Being a retail employee shouldn’t come with constant fears over one’s personal safety and security. But that’s the reality for provincial liquor store employees in parts of Manitoba, in particular those employed at outlets in higher-risk neighbourhoods of Winnipeg.

In recent months the provincially-run liquor stores have seen a rash of brazen robberies in broad daylight. Now, the incidents have escalated with three employees facing unprovoked assaults in recent weeks, and one receiving acute medical attention in hospital as a result. Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries has closed one store in response and has taken various other measures in an effort to deter theft.

The incidents mirror those of the past two years across a handful of LCBO outlets in Toronto. In both cases, liquor boards have instructed employees not to take action to prevent shoplifting. That’s created bizarre scenes where employees and customers are literally left to stand and watch as duffel bag-toting thieves walk into a store, take their fill and leave without resistance. The union representing liquor store employees in Ontario has criticized the LCBO’s security strategy and staff training, as well as the retailer’s claim that shoplifting costs the organization less than $6 million a year in pilfered items—a figure the union says is grossly underestimated.

To be clear, the workplace policy preventing store employees from intervening is the right one. There have been far too many examples—as in the Winnipeg case—of employees being threatened, injured or having unknown liquids thrown in their direction. Taking a chance with people’s lives or safety simply to reduce the odds of having a few bottles of vodka shoplifted isn’t worth the risk.

In response, business leaders have called for action to address the issue.

“This situation is out of control, not just in our liquor marts, but also in private retail stores,” Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees union, said in a written statement, as reported in the National Post

“We need an urgent summit of law enforcement, addictions and social services, public and private retailers, unions and the provincial government.”

Various other crime-prevention methods have been floated, including requiring customers to fill out forms requesting products that would then be retrieved from a store room, a la the Consumers Distributing stores of our youth. That idea was quickly rejected, likely by executives who understand that experiential retail is the future, not one that mirrors a Soviet-era supermarket shopping experience circa the Cold War. The cost of completely reconfiguring store designs to allow for controlled distribution would also be cost prohibitive.

So, why the uptick in liquor store crime? While poverty and addiction in certain regions is undoubtedly a major contributing factor, basic ease of execution is what attracts petty criminals such as the ones who boldly fill bags with easily-traded merchandise, which in many cases is flipped to fund various personal addictions. Surveillance cameras are always a useful crime-prevention tool, but in this case—and, again, with the level of criminal in question—they tend to have little impact because they only catch thieves after the fact. Many of the individuals in question have nothing to lose and little fear of going to jail.

The best approach is to have a strong, in-store security guard presence—and, in particularly risk-prone neighbourhoods, potentially even off-duty police officers—to send a clear message to thieves that they will be apprehended. These guards need to be properly trained in citizens’ arrest tactics to catch and hold thieves until police can make it to the scene.

Some Manitoba stores have also implemented bottle locks, which can work. The problem is that individuals who want to crack these theft-prevention devices will always find a way. Still, that extra step may cause them to think twice and try stealing something else instead. Or it could merely create a time-consuming inconvenience. Either way, the locks are not 100 per cent effective.

Preventing robbers from entering stores in the first place is one of the most effective strategies. While requesting identification at store entrances can create a negative experience for law-abiding customers, it does send a clear message to would-be thieves that their behaviour will not be tolerated. Managing the optics and other logistical challenges such as long line-ups during the peak holiday season or during long weekends, however, can be daunting. It’s by no means the perfect solution.

Another option is to keep high-value liquor under lock and key, requiring staff assistance for a purchase to be made. While this helps protect luxury brands, it does little to deter the smash-and-grab of low- to mid-range bottles.

Overall, the key to preventing liquor store retail theft is to customize and combine tactics, while maintaining a careful balance between employee safety, customer experience and store performance and profitability. That means tapping the latest technology and using tried-and-true security methods such as a live guard presence, as well as entrance controls when appropriate, to deter criminals before they can act. It also takes perseverance, sustained investment and an acknowledgment that security isn’t a one-time endeavour. Thieves are clever and need to understand that an organization is serious about security before they’ll move on to another target.

Otherwise situations such as the one in Manitoba will continue, putting employee safety at risk.

Winston Stewart, President and CEO

Wincon Security

Retailers are always enamored over the holidays—malls and streets jammed with eager shoppers, cash registers ringing (or the similarly lucrative sounds of electronic sales racking up) and merchandise flying off shelves before Santa’s arrival. What’s not to love?

The lump of coal in most retailers’ stockings is the inevitable occurrence of shoplifting, which tends to spike during the festive season. Each year organizations go to great lengths to minimize shrinkage through everything from hiring extra theft-prevention staff to installing high-tech monitoring tools. High-definition cameras, the presence of trained security personnel, adding signage to deter would-be thieves and understanding your clientele—and who doesn’t fit in, while resisting the temptation to profile potential malfeasants—are all practical tactics to help mitigate the financial impact of the more than $3 billion in retail shrinkage that affects Canadian organizations each year.

But there are two largely overlooked—some might say unexpected—areas where our team begins any conversation around curbing retail theft: employee engagement and customer service.

A counterintuitive strategy

At Wincon Security, we help retailers develop comprehensive theft-mitigation strategies that include the tools mentioned above—and far more—when we develop a customized anti-theft checklist suited to your organization’s specific needs. But we also ask several business-focused questions that take that discussion to another level. The first centres around metrics such as employee turnover.

Why? Because it’s one indicator of lackluster engagement. The more workers that abandon their employer at a high frequency, the likelier they are to engage in criminal behaviour such as stealing merchandise. Despite what most retailers believe, internal shrinkage is an even greater risk than external theft. Even though many stores will inspect employee bags before leaving the premises, the fact is that employees determined to remove goods from a store can usually do so with relative ease. Yes, surveillance helps, but only to confirm when a theft has occurred.

Prevention requires a much more proactive approach.

Think culture first

We advise retailers to focus on building stronger relationships with their workers, including part-time holiday staff, and consider implementing employee-friendly measures. That can range from bumping pay rates to slightly above industry standard and improving training programs, to simple tactics such as offering recognition for a job well done or throwing team-building events. The goal is to give employees a sense of ownership and to tie them closer to the organization. Happy employees are far less likely to lift merchandise than their disgruntled colleagues.

Taking service to the next level

When it comes to providing better customer service, many organizations think that means training staff to approach all customers once they enter a store, asking them if they need help and then keeping an eye open for suspicious behaviour. These are all perfectly-appropriate techniques that do help minimize theft. But retailers—particularly those catering to luxury clientele—need to do more. They need to provide great service.

That means engaging with customers, determining their needs, being present when they try on clothing or as they test merchandise, guiding them through the purchase cycle with information about the good or service on which they’re considering spending their hard-earned dollars, and making them feel truly special. Deepening that engagement, perhaps by offering to enter customers into your store’s database to provide better service in future, or to help keep them up-to-date on new promotions, sends a message that your relationship is more than transactional. It’s about working together to satisfy their unique retail needs over the long haul.

On the security front, providing high-touch service sends another message: we’re on the lookout for potential thieves and we will catch those who try to leave our store without paying for merchandise. It also shifts the focus from providing what some might consider to be harassing service—when a salesperson follows you around the store and won’t allow you to browse in peace—to adding value by helping them achieve their shopping goals. That could mean presenting them with interesting alternative options, such as a different style garment or a different model of electronic device, for example.

Now, you may be wondering why a security firm is providing advice on the HR and sales front. Because smart, forward-thinking security requires a holistic perspective. We’re happy to sell retailers our integrated security services, but we know through both empirical data and experience that they’re far more effective when our clients take a 360-degree view of their security needs.

Doing it the right way means looking beyond the obvious, and finding positive ways to thwart would-be thieves.

Winston Stewart, President and CEO

Wincon Security

‘Tis the season for spending time with family and friends and the inevitable yuletide spree of shopping and gift-giving. Suburban malls and high-street stores are jammed in the lead-up to the holidays, as Torontonians make a final festive retail push before taking a breather and preparing for Boxing Week bargain bonanzas.

Unfortunately, this is also the time of year when busy retailers must contend with wide-scale theft. Statistics show that Canadian businesses lose more than $3 billion annually to crime, including both internal (e.g., employee) and external shoplifting that eats into profits and compromises retailers’ competitiveness. Rather than tackling the problem head-on, a new Toronto Police Service pilot project is moving in a very different direction.

Toronto Police Service introduces Stop Theft 

First-time shoplifters caught pilfering items within the boundaries of the city’s 51 and 52 divisions will no longer be prosecuted under the six-month Stop Theft program, an initiative that will permit private security and theft-prevention guards to effectively catch and release shoplifters after documenting their personal details, then providing them to officers at one of the two divisions participating in the program. The Toronto Police Service’s aim is to free police resources to deal with higher-priority calls.

Non-violent shoplifters who are 18 years of age or older with identification and who are accused of stealing merchandise totaling less than $1,000, are eligible for release. Police will still attend the scene if requested and reserve the right to lay charges by summons in future, depending on the circumstances.

“What we’ve been trying to do through the modernization process is make sure that our police officers are where the public needs them the most,” Meaghan Gray, acting director of corporate communications for the Toronto Police Service, told the Toronto Star. “And maybe responding to … shoplifting calls — that can be held just as efficiently by a theft prevention officer partnered with us over the phone — allows us to reassign those officers to more pressing calls for service.”

While the efforts of police to more effectively utilize their officers’ time is laudable, the bigger challenge for retailers can be summed up in a statement last year from Diane J. Brisebois, President and CEO of the Retail Council of Canada: “It is estimated that retailers lose more than

$8 million a day to store theft. What is more worrisome, however, is that today’s thieves are becoming increasingly sophisticated, therefore posing an even greater risk to the health and safety of the Canadian public.”

Removing a theft deterrent

Indeed, the major challenge with the Stop Theft program is that it assumes that shoplifting is limited to individuals such as thrill-seeking teens and those with mental health issues. The reality is that organized crime groups are behind much of the bottom-line killing losses plaguing retailers at all levels. Products such as razor blades and baby formula—the latter used to mask drug trafficking, or sold for a hefty profit on the black market—are two products that have long been a prime retail target for organized crime.

A program such as this removes the most important deterrent to shoplifting—immediate arrest and the threat of significant prosecution. It will be an especially major problem in less-prosperous areas already dealing with high rates of both minor and major crimes.

Retailers will need to continue to invest more in loss-prevention tactics, including the use of civil demand recovery letters, which allow them to sue alleged shoplifters in civil court to recoup the cost of a stolen or damaged item, not to mention costs relating to security patrol and enforcement. It’s safe to assume that overwhelmed police won’t have the time to follow up with an accused shoplifter after an incident, even if the person has a criminal record.

Why? Cash-strapped, budget-conscious police services simply lack the time and money to continue to pursue low-level crimes as they once did. The unfortunate reality is that retailers will pay the price and will need to pursue punitive litigation in an effort to deter would-be thieves—itself a potentially costly process.

Programs such as Stop Theft are designed to modernize the response to some crimes, but in doing so they tend to sow chaos and return us to a time when low-level crime was rampant. Now, unfortunately, shopkeepers need to be more vigilant than ever, treating every customer as a potential shoplifter, which is always bad for business.

Winston Stewart, President and CEO

Wincon Security