8 Tips to Protect Profits during the Back-to-School Rush

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When asked which shopping season brings the highest amount of theft, most retailers identify the time around the winter holidays—no surprise there. But what may cause a raised eyebrow is just how many retailers say they have an even more troublesome season for shrink. More than one-in-five retailers—21 percent—say they experience more theft during the back-to-school push than at another time of the year according to the Global Retail Theft Barometer 2013-2014 survey. It’s a matter of traffic, of course. As the average footfall increases, so does the difficulty of efficiently deploying loss-prevention solutions. It’s also about opportunity, as shoplifters take advantage of stocked shelves and employees’ divided attention, and crooked workers capitalize on lax hiring practices.

The 2016 back-to-school season is looking good for retailers. The average family is expected to spend more freely on school supplies, according to the annual survey by the National Retail Federation (NRF). Total spending should reach $75.8 billion, a healthy bump from last year’s $68 billion. But whether or not theft puts a dent in those sales figures depends on retailers executing loss prevention strategies as well as they administer back-to-school promotions.

Any increase in theft this season will be tough to absorb, as sluggish retail sales in 2016 has increased competition for the consumer dollar. And the growth in smartphone apps that help shoppers compare prices adds to the pressure on margins. Stores simply cannot afford to cover losses due to shoplifting this back-to-school season.

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So what should you do? Retailers should make sure their existing loss prevention programs and shoplifting prevention strategies are ready for the back-to-school rush, and there are also some unique seasonal issues to address. Here are eight tips to consider:

1. Coordinate. Loss prevention should be an open-minded partner to non-operational departments and help them craft strategies to maximize the profitability of sales promotions. For example, when a back-to-school promotion includes exclusive discounts for teachers and students, loss prevention should review it for the possibility of discount fraud and abuse. “After all, students keep their IDs after they graduate, and teachers keep their IDs after they stop teaching,” noted a former NRF asset protection advisor. Examine all promotions to recommend appropriate technologies, services, and processes that will help protect profits while maintaining an excellent customer experience.

2. Educate. Your loss prevention policies, practices, procedures, and responsibilities should be reiterated in storewide meetings to prepare staff for the back-to-school rush, such as your requirements for processing returns and what to do if an associate suspects shoplifting. Remind staff that the increase in shopping traffic will also bring an increase in shoplifters, and analyze your store’s internal data to notify staff of high-theft items and areas and current fraud schemes of which to be particularly vigilant. The more informed workers are, the more confidence they have to question sketchy transactions and confront unusual behavior.

3. Prepare. With the holidays on tap, back-to-school is a good time to review whether you’re using the right technology to secure your store and the merchandise thieves are most apt to target. Audit systems to ensure they’re in good working order, enforce daily testing protocols, and consider increasing deployment of security tags on merchandise that is most likely to be targeted during the back-to-school season. In a recent survey published in the Journal of Interior Design, when asked about security measures that deter them from stealing, expert and novice shoplifters alike most commonly cited formal surveillance, product positioning, and security tagging. Following these top three security measures were employee positioning, access control, and store layout.

4. Smile. Loss prevention strategists should examine how they are involving store employees in the theft prevention effort. When employees are part of the process—via acts as simple as verbally acknowledging customers—the affect is dramatic. Back-to-school is a perfect time to reiterate the value of customer service as a loss prevention tool, by employing a greeter to handout sales circulars, for example. Shoplifters want to remain anonymous, so any engagement with staff can push them toward the exit in search of a softer target. Helpful engagement also improves the experience of honest shoppers.

5. Protect. Ensuring that merchandise ordered online for store pickup is protected and available for your customers when arrive to pick it up is critical during the back-to-school rush. More than half of all back-to-school shoppers (53.7 percent) will take advantage of online ship-to-store ordering this year, according to the NRF survey. A bad shopping experience can do serious harm to your reputation with shoppers, which will likely linger into the upcoming holiday season just around the corner.

6. Notify. Keeping the theft prevention message in front of employees is critical during the back-to-school “shoplifting season,” especially as it risks getting lost amid a focus on sales or employees’ post-vacation distraction. But it’s also an opportunity, according to Dr. Read Hayes, author of the book Retail Security and Loss Prevention and director of the Loss Prevention Research Council. “Because sales events such as back-to-school drive staffing levels, printed materials such as posters, brochures, paycheck stuffers, etc., keep the LP message before current employees,” he writes. Remember that loss prevention is “competing” with messages from sales, operations, human resources, and others.

7. Maintain. Stores that hire temporary workers to handle the back-to-school rush should not skip pre-employment background screening. Annual retail surveys consistently reveal that dishonest employees are the biggest cause of retail shrinkage, and part-time or temporary workers have been found to be less hesitant than their full-time, permanent counterparts to steal merchandise. The University of Florida’s Security Research Project found that shrink increases right alongside an increase in the percentage of part-time/temporary workers. Always do a criminal background check at a minimum and consider taking steps to limit the theft opportunities of new hires and part-timers until they prove themselves, by restricting their access to stock rooms, cash, and business checks, for example. While temp workers pose a threat, so does being understaffed. Plan staff scheduling to ensure that your sales and security workforce will be sufficient to keep up with the back-to-school traffic.

8. Clean. In order to send a message to potential thieves that you’re keeping a close eye on inventory, stores should devise a plan to maintain clean shelves and aisles. Back-to-school sales can create a housekeeping nightmare with bargain bins and increased children in the aisles. Also, review your store layout to make sure that back-to-school display items haven’t obscured sightlines that are critical for keeping an eye on customers. Keeping wide, open aisles with long lines of sight can be as valuable a surveillance tool as CCTV.

Back-to-school has long been associated with both excitement and dread among students of all ages. Make sure that your associates have time to study your loss prevention and safety policies and practices to ensure that your stores experience the excitement of a successful and safe shopping season.

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