It was a big bust — nearly $1 million worth of stolen clothing was seized by York Regional Police in late March after they broke up a major shoplifting ring in the Greater Toronto Area. The full investigation revealed a Toronto home was being run as an unlicensed retail store, filled with the pinched goods.
Shop thievery is a huge problem across the country. It’s a big part of the $4.6 billion in annual losses faced by employers when it comes to internal crime, external crime and administrative errors, according to Stephen O’Keefe, vice-president of operations at the Retail Council of Canada in Toronto.
While employers make use of many different tools to try to prevent the pilfering — such as closed-circuit TV, signage, locked cabinets, biometric screening, product placement and physical layouts — front-line employees play a big role in the crusade.
Safety comes first
But safety always comes first. There’s always a risk associated with going out and arresting somebody because you don’t know who you’re dealing with and the person can react in a number of ways, said O’Keefe.
And retailers provide a lot of training on defusing a situation before it gets out of hand.
“They’re training internally on how to approach a person and not to approach them aggressively and to try to handle it in a more neutral sense, so not going out and being aggressive and confrontational but trying to be a little bit more collaborative with the individual, letting them know what the situation is, what their rights are and to bring them back into the store to resolve the issue.”
There are very clear guidelines in the Criminal Code of Canada on the use of force and what’s reasonable, he said.
“If a retailer finds that there was excessive force used, they may terminate the employee that made the arrest before the accused even has a chance to complain… so (the worker is) subject from their management to the same level of scrutiny that the shoplifter is subject to from the investigator that goes out and makes the arrest.
“What they need to understand is ‘safety first’ and this is not a personal thing. This person is not stealing from you, the individual, they are not attacking you the individual, so you’re conducting an act of business and… therefore, try to keep your emotions in check. These are some of the things that retailers are trying (in the training).”
LCBO focuses on safety
As part of a shift in culture a few years back, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) in Toronto launched a mandatory “Play it Safe” program.
“The main idea behind the approach is that the personal safety of staff is paramount, and we would never expect staff to put themselves or their colleagues or any of their customers at risk under any circumstances,” said Genevieve Tomney, senior communications consultant, corporate communications, at the LCBO in Toronto.
“It’s really a key part of the overall training for all of our retail staff. They have to do it before they even set foot on the floor in the store… violence is uncommon and it is most often verbal, but we want staff to be prepared for all different scenarios.
“Our figures show that taking this non-confrontational approach is working quite well and achieving good results and preventing theft from occurring.”
A 15-minute video illustrates the liquor chain’s non-confrontational approach when it comes to dealing with potential shoplifters. The training includes a classroom setting for the first viewing and subsequent viewings in-store every year.
Because you never know who you’re dealing with, it’s about being a helpful employee and not trying to search or detain customers, said Tomney.
“That is the idea, is to kill them with kindness, and to use your customer service skills,” she said, such as asking “Can I help you find something?” or “Can I help you carry those bottles to the cash?”
“The bottom line really is if you don’t feel safe in the situation, walk away, let the customer walk away, recognize that you’re not going to be able to eliminate shop theft altogether in your store and it’s really a cost of doing business,” said Tomney.
“The focus is taking away from trying to stop the theft from happening and put on being a credible witness so that you can help authorities later in tracking this person, so we encourage staff to take note of the suspect’s specs — their age, their height, their race, their clothing, even their shoes, for instance — to try and provide as much detail as possible.”
Improper documentation is where a lot of investigations falter, such as forgetting details or not pulling the CCTV footage, said Charlena Radic, president and CEO of Sting Investigations in New Westminster, B.C.
“If something happens, make sure that you properly document it and if they return to the store, call the police and at that point, they’re trespassing. Try not to get physically involved but make the arrest, just call the police and arrest them for trespassing. But be able to produce that previous incident report.”
It’s important to know the legal requirements and proper case preparation, “all of the pieces of the puzzle that will make for a successful trial,” said Mike Harvey, president of the Investigative Solutions Network in Pickering, Ont.
“The major retailers who can afford to do this, are now… training their people on proper interview techniques, proper case preparation and surveillance — rather than leaving all of this to police who are in fact overburdened and slow to react because of it.”
As a result, many employers hire loss prevention officers, or train employees to take on the role. These officers monitor the stores and make arrests, according to Radic.
“For other staff, what they’re doing is providing basic awareness training and teaching them how to report it to a manager or staff but do not physically intervene.”
Excellent customer service and “aggressive hospitality” are also techniques used by employers in the fight against shop theft, said O’Keefe.
“The companies that have the lowest shrink have the highest level of customer service — people don’t like to steal from people that are friendly and people that they like and people that say hello to them,” he said.
“The training on that side for customer service is critically important to do two things that you want to do as a retailer: service your customer and prevent your shoplifters from stealing.”
Letting people know they’re being watched is a good deterrent factor, said Harvey.
“There’s this real connection between a greeter and lowering theft rates. Human nature believes that if someone has made an attempt to speak to you, they actually know who you are. It’s not true, but that’s the feeling, so that does reduce theft.”
However, employers have to be careful when it comes to keeping a close eye on suspected shoplifters, said Radic.
“You have a right to refuse service for whatever reason, but (it’s about) knowing that you’re not profiling this person because of their race or their income or disability or whatever — make sure your staff are trained,” she said.
“As long as it’s based on their behaviour, their actions in the store which are inappropriate… as long as it’s not borderline harassment where they’re being followed and they’re being watched, it’s more of a friendly kind of ‘How are you, is everything OK?’ — assessing the situation properly and not just jumping up on that stereotype.”
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