NATIONAL REPORT — Convenience store chain Stewart's Shops recently closed an Albany, N.Y., store following a surge in theft, robberies, and verbal and physical assaults, which created an unsafe environment for customers and employees, and an unsustainable business environment.
"We pride ourselves on being part of the fabric of the communities we serve, and we worked closely with Albany Police and City of Albany officials in attempt to resolve concerns at our Manning Boulevard shop. The safety of our partners and loyal customers remains an issue at this location," Stewart's Shops President Gary Dake said in announcing the closure.
This is not an isolated incident. Since 2020, Pennsylvania-based Wawa Inc. has shuttered several convenience stores in the Center City neighborhood of Philadelphia — a decision made following a rise in safety concerns within the city. A Wawa store in Northeast Philadelphia was ransacked by a large group of juveniles, causing thousands of dollars' worth of damage.
"Despite reducing hours and investing in additional operational measures, continued safety and security challenges and business factors have made it increasingly difficult to remain open in these two locations," the c-store chain explained in October 2022 when it closed stores at 12th and Market streets and 19th and Market streets in Center City.
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In the convenience channel today, retail crime, violence and theft are impacting the industry at unprecedented levels. National crime statistics from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) showed that robberies alone increased 1.3% across the country in 2022. Looking specifically at the convenience store industry, c-stores and gas stations combined were the site of 13.8% of robberies that year. According to the FBI, 4.5% of all reported violent crime in 2022 took place at a gas station or convenience store.
The National Retail Federation's "2023 Retail Securing Survey" reported that the average shrink rate for the 2022 fiscal year increased 1.6%, up from 1.4% for the 2021 fiscal year. When applied to NACS' 2022 "State of the Industry" data, where industry dollar sales were calculated at $906.1 billion, this represented a c-store industry loss of more than $40 million every day.
The Why Behind the Crime
Industry experts point to a myriad of factors as to why retail crime has risen in the last few years. By and large, inside shrink tends to rise when economic times are difficult.
"When people are concerned about their economic welfare, they tend to be more interested in taking things out of the store because they see it kind of as being a victimless crime," noted Roy Strasburger, CEO of StrasGlobal, a privately held retail consulting, operations and management provider, and cofounder of the Vision Group Network. "[Their mentality is] they're stealing from a big store that makes a lot of money. They think, 'I'm going to take some things off the shelf and nobody's going to notice, or nobody's going to care at the end of the day.'"
But someone does notice. A recent survey of 1,000 U.S. consumers commissioned by Bazaarvoice and conducted by first-party data company Dynata found that 46% of shoppers experienced or witnessed incidents of customer theft while shopping, and 66% experienced or witnessed fewer items in stock due to shrinkage.
This can negatively impact business as theft and shrinkage incidents influence customers' decisions on where to shop. Survey respondents said they avoid certain stores due to these concerns (20%) and they are more cautious in their choice of stores (24%). Interestingly, nearly half of respondents (46%) think price increases are directly associated with retail shrinkage.
In the face of these statistics, convenience store retailers should take a multipronged approach to mitigating potential crime. The best first line of defense is to provide comprehensive training to employees that includes prevention and safety measures, as well as guidance on how to respond if a robbery occurs, Tom Hart, director of business development and marketing for Ready Training Online (RTO), told Convenience Store News. This training should take place early in the onboarding process, ideally in an employee's first three to five shifts.
"The worst thing you could do with new employees is have them be surprised by an incident that never occurred to them. You would think it'd be second nature to consider a circumstance that can occur working with the public, but it's not," he said.
"People might walk into a convenience store and think, 'Well, that looks like a really easy job.' It's not. There's a lot of responsibility you have to take on. You're watching the fuel pumps at the same time as you're watching the back of the store, all as you're gauging how old a customer is to purchase an age-restricted product. It can be challenging."
RTO, a full-service learning management solution, offers an extensive convenience store-focused content library that is comprised of short, engaging performance-based training modules.
"It's important that critical areas like age-restricted sales of alcohol and tobacco, harassment, safe lifting, robbery prevention and safety overall aren't being done on the 10th shift an employee is working because it could happen on their first," Hart cautioned.
Operational training and keeping an orderly store can deter theft as well, according to Strasburger, who believes that one of the best measures convenience store operators and their store employees can take against shoplifting is ensuring shelves are stocked properly and items are front-faced so that it's obvious when something is taken off the shelf.
Some other simple measures are keeping windows clean, so nothing obstructs the line of sight to outside the store; making sure displays are where they're supposed to be and keeping aisles clear; and checking that surveillance cameras are functioning correctly.
The Role of Technology
Having the right connectivity and the right network is the lifeline of a convenience store, especially when it comes to theft and crime, noted Carl Udler, senior director of marketing for Hughes, a provider of managed service and networking solutions.
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"From transactions to customer experience to employee experience, c-stores need to align their business goals with secure managed broadband and network services, managed Wi-Fi and digital media services. Using technology to support the business — not for the sake of using technology, but in a way that it fulfills the business requirements to thwart theft — creates a good customer experience and keeps the store safe," he said.
One way to leverage technology and connectivity to mitigate crime or theft is displaying real-time video of customers as they shop. Setting up a camera in a high place can effectively let customers know they're being watched in a way that doesn't interfere with their shopping experience. This kind of connectivity gives employees visibility and awareness of what's going on in the store and the surrounding area. They can be trained to know where the camera screens are and where to keep a close eye on things.
"It can be a very good experience if employees know they're in a safe environment," Udler said, pointing out that employees should know the processes that are in place by having proper training on how to do different activities within the store.
"Keeping employees up to date and trained — and having that reinforced through digital signage — shows employees they're valued and will lead to reduced turnover," he added.