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12/02/2021

The Art of the Steal: Part 2

Many customer theft issues can be resolved with good customer service.
Roy Strasburger
President of StrasGlobal
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c-store customer theft

In my previous column, I talked about employee theft. According to the 2020 NACS State of the Industry report, store “shrink” (which includes theft and breakage) averages about $12,700 per store per year. And 33.2 percent of that is due to employee theft, according to the 2018 National Retail Security Survey published by the National Retail Federation.

Although customers account for about the same percentage of theft as employee theft (33 percent), it is talked about much more because it tends to be more sensational (who hasn’t heard about a grab and run beer heist?), and it gives everyone someone else to blame. Even in a case of an employee stealing the merchandise, they will blame it on the customers.

Many customer theft issues can be resolved with good customer service. Unfortunately, you’re not going to be able to stop those individuals who are determined to steal from you because they are desperate, under the influence, or doing it for a dare. Sadly, that’s just part of the cost of being in the convenience store business.

As with employee theft, it is important to have a good understanding of how bad the problem is. Keeping good records on sales, purchases, deposits, credit cards, etc., remains necessary to stay on top of the situation. Only by knowing the problem can you come up with the answer.

Hello, How Are You?

Our most effective tool for shoplifting and theft prevention is good customer service. The more a team member interacts with the customer, the less likely it is that something bad will happen. People will not do bad things if they think they have been identified or can be described to authorities.

We encourage our team to greet everyone and look at each person who comes in the front door. Recognizing them as an individual gives you the advantage in this game. Someone with bad intentions doesn’t want the attention and won’t complete the act.

Face the Music

Keeping the shelves stocked and fronted allows you to see where a product has been taken. If the product is gone and you didn’t see someone pay for it, then you know it has been liberated from your store.

Fronting and facing the shelves should be one of the duties on every shift. It may make a thief think twice before taking the item and, if they do, you can more easily spot it to take precautions in the future. 

Every Picture Tells a Story 

Video cameras can help, though they seem to be more effective with employees than customers. However, they are a great way of investigating product losses and can help you identify repeat offenders. Once you’ve identified the suspect, you can keep a closer eye on them if they return to the store.

In stores where we have excessive theft, we might do daily inventory counts in the most affected areas, in addition to frequent cigarette counts, to narrow the timeframe when the stealing is taking place. This gives us a better indication as to which shift video we need to watch to try to pinpoint when the actual theft occurred.

I Can See for Miles

As with greeting and looking at them when they come into the store, making the customer feel that they are being watched as they walk through the store is a great, and inexpensive, theft deterrent. This means the person on duty needs to be able to see down all the aisles and into all corners of the store.

Ways to do this are to keep shelving gondolas low and place promotional signage in such a way that it doesn’t become visual obstacles limit the number of hanging signs; keep displays and their signage at a height that doesn’t block the view lines; and place all signage, where possible, parallel to the shelving so that it does not clutter the view. 

In some of the stores we’ve remodeled, we’ve raised the floor behind the counter (as well as the counter itself) to give the person on duty a higher observation point. It’s like having a watch tower in the store. 

Keeping the store neat and tidy, and removing visual obstacles so that you can see the whole store, is very important.

The Man in the Mirror

I’m not a big believer in security mirrors. I think thieves use them to watch the employees, so they can see when the staff is distracted and then take advantage of those opportunities. It becomes a tool for the criminal. 

However, if you have an area in your store that is a complete blind spot, you may want to investigate using a mirror possibly in combination with a video camera.

Safety Dance

Always merchandise your high-value items, and whatever are the most popular things that people like to steal from your store, either behind the counter or in areas that are clearly visible from the checkout counter.

You don’t want to prevent your customers from accessing the products, but you do want to let them know that the merchandise is being watched. Once again, the more visibility there is of the product, the less of a theft problem there will be.

Let It Go

I hope this goes without saying, but if there is a theft at your store, do not try to stop the criminal yourself. It is a matter for law enforcement. You do not want to get yourself, or your employees, hurt. You also do not want to incur any liabilities associated with trying to stop someone who is leaving the store or from chasing them down (assault and battery, false imprisonment, etc.). It is frustrating and feels completely wrong, but you just need to let it go and be prepared for the next time.

The most useful prosecution tools, in addition to having recorded clear video, is to have height markers on the doors so that you can tell the authorities how tall someone is, and a good incident reporting system that allows the person on duty to quickly give a description of the offender and the details about what happened as soon after the event as possible while it is still fresh in their mind.

If a large theft of product or cash takes place, we try to prosecute the perpetrator if we can identify them. We all know that police departments are currently overstretched and don’t tend to deal with smaller issues such as shoplifting, but the easier you make the police’s job and the more professional and complete you are in your reporting of the incident, the police may begin to respond if you start reporting multiple incidences. (And don’t forget to give free coffee and fountain drinks to uniformed first responders.)

As McGruff used to say: “Only you can take a bite out of crime.” It’s your store. You need to be responsible and do as much as you can to keep your employees, your store and yourself safe.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News

About the Author

Roy Strasburger is CEO of StrasGlobal, a privately held retail consulting, operations and management provider serving the small-format retail industry nationwide. Read More