Thieves, Golden Boys, and Trust in the Retail Sector

Thieves, Golden Boys, and Trust in the Retail Sector

Written by Russ Welton

Some of you may have read in my previous articles that part of my background originates in musical instrument retailing. As a result of my experience, one of my catchphrases has become, “There is nothing general about the general public.” Every individual person truly is just that, with their very own collection of attributes, creativity, vices, benevolence and many other factors, all to varying degrees, at times shining brightly and sometimes, dull as dishwater.

The wide gamut of different individuals who made their way through my shop doors over the years certainly served to hone my ways of serving and managing customer’s needs, expectations, and yes, their demands.

Managing customer expectations however, is one thing. Managing staff is yet another. Many years prior to my time in retail as a music shop owner in England, I used to work three split shifts in a well-reputed store known to many internationally: Marks & Spencer. When I was 16, I held many varying roles, including opening the store as the key holder, unloading deliveries and loading lorries departing with empty stock cages and waste, cleaning the refrigerators, helping with security, and being in charge of till (cash registers) operation among other duties.

It was the training we received for till operation that made me start to appreciate just what responsibilities a large corporate business takes on when they open their doors to the public and provide customer service. The training was an NVQ (National Vocational Qualification) in retail customer service. Part of the verbal training and supplementary video education we received from M&S was being made aware of a major problem they suffered on an international scale – that of theft by staff collusion. What I found staggering was the statistic touted that, at the time (1992 – 1993), one in three members of the staff would be involved in some type of theft or planned collusion in taking something that simply did not belong to them.

With such a sobering statistic, you may think, “How is it even possible that a retailer could survive, given such potential losses? Surely, no business can survive if subjected to such impact on their profit margins!” Well, it’s true to say that M&S always took pride in employing staff they believed would be honest, industrious and trustworthy. Nonetheless, that fact has stuck me all these years, and who knows what the current figures may be in 2022? [According to the US Department of Commerce, every year, businesses lose $50 billion as a result of employee theft – Ed.]

This is not to categorically state that all retail stores are employing thieves or that every shop suffers losses from illegal activity. Far from it. (How far is debatable.) Generally speaking, along with financial incentives, many guitar shops are likely driven by the great passion their owners have for their love of music, the equipment, and the industry itself, as was true in the store that I managed. It’s all a matter of varying degrees as to what motivates people to make working in musical instrument (or other) retailing a livelihood. Some retail brands seem to have the modus operandi of killing off the brick-and-mortar shops with pointed intent, and the desire to gain as big a slice of the musician’s cash pie as possible. The realities of retail competition is a topic I won’t digress into here.

I do wonder just how many retailers past and present have ever considered the statistics of loss through theft in their business plans and aspirations of opening a new business. Perhaps we’re more aware of the daily weather forecast and the statistical likelihood of rain than we are of certain risks when contemplating a much larger investment than a walk into town with or without an umbrella! Such is the trusting passion that is backing most of those who operate and work in our “sweet shops.” (After all, musical instrument and audio stores are eye and ear candy for enthusiasts.) And the temptation for putting one’s hand in the cookie jar is powerful. I mean, the instruments are literally on hangers all around the walls!


Look but don't touch! Courtesy of Niemeier.

Look but don’t touch! Courtesy of Niemeier.


I took this knowledge with me when I started as a Saturday boy working in the local guitar shop back in 1998, right through to the duration of my time as the store manager and then owner. After all, forewarned is forearmed, right?

Thinking that I would be particularly careful in my selection of staff, I would somehow be able to mitigate the statistical averages and prevent those types of employee temptations.

The long and the short of it is that we did fall foul of some surreptitious behavior, but thankfully only from a limited number of individuals during the decade we were in business. I share the experience for the benefit of hopefully preventing any similar issues for fellow retailers. Still, how these events came apparent proved to be, for me, a rude awakening.

The dodgy dealings first came to light when it appeared that we were lower on stock than we had anticipated regarding some of our Crafter budget bowl-back and round-back acoustic guitars. One day, I had gone to the store room to restock from our adequate supply – and discovered we only had a handful of these guitar models left in stock! Perhaps because of their generic nature and limited color options that made them all look very much the same, any rotation on the hook never really registered. And, of course, we trusted our staff implicitly. Perhaps needless to say, we didn’t use a stock management scanning or EPOS (electronic point of sale) system; we used an old-school ledger book and a daily cashing up procedure that married up with our end of day “Z” (cash and card transactions totaled together) total figure, invoice book, and cash and card machine totals. It transpired that the missing guitars had slipped past me as they had not been rung into the till, but rather had been swiped outright!

In addition to this little operation, our “beloved” staff member had also been pocketing cash sales of these guitars and not ringing them in when the opportunity arose. (When I worked at M&S, we’d see videos of employees taking cash before it ever got to the till, with sleight-of-hand abilities that would make professional magicians envious.) But how would I be able to prove that untoward activity had been taking place?

As it turned out, I was grateful for something that a retailer never normally wants to happen. A fault had developed with a stolen item and it needed to be returned. One of our good customers had purchased a small AER acoustic guitar amplifier, and had paid in cash. Well, the temptation obviously had raised its ugly head when the item was sold, to not ring it in but mark it off of the sold items ledger, with the date of sale included. After a few weeks the amp had developed a problem was dutifully returned under warranty. As I checked the sales record and noticed for the first time that the item had been sold a few weeks before, I was able to ask the customer who handled the sale. He was very helpful in pointing out my colleague who sold it, and the customer had indeed paid for it in cash.

“Nailed it!” I thought to myself. So, when I subsequently asked our light-fingered lad, “How can I interpret the evidence any other way?” his reply was, “I suppose you can’t.” This was accompanied by tears, remorseful whimpers and then further confession of other unscrupulous behavior.

This included making cash deposits, this time all accounted for by invoices of course, on a Les Paul Custom guitar. I forget exactly which model had been ordered but I do remember it wasn’t a top of the range version, and neither was it an entry level model. These were the days before Gibson started to embed identification chips in their reissue guitars, which were considered by Gibson to be so close to original period models that they tagged them with a unique code which could later be read to identify the guitar’s provenance. The fact was that the deposits on this guitar were made were from cash obtained from palmed sales monies. The completely daft part of it was that no staff were entitled to order Gibson guitars as single items due to prerequisite minimum-quantity stocking commitments, let alone at trade pricing excluding VAT! I’m pleased to say we snagged this issue, no problem. My father was a tax inspector! We never pressed any charges. It seemed the fact that the employee was very upset, and that he lost his of job with any hope of getting a reference from us was punishment enough.

I can understand that working in a guitar shop must present some of the most tantalizing of temptations for a guitar player. It’s the proverbial kid in a sweet shop scenario ramped up to 11. And, part of me always felt a sense of responsibility to never allow the staff to leave my sight to prevent such things, but what can you do when you are running a business? All operate with a necessary degree of trust.

Having said this and made these observations, however, I have to note that every single one of our many staff people in the guitar shop were golden apart from that one individual, and even he was a very good people person; charismatic even. Interestingly, the only women to have worked in the shop were the supportive girlfriends of the lads, and of course, my dear mom, who kept the finger on the financial pulse of what we were buying and selling. Of all the job applications we regularly received, I don’t recall any from females; certainly, none that ever coincided with a current vacancy.

This trend was not the case, however, when a few years later I went on to run a national apprenticeship recruitment program for the music industry. I placed over 120 apprentices, men and women, in UK music stores and got them trained in new-to-the-industry MI retail qualifications. This was an excellent government-backed program which helped so many young people gain the skills they would need for future employment prospects in their later working lives. It was known as MIRTAS – the Music Industry Retail Apprenticeship Scheme – something of a Herculean effort but so worth the outcomes.

From our guitar technicians and Saturday lads, to our part- and full-timers, overall, I think we beat the statistics by a mile, and my thanks goes to them for being a big part of a super era in my retail career. One of them even went on to join the police force. Thank you. You know who you are.



Header image courtesy of Grabowska.

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