Is fishkeeping a steal?

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I love diving into dangerous waters. Give me a stretch of ocean filled with Great Whites, and I'll bob around in a seal costume, barking and emptying buckets of chum. Tackling contentious subjects is fun. So let's get some sparks flying about the state of shoplifting in the trade, says Nathan Hill.

If you’re a hobbyist, you might — might — be blissfully unaware of this, but fishkeeping is heaving, the way that one of those supertrawlers heaves under a billion herring, with thieving scumbags.

I use the phrase scumbag reservedly. There are times, I’m sure, that stealing is entirely morally justifiable. Like if you’re trying to clear the name of a friend wrongly accused of a crime, and you need to light-finger some damning evidence from the real villain to set the record straight. That would be relatively un-scumbag, the kind of thing Columbo used to do all the time in a wonky-eyed, cigar puffing way.

A real scumbag is someone who saunters into a retailer’s premises with the intention of taking their property, without paying, for self gain. Not because they’re down on their luck, but because they’ve made the conscious decision that to parasitise the hard work of others is considerably easier than having any honest stab at their own lives. Scumbags.

Theft is nothing new, and even the definition is highly fluid, pending who you are. Some would say that the rather mendacious nature of banking constitutes the biggest kind of theft against us all. I might be inclined to agree. Others might argue that all property is theft. There isn’t really a total consensus on what does and doesn’t constitute thievery, so here I’m just using the word to describe the taking of goods without payment. Oversimplified, but there you go.

What concerns me is the outrageous degree of theft that the aquatics industry seems beset with.

I’ve had plenty of tastes of it myself. I’ve been stood behind a horrible oinger who thought he was alone as he de-boxed a pond pump and rammed it nozzle first down his breeches. I was so furious at the time that it took real effort to not just punch him in the ear from behind. I’ve had some horrid little backstreet toads come in to my stores with Tupperware pots, to steal livestock from tanks. I’ve even caught people clambering up my shelves as though scaling Everest itself to get at the delicious electrical goodness of a Fluval canister sat at the peak. Tenzing would have been proud.

Is it because we’re a hobby of predominantly squeezed working classes?

No, I’m not having that tripe for a moment. The income demographic of the typical hobbyist might not be up there with the royal family of Dubai, but to say that this is a ‘poor’ phenomenon is as repugnant to me as it is unsupported. I used to be as conceited as to hold an opinion like this, but now whenever I hear it from someone who has a theft issue, it makes me flinch. I’ve had people of all walks stealing from me, including those who roll up in flash cars and finery.

In one of my stores, I had a lot of obviously desperate junkies coming in with tinfoil lined carrier bags, blatantly on the pilfer, but these were never customers. And they certainly weren’t unique to fishkeeping, they were just prepared to try any store, anywhere to gain revenue for their habit. I sincerely hope that those guys and gals got the help they needed.

Is it because the trade is so damned easy to steal from sometimes?

Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. And it’s an uncomfortable truth that the aquatic store is a real honeypot for thieves both professional and opportunistic.

Staffing will always be an issue, mainly because on a busy day there just isn’t enough. Come to think of it, on a quiet day there isn’t usually enough either. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been in a smaller shop to buy something, and staff have been tied up with customers in the fish house, out of sight and out of earshot. I may not be a tea-leaf myself, but many times in that situation I’ve thought ‘if I wasn’t so damned honest, I could stroll out of here with this and nobody would ever know…’ Ten minutes later, I’d often still be stood.

A huge part of the problem has been the almost epidemic growth of all things Internet – especially the online marketplace.

Think of it this way. Pre-internet, your loveable, light-fingered rogue had a devil of a time trying to shift dodgy goods. If they managed to nab a handful of, say, pond pumps from a garden centre, their connections were limited. There are only so many ‘men down the pub’ that you can sell to before you swamp the market with contraband electric gear. It was a real ‘Only fools and horses’ kind of environment, sat on stolen property that couldn’t be shifted.

Cue the web. Cue eBay. Cue the likes of Silk Road on the deep web. Between them I can shift a bottle of baby’s tears, my own toenails, my neighbour’s spine, a Cairn terrier or the working parts for a hovercraft. I can offer anything. And it’s likely that whatever I stick up (within reason) will sell. The thief’s market suddenly became huge.

So, back on track. If I can lift a pump, filter, heater, bottle of balling salts, corals, shrimp, or any other item from an aquatic store, then I don’t even really need to know what it is to whack it up online and watch the bidding begin. I don’t have to see the person I’m selling it to, or give an address away. If someone spots their own shrimp being sold, they can’t even grip me up and wallop me in the chops. I can steal and sell with almost total impunity, at least where generic goods are involved.

Stealing products from an aquatic store is disgustingly easy when compared to other businesses someone might try to pilfer from.

Everything is just so wide open, and most of it so high value, that I’m surprised it doesn’t need chaining down. Pond sections are all too frequently sat directly by a car park, or at best a flimsy fence divides the two worlds. High value pumps and electrical goods go straight on to shelves, in boxes and without any kind of security tag. Just sat there, squealing out to any ne’er do well to be taken home.

I’m not even sure the extent of this problem is understood, even as a vague idea of how vast it is. So very few stores have EPOS, allowing for accurate stocktaking and understanding how much ‘wastage’ occurs, that there are no figures on the problem in the slightest. Only stock takes can allude to the extent of it, as well as those continued discoveries of empty boxes and packages stuffed down behind other products, or even gaps on shelves, conspicuous by their absence of product.

Whatever monitoring is in place, it’s all too simple for a rapscallion to saunter in, fill their pockets, and turn straight around. It’s just this kind of ease that makes me wonder why the trade has not, as a collective, clicked and made efforts to stem this endless stream of produce ferrying its way from store to villain.

Is there anything that can stop this?

Self-branding helps. There’s much more than vanity at play when you see a range of filters or pumps in a company’s own name. There’s a security element that comes with the ability to trace your own goods, knowing all along that they’re actually yours.

If I’m the sole provider of the ‘PseuzanAqua’ range of internal canisters, and ten of the things suddenly pop up on eBay, brand new in box, then I can start to look into it. If the seller’s history includes things like ‘brand new Dolce & Gabbana jeans with tags’ or ‘B&Q powertools set (ten available)’ then I can call up the rozzers and send them over there, blue lights flashing to retrieve my stolen bounty. With untraceable branded goods and questionable origins, I’m denied that luxury.

Stealing is not restricted to the outside.

Internal elements are all too often to blame, and I have heard of and experienced situations where employees have decided for themselves that their wage is not quite enough.

In these instances, they take to slipping fingers into the till, small figures at first that cause confusion but maybe not alarm during nightly cashing up. Then they move on to retaining receipts for goods, ‘refunding’ the money to their own pocket when nobody is looking.

If you take a look at shoplifting statistics in the UK, then you’ll see figures that show that anywhere between 20% and 40% of retailer wastage is down to a store’s own employees. Obviously, this is an average figure, and I’m sure might relate more to premises with dozens of employees, rather than the typical aquatic retailer’s three or four. But looking at the figures of value taken, it’s horrifying to see that internal agents swipe considerably higher values per theft than those criminals from the street.

They may just decide that the staff discount isn’t adequate, and opt to slip a little something into their bag before closing time. There’s good reason that some managers reserve the right to inspect bags at random at close of play. You should exercise that right if you have it, you’ll be surprised at what it might turn up.

What about security cameras?

Cameras seem to be something that the trade takes a half-hearted approach towards, though at the same time I’d have to admit how flawed camera evidence can be. Grainy, VHS footage doesn’t bode well in a court of law, and digital data is often so poorly stored and archived that it’s admissible as little more than conjecture.

The only strength of the camera comes if you have a good network of retailers who help each other, and this I think is a core point in reducing theft. I know of at least one scenario where a retailer, having been subject to robbery, presented other retailers in the area with what camera footage was obtainable. In the event, other stores did know the offender, to the extent that they even had a name and address, enabling the victim to pop around personally to retrieve his goods. Not recommended, of course, but it’s nice to have an auspicious outcome for a change.

The vanishing Koi trick

Koinapping is rife on a global scale, though the UK seems to have more than its fair share. Sneaking in after hours, a lone ranger or nefarious duo can clear out a pond of its prize fishes. Recovery is rare at best.

Is there a reprieve in sight for all of this? Don’t look at me. I don’t have the answers, and I’m as pickled about how to tackle it as the next person.

Retailers communicating with each other can go a long way to assisting others, if not themselves.

If you become the victim of a theft, and know who did it, don’t keep it under your hat, but share it with local stores. If you’re having goods taken away, then it’s likely that the offender will try your competitors as well. Forewarned, one of them might catch the little sneak red handed.

How a store chooses to tackle stealing is their own affair. I know some retailers have taken the move of putting all the expensive, shiny pieces into glass cases, locked away from grubby magpie claws. If you can’t go that far, then it’s still worthwhile keeping products safe in one place, and putting display boxes on show.

Know your enemy...

I’m aware that many retailers have an innate talent for spotting rogues that come in store, but others still appear unaware of what to look for.

People coming in with massive, baggy clothes in summer should be treated with caution. Those who are more interested in looking at cameras than fish could be a problem. People who develop a limp halfway through their shopping experience should be setting alarm bells ringing. And if someone’s distracting you with the most absurd of questions then you can bet your boots that their partner is filling their cheek pouches with your wares. Simple stuff, people. Simple stuff…

Start talking fish!

Maybe the best thing a retailer can do to thwart the opportunist is show amazing customer service. Don’t lounge behind the counter sulking while thieves scurry about behind the cover of your shelving. Acknowledge each and every customer individually. Ask about their fish, ask what products they’re interested in, show genuine interest in their presence.

A hobbyist will happily talk fish (in fact, it can be hard to shut them back up again), but if someone’s just chancing a visit to an aquatic store, then their lack of knowledge of even the most basic aspects of fishkeeping will shine them up like a beacon, and they’ll know it.

Be sensible when buying online...

I think the most important thing for the rest of us is to be aware that lots of what appears online may not be guilt free. I’m not saying to boycott the virtual marketplace. That would be ludicrous, and would do a monstrous disservice to every honest online retailer out there.

Rather, I’m saying be sensible about what you purchase, maybe do a bit of groundwork before smashing the ‘buy it now’ button.

Have a look at your seller, and what they’re churning out. If it smells sour, then why not send out more feelers here and there? If someone is advertising a load of Deltec skimmers, then it might be worth just nudging someone in the supply chain. It’s possible that those skimmers already belong to someone else, and they’ll want to know where they’ve gone.

Or, you could just bag yourself a bargain. What’s the cost, eh? Well, with so many retailers going down the sink right now, you might find yourself in a position where you get a job lot of red-hot, online discount gear, only to find that you’ve got nobody within 50 miles who’s able to sell you a fish. If you’re going to make your stolen goods bed, then you can lie in it, with impellers prodding your backside, and cheap heaters jabbing you in the ear. No sympathy from me.

So that’s how I see it. I know that I’ll upset a few people by raising this issue, but it’s out there, and it’s not going away any time soon. Everyone seems happy enough to gripe that it’s happening, but nobody has the first inkling about what to do to stop it.

Worse still, very few people even seem to take it that seriously. Well, whatever, it’s your stock that’s going walkabout, and if you haven’t got an issue with that, then you’re a halfwit.

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