glaze. This phone-book thick pane can turn all the kinetic energy from a whizzing bullet into heat energy upon impact. All that is left is a malign projectile frozen in polycarbonate.

Another firm’s formulations combine glass, polycarbonate and specialist interlayers to create products with a combination of qualities, including a fireproof glaze and a glass that changes from clear to opaque at the flick of a switch.

However, while these glasses can withstand fire and swallow bullets like pitches in a catcher’s mitt, they are all pregnable. 

As one speaker mentioned, the highest-rated security glass can repel thieves for no longer than 20 minutes.
In most instances this is sufficient, but then, thieves don’t always need to break the glass to get inside. One of the glass specialists present noted that thieves have turned their attentions to weaknesses in the glass frame. ‘It’s fine looking at the glass,’ he said, ‘but if the retention system isn’t working, it’s useless.’

The importance of having a tough frame for security glass underpins the need for a multi-faceted approach. This involves incorporating a suite of measures before, during and after the robbery. So, after the glass has eventually been smashed, disorientating thick smoke will make the smash-and-grab job that bit harder. Other measures stymie the quick getaway. A police representative involved in designing out crime spoke of a stinger device that evolved from the humble ground spike. The device shoots a spike into a car tyre and inserts a hollow ring inside to rapidly deflate it, leaving the thieves scarpering to the nearest bus stop.

Deflecting the impact

As the morning meandered into afternoon, a materials boffin rained a hammer head through a pipe. A gaggle of white-coated, goggled delegates looked on as it crashed onto a pane 20 feet below. Afterwards, he exhibited the security glass to us. It was battered but not breached. Watching the hammer head thumping the stubborn pane made you wonder how thieves could be so successful so often, but that would have meant disregarding the realities of high street retail.

Firstly, cost is a major issue to all but the richest proprietor, and high-end security glass is expensive. Secondly, the importance of customer experience cannot be ignored. Some security folks would probably rest more easily if their store resembled an air-locked bomb shelter, but designers and curators need the shop to look inviting. Inevitably, compromises must be made if products are to be sold. Thirdly, attempts to protect the store on the street-side often meet opposition from urban planners. As such, little can be done outside the premises to deter intruders.

So what is to be done? As the day neared its end, the group conjured ideas to slow the torrent of luxury retail theft to a trickle. Some suggested putting holograms in the place of real products and virtual shop assistants in the place of real staff. Others felt that RFID tags or other tracking devices could be implemented into products. The tracking capability, they argued, could be used as an additional sales feature.

Simple measures, such as improved metal shuttering and the introduction of steps into the shop could protect against car attacks, while maze entrances could complement the use of disorientating smoke. One delegate even suggested the
use of air bags that activate as soon as the storefront is smashed, to make the process more time consuming.

Other ideas were more prosaic. Tightening the national and European standards for safety glass might help, and a more productive dialogue between store owners and urban planners could make high street shops less easy to violate. Improved signage was suggested, as were more severe penalties for those caught handling stolen goods.

If all else fails, how about leaning on history, with a medieval castle approach? Crooks would be a lot less willing to raid when confronted by a good old-fashioned portcullis and drawbridge. Perhaps a little tarring and feathering for good measure? Surely the Home Office wouldn’t object?