Time to add some jam to SCONE?

by Mark Rowe

The acronym ‘SCONE’ (or ASCONE) will be familiar to many within retail security. If you are not acquainted worry not, writes the trainer Ian Kirke; he will fill in the gaps.

Perhaps the more seasoned retail security professionals will know where or who developed this well-intentioned check-list of things to do before stopping a suspected shoplifter? I acknowledge that certainty in such a potentially hazardous situation is advantageous but does a stand-alone SCONE, inadvertently, have some potentially serious disadvantages? Having been connected with the retail security sector since the late 1990s and as a post-graduate researcher with access to all stakeholders, including the villains, I have concluded that the often narrow circumstances in which its pure application can be successfully applied coupled with the operational reality of retail business in particular, may unintentionally lead some to shy away from the importance of crime prevention. At this juncture, I should explicitly state that I am not advocating the abolition of SCONE, rather suggesting a further level of authoritative decision making that supports the notion of dealing consistently with suspected shoplifters, many of whom are directed by organised criminal gangs.

Approach (A) seems straightforward albeit often the prevailing host policy will dictate that only a certain level of management can implement the whole process leading to the awkward situation of reliable intelligence, for example from a fellow ‘non-authorised’ colleague, being ignored and thus stopping progression before it has even started.

Select (S) has the same Achilles-heel and often professional shoplifters are canny enough to avoid this.

Concealment (C) by any literal definition is ‘hiding’. As I learnt early on in my law degree studies, statutory interpretation is the way law is read. If I would be so bold as to suggest that ASCONE has become ‘retail security law’ then on the initial application of the ‘literal rule’ if an offender simply stole an item and walked out with it in plain sight the ‘concealment’ tick in the box fails. Of course, the judiciary can apply the ‘mischief rule’ but then I would only expect an experienced legal practitioner to know of this additional check and balance. Furthermore, if the shoplifter walks out with the silhouette of a frozen turkey under their jumper having evaded ‘select’ then the same literal failure occurs. Often this uncertainty paralyses the thought processes of the retailer leading either to inaction or a blurring of the lines of which I will address in a moment, but beforehand let’s finish off our full digestion of SCONE.

Observing (O) a potential shoplifter without losing sight of them (while still inside the retailer’s premises) is always going to be a difficult task. The footfall, fixtures & fittings and less than complimentary behaviour of criminals only seek to make this outcome a rarity.

Non-payment (N) is probably the easiest link in the chain to achieve although it leads to the potential of an adrenalin charged interaction at the exit-entry (E) point heightening the potential, at the very least, of a less than reputational enhancing discussion that in most cases will be witnessed by other honest shoppers.

So, what happens? Many managers simply ignore it (and retail managers tell me this frequently) or blur the lines and take a more pragmatic approach that doesn’t exactly mirror ASCONE but is probably there or there about. Often this approach works perfectly well and where necessary the police turn up shortly after (or do they?). It’s all OK until it goes disastrously wrong. Pop into Google some of the following search terms and reflect on some of the outcomes: “2007 Norwich. As he fled the scene the offender stabbed another security guard prompting one observer to liken it to a scene from the film ‘Psycho’”; “2010 Swansea’s Quadrant Shopping Centre; guards with a combined weight of 62 stone were involved in a ten-minute struggle to restrain discharged former Welsh Guardsman Mr Bishop”. I would hazard a guess that any blurring of policy would not be considered and celebrated as just ‘practical thinking’ during post-analysis of the event.

So where does this leave SCONE? Winning the lottery is, according to some mathematicians, one in 45 million. Rare but not impossible. Is this what SCONE has become? Sure, if all your numbers come up then it’s a useful principle but it occupies a very narrow band of probability and is littered with potential uncertainty with often absurd outcomes. So, are there any alternative approaches that reach the same outcomes that SCONE was, I have no doubt, introduced to thwart? I believe so.

Deters that incorporate good customer service are an extremely efficient and very safe initial level of crime prevention. And every retail colleague of whatever pay scale can use this tactic without having to run to the ‘authorised’ manager. It works too! Of all the shoplifters I have interviewed the consistent narrative has been that they are often put off by an annoying retail colleague saying “Hello, would you like a basket” as they unsurprisingly code this as ‘I’ve been clocked’ heightening the risk of police involvement.

Should that fail then crucially managers and security personnel need the right tools to do the job. If a retailer is concerned about legal certainty how about adopting the law itself rather than standing shoulder to shoulder with an acronym that has no legal standing whatsoever? Any stakeholder, outside of the criminal justice system, that connects with either negligence or tort (a wrongful act, which stealing is or ‘conversion of goods’) is bound by civil law. In terms of decision-making this engages with the easy to grasp notion of the ‘balance of probabilities’ (a much lower threshold than compared to the criminal law application of ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’). In other words, the adoption of judging a situation as, on balance, ‘looking like a theft’ could be realised and appropriately challenged.

Of course, SCONE, or elements thereof, would provide useful intelligence in reaching this objective outcome but it would not be the elite driving principle thus allowing such decision makers to act swiftly and legally within the context of the prevailing situation and, arguably, apply a more common sense approach. Importantly this would nullify any claim that the stop was for any other subjective reason (such as gender, religion, colour, etc). The subsequent and legitimate stop would allow for engagement that may lead to no further action, disengagement due to the level of risk, a ban from the retailer (verbal / written) or potentially an arrest by virtue of Section 24A of Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.

So please don’t choke on your SCONE, add a huge dollop of jam, and let that be the principle on which you tackle this important area of crime prevention. The views of those within the sector are always appreciated, even if they are counter to mine! Finally, please drop me a line if your policy needs a review or you agonise on what advice to give colleagues on what to do after a successful stop as many criminal gangs will seek to initiate this in order to weaken your resilience or if you need to incorporate a tougher stance on those persistent criminals who you may be on first name terms with!

Author: Ian Kirke LLB (Hons), MSc., Cert Ed, PGDip Adv. Prof. Res. Managing Director, TFS (Training for Success). Visit

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