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How Retailers Can Prevent Robberies This Holiday Season

A spate of ‘smash and grab’ robberies and similar organised theft incidents have dealt the latest blow to retailers looking to staff up at a critical time.
Brands and retailers, from Lululemon and The North Face to Burberry and Louis Vuitton have been hit with organised retail crime in the past few weeks.
Brands and retailers, from Lululemon and The North Face to Burberry and Louis Vuitton have been hit with organised retail crime in the past few weeks. (Getty Images)

Last month, 80 people stormed a Nordstrom store in Walnut Creek, Calif. in a “flash mob” style robbery. According to the local police department, two Nordstrom employees were assaulted and one was pepper sprayed by the suspects. Ultimately, officers arrested two people, one of whom had a firearm, but the perpetrators still made off with thousands of dollars in merchandise.

A dent in revenues, however, may have been the least of the department store’s worries.

Organised retail crime — or the theft of items usually valued at $500 or more with the intent to redistribute — has been on the uptick. About 69 percent of retailers have seen an increase in organised retail crimes in the past year, according to an August 2021 study by retail trade group the National Retail Federation, with roughly 65 percent of retailers surveyed also noting an increase in violence.

The NRF’s study attributes the trend to pandemic fallout and changes in criminal sentencing guidelines among other reasons. Since 2000, at least 40 states in the United States have raised the thresholds for what is considered felony shoplifting, according to The National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, while cities like San Francisco have decriminalised petty theft, or the stealing of items valued at less than $950.

More than a threat to retailers’ bottom line, however, organised retail crime — such as the recent “smash and grab” robberies affecting several big brands — is the latest significant setback for fashion purveyors seeking to hire and retain store associates at a time when the pandemic, low wages and limited upward mobility has already made the role increasingly unattractive to scores of workers. Per the NRF, violent incidents in particular can contribute to employee turnover.

Brands and retailers, including Lululemon, Burberry and Louis Vuitton have been hit with these robberies in the past few weeks. This month, electronics purveyor Best Buy sounded the alarm on the impact of such crimes on employee morale. Chief executive Corie Barry told analysts during a conference call that such incidents are “traumatising” for store associates and that she was concerned about the impact on retention.

“Retailers already were worried about [staffing], this is just fuel to the fire,” said Deborah Weinswig, founder and CEO of Coresight Research, a research company focused on retail and technology. “So many retailers are working together with their competitors to try to figure it out.”

The Security Basics: What Not to Do

For retailers looking to safeguard their stores and help customers and employees feel more comfortable, an immediate fix is to hire additional security personnel and make them more visible.

In response to recent store robberies, Nordstrom is positioning more security personnel inside and outside its stores and “working closely with mall security and law enforcement to anticipate and minimise risk,” a spokesperson said in an email statement to BoF. Similarly, Best Buy has hired security officers and is locking up certain merchandise, its chief executive told analysts

Increasing security presence can be an effective way to “change the risk versus reward ratio for thieves,” said Bobby Haskins, vice president of retail partnerships at Auror, a software platform that helps retailers prevent crime.

This tactic, however, may do more to deter amateur thieves than organised criminal operations, according to Ben Dugan, president of the Coalition of Law Enforcement and Retail, or CLEAR.

“In true organised retail crime, people go undetected and they’ll move in and out of a store and steal a whole lot more than [smash and grab thieves],” he said. “Professional thieves would operate regardless of any kind of physical security.”

Retailers that rely on instinct or anecdotal evidence to haphazardly place security personnel or cameras around their stores may be doing little to actually prevent theft, which might further contribute to frustrations among store workers, Haskins said.

In addition to being expensive, security personnel could have the opposite of their intended effect by making some shoppers feel unwelcome and unsafe. Biases and a lack of appropriate training among some security officers could result in accusations of racial profiling, which, for retailers, may lead to expensive litigation and erode brand equity.

Problem Solving With Collaboration and Data

Keeping stores safe will require brands and retailers to put aside competition in favour of collaboration with their peers, said Dugan. Data from Auror’s clients shows that 20 percent of offenders cause 71 percent of the loss in their stores — effectively tracking organised crime can help law enforcement target the most prolific offenders and have a greater overall impact on theft reduction.

“These [perpetrators] go from retailer to retailer — these aren’t usually isolated events,” said Dugan. “They will hit a dozen stores a day and steal between $50,000 and $60,000 in merchandise apiece.”

Retailers can exchange information about their most prolific offenders and share intel on the strategies, such as software and external security partners, that have worked and those that haven’t.

“It all comes back to data. Retailers have to have the intelligence to back up security decisions,” said Haskins, adding that “empowering” store associates with up-to-date tools to log theft can improve morale by providing an action plan in the event of a theft. It also helps create a data resource to prevent future crimes. Without data, retailers “end up taking a reactive approach,” he said.

It’s equally important for retailers to communicate often with store associates about whatever strategies management employs in order to quell safety concerns as well as reassure workers that they don’t need to get involved in unsafe situations.

“When store managers make bad decisions like chasing someone out of a store, or when they engage in a situation they shouldn’t, it’s typically out of frustration,” Haskins said. “They’re frustrated because product keeps leaving their store and that [affects their ability] to provide a safe environment for their guests and a profitable bottom line.”

Proactive retailers may view current store safety challenges as an opportunity to further advance the role beyond stocking shelves and ringing up sales, said Weinswig. New tasks like hosting a product livestream for thousands of viewers offsite or offering one-to-one styling tips to online clientele using a limited assortment of merchandise could help make the store associate role more attractive as well as contribute to store safety by allowing retailers to keep less inventory in stores and even reduce operating hours, she noted.

Beyond preventing the organised theft itself, retailers will need to work together to “educate and dispel misconceptions” around store safety both internally and externally if they’re going to attract employees and customers, said Dugan.

“Safety is the number one priority for retailers this season — we’re hearing CEOs talk about this for the first time ever and we’re seeing every major city in the US set up [organised retail crime] task forces,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can.”

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