Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook: Doing business under the gun
After his east side convenience store in Manchester was robbed at gunpoint Nov. 2 for the third time in two weeks, Prashant Gandhi added two more cameras to his surveillance system and more outside lighting. And he's closing the store an hour earlier at night.
That last hour is when customer traffic is slow - and when thieves are more likely to encounter a lone employee at the cash register.
"They are not going to walk in when five people are standing inside the store," Gandhi said last week in the matter-of-fact manner of someone who has become accustomed to living with crime.
He's not worried about the business he'll lose by locking the doors sooner.
"It's not the money. It's more safety," the Londonderry resident said. "That comes first."
Like most convenience stores, Shawn's Corner Market at 912 Somerville St. generates most of its profit from cigarettes and beer, said Gandhi, 33. And like too many conveniences stores in the Queen City, it's become the frequent target of armed robbers.
They usually demand whatever cash is in the register and some cigarettes, as the masked gunman reportedly did at 7 p.m. last Saturday - just as another did back in January when he walked into the store and pointed a long-barreled shotgun at the clerk, according to police reports.
"It's frustrating. We have to feed our kids, too. We have to work," said Gandhi, who employs two other people at the store he has owned for more than a year.
Nationwide, there were more than 18,000 convenience store robberies last year, about the same as 2011, according to the FBI, which tracked a five-year high of 24,394 in 2008.
Gandhi questions why small stores like his are such a target - after all, banks have more money. He cited a tough economy as a possible factor and also wonders whether the thieves are betting with their friends that they can hold up a store.
"They think this is the easiest way to get around, but it's not," Gandhi said, adding that he expects the culprits eventually will be caught.
That appears to be the case for three armed robberies last week in the city, including two at convenience stores. On Thursday, police arrested 22-year-old Jarrell Wilson, who was wanted in connection with the hold-ups at Union Street Market; Michelle's Bakery, also on Union Street; and the N&K Market on Pearl Street. Wilson, 22, and Lacy Clagon, 23, face four counts of armed robbery in connection with the robberies and the theft of a purse from a customer at the bakery. Sarah Flonory-Schneider, 20, was arrested on charges she drove the getaway car after the robberies at Michelle's and N&K.
N&K owner Nadeem Ahmed said the robberies are not only dangerous for his employees but also scare his customers away. "It's a neighborhood store," he said, adding that parents become reluctant to send their kids there after school when they learn about the robberies.
Some people come no matter what, such as the vendor who dropped by Thursday afternoon to make a delivery and the postal worker, new to the route, who arrived with a stack of mail and asked Ahmed whether there was any outgoing, noting that another clerk had forgotten the day before. The kind of familiar routines that can get disrupted by the threat of violence.
Closing his store earlier in the evening, as Gandhi is trying at Shawn's Corner Market, would not have prevented the Tuesday holdup at N&K, which occurred at 1:30 p.m. when Ahmed was the only person in the store.
Ahmed, 43, bought the market 12 years ago about a decade after emigrating to the United States from Pakistan and said he works 10 hours a day. His wife, Naila, who also used to work at the store, was visiting Thursday afternoon. She remembers being in the store with Ahmed in 2002 when a robber was pointing a gun at them. Ask her how many times N&K has been robbed over the years and she laughs. Too many times to remember.
Ahmed is considering adding more security cameras to his surveillance system and plans to attend a safety seminar Manchester police have scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday at the police community room, at 405 Valley St., to educate store owners about how to reduce the chance of being robbed.
The National Association of Convenience Stores recommends keeping shelves low to limit hiding places, using a time-release drop safe and posting notices that state the amount of cash on hand is limited. It also recommends limiting the use of signs in windows - those big banners for Newport cigarettes and Miller Lite block sight lines, something that attracts thieves.
"It makes it very difficult to see that a robbery is taking place," said Jeff Lenard, spokesman for the association. According to the trade group, 587 of the 885 convenience stores in New Hampshire are one-shop operations.
Ahmed said he tells his employees not to keep too much money in the register and to remain calm when faced with a robber.
"Your life is more important than money," he said. "Don't get scared. They (the robbers) just need only money."
Ahmed keeps small signs in a glass display case behind the front counter to remind him and his employees to keep their cool. The black-and-white signs were packaged with the bicycle helmets he bought for his kids and offer simple but important advice: "Use your head."
Mike Cote is business editor at the Union Leader. Contact him at 668-4321, ext. 324 or firstname.lastname@example.org.