When The Brick first started holding outdoor tent sale events the biggest security concern was overnight theft.
Now they worry about theft in broad daylight.
“Someone always has to be out there, guarding it, because if you don’t, people will drive up and steal a bed,” says Heather Murray, vice-president, internal audit and loss prevention for The Brick Group.
“I would say that it is more brazen than it ever was.”
Once a random crime of opportunity, retail theft has grown in complexity and scale, costing Canadian retailers an estimated $4.67-billion annually.
Gangs travel highways between major cities, hitting stores with weak security along the way; fences pay drug addicts to steal for them, supplying them with lists of specific items. Whenever a popular new product – like gift cards – comes along, criminals put their minds to work on how to scam it.
Over 26 years in the business Murray has worked to bring losses due to theft at the national furniture retailer down to 0.05 per cent of sales . The retail industry average is closer to 1.26 per cent of sales, according to data from the Retail Council of Canada.
The most important component is customer service, says Murray.
Sales associates are told to never chase a suspect. Instead, they are trained to greet customers personally, and in the event that something does go wrong, to try to remember details that will make them a good witness. Reporting every incident – internally or to police – is part of The Brick’s crime-fighting strategy.
“A shoplifter wants anonymity and privacy. If you give them both, they will steal from you. Anonymity means they don’t want to make eye contact with you, they don’t want to be talking to you. Once I talk to you, I look you in the eye, I see what you’re wearing, how tall you are,” says Murray.
“Shoplifters tend to do things like brush our people away. They want the staff to forget about them so they can perhaps steal something off the shelf, put it in a knapsack or in some cases, pick up the box and walk out the door.”
The Brick has had a Crime Busters program since 1984, launched by Murray’s predecessor in the job, Tom Dunlop, a former RCMP Sergeant in commercial crime and a founding member of Edmonton Crime Stoppers.
The retailer has an internal anonymous hotline for employees to report suspicious activity among co-workers.
“It’s anonymous because for that person calling in, they have probably agonized for a long time over whether to pick up the phone,” says Murray.
Merchandising is another important component when it comes to reducing theft — two men in balaclavas once walked into a Brick store and made off with a giant television that was part of a display at the front door.
“They were in and out in ten seconds,” says Murray. “What do you do? You learn from it. In this case, we worked with the store and said: ‘Those types of displays, we need them deeper into the store.’”
In 2007, Murray launched an internal newspaper called Brick Busters that reports on incidents of fraud and theft. It also describes incidents in which staff stopped or prevented losses.
It’s an important coaching device, Murray says. It helped staff in a Montreal store recognize a gift-card fraud in progress. A fraudster was attempting to make a purchase using gift cards that had been bought with a stolen credit card in Alberta.
In another instance, a gang of thieves known to be travelling up and down the highway between Calgary and Edmonton lost interest when The Brick alerted stores in the area and employees stepped up customer service, greeting suspects at the door.
“They stopped coming. I think the word gets spread on the street. It’s like everything. You have to stay dynamic, constant, you have to keep the awareness up. Now and again the awareness goes down. When that happens you start the program all over again,” says Murray.
While it’s true that thieves have become more brazen, the technology to catch them has also improved. Digital cameras are better and easier to maintain than older systems, which recorded events on tape. Locating video of a suspect or a crime now takes seconds, and it can be quickly circulated internally or with other retailers and police departments.
“We’ve had the police come down and affect an arrest with the suspected thief in the store,” says Murray.
“When things like this occur, it’s a controlled environment and in such a way that no one is going to get hurt.”
She said it’s important to not only tell employees what policy and procedures are, but to explain why they are necessary, so that they have not just knowledge, but a true understanding of why it’s important to follow them.
“Our best security is always going to be our people.”