A rash of robberies at Tauranga dairies, service stations and liquor stores the past month have police pursuing leads and business owners tightening security. How are shop owners protecting staff and stock? Is selling what thieves target - tobacco - worth the risk? Bay of Plenty Times Weekend reporter Dawn Picken shows us how locals are bolstering businesses against crime.
Bottle Biz

It's 10am on Tuesday when Gurpinder Nagra opens a heavy-duty lock at the Thirsty Liquor store he manages on Chapel St. Though the doors are reinforced with steel, a spider web of cracked glass appears at a bottom corner. Nagra says it's from last month's ram raid. He says CCTV footage showed two offenders peering into the store at 11pm before one of them kicked the middle concrete bollard near the entrance off its base, then dragged it away.

"It's a bit too heavy. I can't move it, but they were two strong guys. They were wearing masks, wearing hoodies with caps, glove, as well." Nagra says robbers stole bottles of liquor, some retailing for around $100. They also stole the till and cigarettes.

"It took like four hours to clean it up, you know and - they smashed a lot of bottles."

He says it was the first ram-raid the store had seen since opening in 2013.

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"It's a bit scary these days." Scary not just for him, but also for three other employees, who make the minimum wage and close the store at 9.30pm on weekends.

"Even if you get 30 or 40 dollars an hour, it's still not worth it just to have somebody kill us for some money. If somebody comes in during the day, I'm not gonna fight them. I don't want to lose my life."

Nagra says steel stoppers will be installed one metre into the ground and stand one metre high. He'd also like to have a metal shutter door, similar to a garage door. The shop already has CCTV and a panic alarm.

Police have made no arrests in the case.

Dairy Dilemma

Across town, Omanu Superette owner Soo Park pulls a pack of cigarettes from a lockable case to sell a customer, who also buys a small bottle of milk. The cheapest cigarettes cost $22. That'll rise to $30 in 2020 as part of a government plan to hike tobacco taxes 10 per cent each year.

Park blames higher prices for increased theft. Though he hasn't been part of the latest round of armed dairy robberies, he says two weeks ago, a customer asked for a $54 packet of tobacco, then tried to rip it from his hands. He's invested thousands of dollars in CCTV and pays a security guard to patrol at night.

"Main problem is I should doubt customers... I don't know who will steal cigarettes."

He says someone pinched a $78 packet of tobacco last October. He shows me a text he sent police in late March.

"I asked them, 'They took my cigarette, what can I get from them?' And they said nothing."

Police later tell me the offender dropped the tobacco on the way out of the store, was arrested, and given a pre-charge warning.

Park, who has owned the shop with his wife, Hanna, for 13 years, says criminals get off too easy.

"If the police, the law, be a little stronger, maybe they can protect...Because nobody hurt-no armed, just a robbery, so I think they are not interested in that."

Te Puke Four Square owner Vinnie Gillgren also wants courts to be tougher on offenders. He says he lost thousands of dollars in business, a valued employee and trust in the justice system after his shop was robbed by a man who held a large knife to a staff member last September.

"He was put away for two-and-a-half years for armed robbery. The penalties aren't enough. The police are doing an amazing job...but the justice system is letting us and them down by letting them get away with a slap on the wrist."

I ask shop owners whether they could stop selling tobacco. Park estimates 30 to 40 per cent of his business stems from tobacco products.

Main problem is I should doubt customers... I don't know who will steal cigarettes.

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"In other shops, they tell me it makes up 50 to 60 per cent" [of sales]. Gillgren also says tobacco brings people into his store, who then buy other things.

"If I stop selling tobacco, half my revenue would disappear overnight, and as a retailer, that just doesn't make sense. I either manage the risk to the best of my ability or go out of business."

More Secure

Securing dairies is tricky, according to former New Zealand police detective Wayne Kiely.

He's general manager of private investigation agency Paragon, which has an office in Mount Maunganui.

The company provides security advice to large corporations as well as smaller firms. Kiely says good CCTV is one of the most important items for shop owners.

"The latest thinking is bringing them down a bit - head level rather than up above people."

He also suggests keeping a minimum supply of targeted items.

"With cash, the advice is keep your stock levels low. You're now getting to the stage where you don't have cigarette cabinets filled, so you're minimising risk."

Staff training is vital, too, so employees know what to do if they're threatened.

Kiely, police and other experts I spoke with for this story advise shop owners against fighting back or keeping weapons for self-defence.

"We don't arm our police," Kiely says. "Why would we arm our dairy owners? It's ridiculous thinking that. The minute you start arming people, it'll just escalate."

He says many offenders are violent and under the influence of drugs, yet he understands why shop owners would want to act.

"These people work hard and work long hours and often these robberies really hurt them. That's why they hang on for grim life, but at the end of the day if someone gets injured or killed over cigarettes, it's not really worth it."

Chief executive officer of the New Zealand Security Association Gary Morrison says a store's layout and signage are important, too. He encourages advertising security measures such as cameras, using bars and grilles to restrict access, and having store owners work together. "...thinking about what they can do in regards to foot patrols. I don't think that area is utilised as much as it could be...if businesses pool their resources, it's more cost-effective."

Thanks to CCTV footage and social media, Gillgren says the man was caught and convicted.

Detective Senior Sergeant Greg Turner, Area Manager for Investigations for the Western Bay of Plenty, says local shopkeepers will soon get visits from police, if they haven't already.

"We are in the process of getting around to all our dairies and talking about crime prevention measures. That is a key part of policing moving forward - the prevention aspect so they don't become victims."

Crime and Time

Sergeant Turner says his district has had good success bringing people to account for aggravated robberies.

"These offenders really need to think fairly hard about it, because they're getting minimal cash property...it's just not worth the prison time; not worth the trauma they're causing to the victim."

He believes three separate groups are involved in nine robberies dating from April 26, meaning some offenders are involved in multiple crimes.

"There has been a spike [in robberies]. There have also been a number of arrests and we continue to investigate all of those, and I'm confident there will be more arrests in the future."

We don't arm our police. Why would we arm our dairy owners? It's ridiculous thinking that. The minute you start arming people, it'll just escalate.

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Tauranga MP Simon Bridges earlier this month told the Bay of Plenty Times the Government is spending half a million dollars to increase police staff, including adding 10 per cent more police in this district.

Te Tuinga Whanau Support Services executive director Tommy Wilson said locking people up, especially youth offenders, was not the answer, but reconnecting them to whanau and other support networks was.

"A lot of these young offenders are fuelled on synthetic cannabis or some other drug. Many of them are not connected to their whanau, school, sports or church group, and often lack good role models in their lives."

en says the rash of robberies across the Bay has taken a toll on him, his staff and the community.

"I get angry at the perpetrators and at society for letting it happen, at the justice system for letting it happen. I just want it to stop, but when? What's it gonna take for this to stop? I don't know what the answers are. I don't think anybody does."

Z Like a Fortress
Z service station manager Vicky Barnett shows off her two-day-old bollards when we visit the Hewletts Rd store on Thursday.

"The customers are loving it. This site, particularly, has a lot of regular customers. So they're actually quite excited. And they know why the security's coming in."

Barnett points to thick glass at the front door, plus eye-level camera just inside. "It's a fantastic security system. The staff wear emergency pendants; there's ongoing online training - we're continuously learning."

A lot of these young offenders are fuelled on synthetic cannabis or some other drug.

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The chain will install 50 high-security steel tobacco dispensing machines costing $15,000 each, according to Z Energy general manager of retail, Mark Forsyth. He says single-packet cigarette dispensers will be placed in 50 Auckland stores, where most of the company's losses occur, as a pilot project. According to Forsyth, Z loses $100,000 to $150,000 each year to tobacco thieves. "It's not really a question of whether they [machines] pay for themselves; the biggest question is about safety and the welfare of people...if it saves money, that's an added bonus."

The machines are the latest in a series of moves by Z to protect staff and make sites resistant to attacks, including fog cannons, bollards, safe rooms for staff, an $8 million high definition CCTV system and security film on glass to make it very difficult to break. The company also uses a synthetic DNA spray, which can last up to 10 days on skin and be traced back to the site.

In addition, number plate recognition allows an offender's vehicle to be tracked. Forsyth says, "We're working with police to give them 24-hour access to our nationwide network of security systems and license plate recognition software. They can dial into any Z station around the country and see the footage for themselves." Forsyth says so far this year, the company has seen a 100 per cent arrest rate for people who have robbed Z sites. "No one thing is the golden answer. It's multiple layers of defences on top of each other."

Barnett says her Mount Maunganui store hasn't had a robbery in the eight years she's worked there, though she says her staff would know what to do if they became victims. "The team have fantastic training. They've all been taught to cope with it and what to do to keep themselves safe. And that's the main thing."