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Retail theft is not only pervasive but can be extremely difficult to control. Just ask the LCBO, Ontario’s liquor retailer, which is in the midst of a crime spree-related crisis plaguing key outlets across the Greater Toronto Area—a problem that could, at least in part, be of its own making.

When the Toronto Star first reported on the phenomenon of brazen daylight thefts at LCBO locations, many of us in the retail security industry shrugged. The incidents were no surprise given the lack of in-store security at most of the organization’s stores. According to statistics unearthed by the Star, LCBO outlets have been targeted more than 9,000 times since 2014. That’s a staggeringly high number, but the data are even more harrowing, according to the Star’s reporting:

… the most recent data in the Star’s possession shows LCBOs accounted for nearly half of shoplifting incidents, with liquor heists happening more than three times as often as they did in 2014.

“In 2014, police data shows, LCBO outlets accounted for just over a tenth of the shoplifting incidents at the top 100 most frequently targeted addresses of shoplifting incidents in Toronto. By 2017, it was a third. And halfway through 2018, the most recent data in the Star’s possession shows LCBOs accounted for nearly half of shoplifting incidents, with liquor heists happening more than three times as often as they did in 2014.”

The problem has become so bad that school principals have reportedly complained to police that, in some cases, their minor students are shoplifting liquor ‘with impunity.’ What’s to blame for this dramatic increase in theft?

First, the LCBO has a strict no-intervention policy in place regarding in-store pilfering. Staff members are forbidden from intervening when a robbery occurs. This has resulted in bizarre (and in the case of some stores, almost daily) examples of LCBO workers literally being forced to stand by and watch as thieves walk into their stores with duffel bags or backpacks, which they promptly fill with merchandise, before making an exit. Some are so bold as to take their time and leave the targeted store at their leisure.

Aside from the cost to the provincial treasury of losing millions of dollars in merchandise each year to preventable theft, the costs are much greater. LCBO employees report regularly being threatened by thieves—in some cases with needles or knives—and being forced to deal with smashed bottles left in the wake of these brazen robberies. Demoralized and frightened, these staffers have taken to whistleblowing through the media to make their voices heard. How long, they wonder, before a customer or employee gets seriously hurt?

The bigger challenge is a certain apathy at the C-suite level across the LCBO, not to mention on the part of the Toronto Police Service, whose experimentation with no-response retail theft policies sends a clear message to criminals: LCBO stores are open for illicit business. With some products such as rare scotches priced at several hundred (or thousands) dollars, liquor stores are prime, easy targets. LCBO leadership has only recently announced its intention to add a stronger retail security presence at some GTA stores. Hopefully, the move has the desired operational impact.

LCBO shoplifting spree - alcohol on store shelves
Staff are forbidden from intervening when a robbery occurs, increasing the need for retail security.

To be clear, ‘No touch/No chase’ policies are not exclusive to the LCBO. They have been embraced by risk- and liability-weary organizations for years, and for good reason. Staff are not trained police or retail security professionals. They risk personal injury—or worse—in making ill-advised, if admirable, attempts to stop a theft in progress. These policies, in other words, exist for a reason.

But it’s incumbent upon upper management at retail organizations such as the LCBO to take action and ensure their stores are protected at all times. That often means taking a holistic, integrated approach, introducing everything from the latest in high-definition digital cameras with facial-recognition software to spot known malfeasants before they can pilfer goods, to having a security presence on-site at all times in higher-risk areas—and those aren’t limited to economically-disadvantaged communities. The LCBO data shows that shoplifting is rampant even in more prosperous neighbourhoods.

Having experienced, professional guards on-site sends a message to would-be shoplifters that their activities won’t be tolerated. And yes, deterrence does work. Will it necessarily stop attempted robberies altogether? Obviously not, but criminals will think twice before trying to lift a rare bottle of Glenlivet. More so if they know that police will arrive on scene if theft is in progress or has just occurred.

Ignoring brick-and-mortar Toronto retail security needs are common in the digital era when an increasing percentage of retailers’ budgets are being directed to preventing fast-growing challenges such as cyber theft and fraud. But as long as business is being conducted in the offline world, organizations need to be prepared to protect their property and their people.

Addressing liquor store shoplifting requires the right mix of retail security tactics

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 retail 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.

“This situation is out of control, not just in our liquor marts, but also in private retail stores.”

Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Gov. & General Employees Union

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 storeroom, a la the Consumers Distributing stores of our youth. That idea was quickly rejected, likely by executives who understand that experiential retail security in Toronto 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 crime 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.

Wine bottles at LCBO retail security toronto
Retail security isn’t a one-time endeavour.

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 percent 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 retail 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.

DOES YOUR TORONTO BUSINESS NEED RETAIL SECURITY?

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Winston Stewart, President & CEO Wincon Security

With the holiday season in full swing, there’s a very good chance your team is getting ready to wind down and maybe even let loose. That’s right, it’s the time of year for the unforgettable office party, an opportunity for employers to show their appreciation to staff, to share a few cocktails at or away from the office and enjoy some time mixing and mingling and (hopefully) not spending time reflecting on work-related matters.

But with the yuletide festivities come a great deal of risk for employers.

Now, I’m not trying to call humbug on your holiday party plans. But it’s important for organizations and their HR teams to understand the employment law liability involved in hosting a gathering in the workplace. That risk increases exponentially when alcohol is being served and employees are left to find their own way home from the office party. Of course, some employers assume that organizing a gathering off-site relieves that liability, but that’s unfortunately not the case. Anytime an organization sanctions an event such as this, they’re on the hook until their employees are home safe and sound.

It’s wise to have security guards or personnel at larger parties to help address any issues that can arise.

You might think the logical move would be to pull the plug on the party and spend that budget elsewhere. Not so fast. Holiday events are a great team-building tool that can help drive engagement. They’re also an important part of building a strong workplace culture, so it would be foolhardy to cancel such an invaluable opportunity to boost employee morale. The better approach is to think safety and security first when organizing an event, keeping these five tips in mind:

Make your policies clear—The objective here isn’t to be a buzzkill before the party gets started, but to remind employees that even though they’re enjoying the boss’ hospitality while off the clock, they’re still technically bound by the same policies that govern their behaviour while in the workplace. That message should be delivered in a subtle way—a reminder rather than a lecture—but it should be explicitly communicated, either by email, in print or at a team meeting.

Hire security—If your staff party is small, say, fewer than 20 people including spouses, hiring a guard may not be necessary. But it’s wise to have security personnel in attendance at larger gatherings to help address any issues that may arise. That could mean dealing with intoxicated patrons who become a little unruly (which happens all too often) or simply patrolling and watching over items such as gifts or coats. Many business owners and managers are shocked when their events are targeted by thieves who root through jackets or walk away with purses and bags when their employees are busy enjoying themselves. What they don’t realize is that this kind of Grinch-like activity happens all the time, especially at large corporate gatherings that are preyed on by groups of professional criminals. Do yourself a favour and hire a trained and experienced security team to help make your holiday event memorable for all the right reasons.

holiday party cheers
Keep your employees safe and having fun this year by hiring a security guard if needed.

Choose the right location—Set the conditions for your event’s success from the start by selecting the right venue. Whenever possible, try to pick a spot close to your workplace or close to where the majority of your employees live. This isn’t always feasible—especially for organizations located in the suburbs, whose workforces travel long distances to work—but doing so can be a practical way to encourage staff to leave their cars at home and take transit to work on the day of the event. At the same time, try to avoid choosing a hotspot surrounded by bars or clubs, which only encourages employees (particularly younger team members) to keep the party going well into the night and potentially past the point of intoxication.

Provide transportation—Include cab chits for employees in your party budget, or hire a van or bus to shuttle employees to the venue and home—whichever is the more cost-effective option depending on your team’s specific logistical considerations. One of the greatest sources of liability for employers stems from team members who hop in their cars at the end of an event and drive home, often intoxicated, only to get into an accident. This outcome is entirely avoidable with some proactive planning.

Think like Scrooge—Not when it comes to spending on a great venue, an impressive menu or even staff gifts. But do be stingy when it comes to serving alcohol. Provide a couple of drink tickets to each staff member at the beginning of the night, and switch to a cash bar at some point in the evening. Or, maybe serve wine at dinner and then move to a cash bar afterwards. The point is that open bars can turn into a security nightmare because they encourage outright intoxication. Appoint a senior (and designated sober) staffer to manage drink tickets, if you take that approach, and be sure to offer plenty of food and at least a few non-alcoholic beverage options throughout the event. Want to really limit the booze consumption? Make it a mid-day family affair and invite your employees and their kids.

The objective is to still have fun, say ‘thanks’ for another year of hard work and spoil your employees with a great party. But remember that safety and security should be a top priority. Maintaining that focus will help mitigate the kind of liability and risk that would otherwise drop a lump of coal in your stocking this holiday season.

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.

Holiday Retail Theft shoplifting - hire retail security
Retail Security & Loss Prevention During the Holidays

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 the 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 being 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