Let me call you Sweetheart

Nick Booth
sweet heart 300x225 Let me call you Sweetheart

(Getty Images)

Somewhere in the country yesterday, a girl walked into a McBurger joint and ordered a Quarter Pounder with cheese, large fries, ice cream, full fat coke and vanilla milkshake – the full cholesterol festival. And the boy at the counter gave it to her for free. It’s the least he can do for the girl he loves, on Valentines Day.

This is a phenomenon known as Sweethearting. The retail industry coined the term to explain how staff members give away free goods to friends and family at till points. It’s been going on for decades. When I worked in McDonald’s it was standard practice among the people at the tills – and that was a long, long time ago.

Sweethearting costs all retailers a fortune. These days the fast food joints like Subway are happy to sell you a franchise. With millions of people being forced out of work, that’s an option you might want to explore. Imagine if you run your own shop and one of your employees gives away a £10 item once a week. That’s £520 a year. If one employee is doing it successfully, it will quickly spread. Unless you work there yourself full time, you can’t stop it.

Sweethearting may be a time-honoured tradition but it was only in 2011 that the first National Retail Security Survey was commissioned. Its first ever set of statistics over collusive theft (involving employees and outsiders), showed that 96 per cent of companies out of the 140 retailers surveyed suffered some incident.

Rachael Van Oudheusden, who ran pubs in Bristol as a relief manager in the Nineties, says everyone is at it. “Everyone wants to give their friends free drinks. It’s seen as a perk of the job. Even if you try to manage it, by allowing people one free drink they can give to their best friend, the scheme will always be abused,” she says.

Richard Dorf, a point of sale technology expert and MD of PXtech says the personal nature of these thefts leaves retailers feeling helpless but having the right technology in place can catch the culprits. By linking each till with CCTV the proprietor can pinpoint the specific “sweetheart” down to an individual transaction.

This was once a technology reserved exclusively for the big corporate chains. But these days cheap cameras and efficient but affordable software means anyone can be caught. Which is a great idea, because sweethearting takes place in all levels of society, from the burger flippers to the boardrooms of multi-nationals, from the salad bar to top civil servants.

Recently the National Audit Office (NAO) was forced to investigate five major tax settlements by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), following campaigns by both Private Eye magazine and pressure group UK Uncut. They have consistently demanded information about alleged ’sweetheart’ deals which seemed to be unilaterally struck by the most senior member of HMRC and the likes of Goldman Sachs and Vodafone, who avoided billions in taxes.

Though the NAO concluded that final payments were “reasonable and the overall outcome for the exchequer was good” it did criticise HMRC. Under Dave Hartnett, HMRC’s permanent secretary, the department failed to follow strict official processes and refused to consult its own lawyers before agreeing to drop litigation. The NAO said that HMRC’s weak internal communications had bred a climate of suspicion within the department. The public are pretty suspicious too, if the level of support behind UK Uncut is any indicator.

A whistleblower revealed that HMRC had waived as much as £20m of interest on a £30m tax bill owed by Goldmans on bankers’ bonuses. Dragged before the Public Accounts Committee, Mr Hartnett was also accused of letting Vodafone off as much as £8bn in taxes by accepting a £1.25bn settlement. Yes, £8bn. That’s more than was lost on Black Wednesday and that brought down the government.

UK Uncut has won High Court approval to challenge the department’s decision on Goldmans, so the suspicion continues. Perhaps all of our offices of state, from HMRC to NAO to Scotland Yard, could do with retail technology, in order to clean up public life and satisfy the public that sweetheart deals are not being struck behind closed doors.

If small shops can afford CCTV monitoring of sweathearts, I’m sure that HMRC could afford it. What a return they could make on their investment too!

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