EDITOR’S NOTE: Art Lazo is vice president of asset protection at 7-Eleven. He has held various operational and loss prevention roles at other retailers including Toys“R”Us, Home Depot, Circuit City, and Sears Holdings as well as retail consulting companies.
JIM: As the VP of asset protection at 7-Eleven, what keeps you up late at night?
ART: Safety and security because with the amount of locations we have and the amount of transactions we complete, the opportunity for different things to occur in our store environment is immense. The safety of our employees, the safety of our franchisees, and the safety of customers that come into our stores is really top of mind for me, and it is the thing with the most impact that we must deal with.
JIM: At 7-Eleven, does associate safety and customer safety take a greater realm of responsibility than shrinkage?
ART: Absolutely. I think in any of the roles that I’ve had in my career, I’ve always been responsible for safety, security, cash handling, and, of course, shrink and loss control. With this role, that whole safety and security piece is far and away number one, and how we mitigate those situations and how we support the stores and our employees is top of mind for my directors and the AP team out in the field. It is usually the first thing we talk about when anybody in my organization has an audience with operators or franchisees.
JIM: With that in mind, would you say that crime is on the upswing? If so, what would you attribute that to?
ART: We have definitely seen crime on an upswing since the pandemic, dependent on what part of the country you’re in. We saw increases in a lot of the urban areas, like Chicago, Manhattan, LA, Dallas, even as some of the store traffic went down, we saw incidents go up. For a while, as we went through 2020 and folks generally were not out, we saw a dip in incidents, but the severity of those crimes was up.
JACK: Going back to store safety and security, are there any specific technologies you can talk about that you use for identifying known criminals, or someone carrying a weapon?
ART: We have tested and used many technologies with varying success in the past and currently in our stores. Suspect identification and threat detection are included in some of the things we have tested and continue to explore. In many of our robberies, cigarettes are included in what gets taken from the store, so we have been using GPS packs that are put in cigarette packaging that has provided a lot of success. We’ve even expanded that to cash packs, which I didn’t necessarily think would be effective, but using GPS in a cash pack has been very effective for us as well.
When it comes to the other technologies within the CCTV, we’re looking on expanding. We’re always upgrading our camera systems to higher resolutions, more memory, or more retention. We’re also looking at other ways to be less conspicuous about some of the safety and security features at a store.
We’re also testing a product right now that is a totem that stands out in front of the store. It has cameras on it and screens and can communicate via cell—either calling a monitoring center or a roaming patrol. It can monitor dwell times on the front apron when we’re looking at folks that are loitering, and it can alert or help the store operator manage the situation going on outside. It’s also a bit of a disruptor. We are testing some of these devices currently, and it’s only been a few weeks, but we’re already getting a lot of good feedback on them.
JIM: In our July-August issue of the magazine, we included you in an article devoted to store communications. You’ve done a lot of work on that and instituted some new programs. Can you talk about how that came about and the value of that digital program?
ART: As we went through 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic set in, being an essential business, we had folks out in the stores, and franchisees supporting their communities. We started a daily call, and it was a cross-functional call with everybody—operations, logistics, asset protection, human resources—and we were discussing all the different issues that were coming in from the field. One of the things that was identified as we were dealing with physical security issues in the stores is that because we did have some stores that were closed while other stores stayed open overnight, one of the issues was how to better communicate with nearby stores when a store had a critical incident occur, whether it was a robbery, or anything else that could potentially make its way to a neighboring store. Born out of that was the thought process of using the technology that we already had in stores.
That article [“Getting the Word Out”] featured our Seven Alert program, which is an automated process that as calls are made into our asset protection hotline when an incident occurs in a store, a notification to nearby stores is automatically sent out to the handheld devices used by store associates for ordering, very much like an Amber Alert would go to a cell phone.
JIM: Have you been able to determine how effective it has been?
ART: The feedback has been very positive, and folks are saying, “yeah, we can iterate this.” Right now, we’re tweaking what that range should be for the notification. When we were doing the manual alerts, we would only have time to communicate with five, maybe seven, stores. But with this digital system, we can automatically get a 10-, 20-, or 30-mile radius, and notify every store within that range.
JIM: All your programs serve both company-owned and franchise stores equally, correct? What’s the split on company-owned and franchises?
ART: With the acquisition of Speedway, we have about 6,000 corporate stores and 8,000 franchise stores.
JIM: In terms of safety or crime, do you treat franchises differently than company-owned stores?
ART: No. Our interaction with the franchisees is to consult and support their operations. When it comes to security, we work together daily on identifying and addressing issues together. We actually have a subcommittee of franchisees that works on how we can bring more awareness to safety and security issues, test programs, enhance training, and better get the message out to franchisees on how to effectively deal with the safety and security issues in the stores.
JIM: Did asset protection play a role during the Speedway acquisition?
ART: Yes, and it’s still going on today and will continue to happen over the next few years as we bring these businesses together. Really, we looked at how Speedway addressed asset protection, safety, and security at all levels—how that all matches how we do things, and then coming away with what our program will be moving forward. It’s really an opportunity to take the best of both worlds and see what they were doing that would work really well, apply what we’re doing that we think would work really well, and coming away with the best-case scenario between the two programs.
JIM: You have one of the most state-of-the-art (no pun intended) command centers in all of retail. How does it work? What do you focus on? What do you see as the overriding benefits of that command center?
ART: We took the opportunity to centralize a lot of what we do from both investigation and business-continuity perspectives. At the Central Investigation Center, we monitor social media and have a software platform where we monitor business-continuity things like hurricanes, fires, or civil unrest, which helps us understand where all of our assets are, and if, for example, we have a hurricane that’s bearing down on the Eastern Seaboard, we can see where it’s projected to land, and which operation zones could be impacted. Then we start our process of notifications for conference calls where we get all the different functional groups together to talk about preparation, what we’re doing during the event, and then recovery afterward.
Also, within that Central Investigation Center, we do a lot of investigations of the regular incidents that happens in the stores, often supporting law enforcement. During times of civil unrest, we will use the screens that we have to identify and support stores that need video surveillance or review during things like any riots or severe weather where personnel may have left the store.
There have been occasions where we’re monitoring stores, and somebody comes through the windows, or there’s a weather event that damages the store. We can identify things like that from the video and get the right support out there to deal with any issues. It’s really kind of the heartbeat and support for the organization.
JIM: It truly is a store support command center, wouldn’t you say?
ART: Absolutely. That mentality of store support is really what we continue to reinforce here in Irving, Texas, making sure that everyone understands that everything we’re doing here is to support the team out there on the field.
JIM: Are your people in the support center and corporate offices still predominantly working from home offices?
ART: It is currently kind of a hybrid situation. About 60 percent of the team is here working at the store support center, and the rest are either fully remote or doing a hybrid schedule where they come in once or twice a week. I give a lot of credit to the organization as a whole for being able to work through an environment where you had to make such big adjustments. I think we as a company learned a lot going through that process, and that will forever change how we look at the business, and how we look at the roles that support the stores.
JIM: You’ve been very proactive in developing LP technologies and different programs at 7-Eleven. Which of these are you most proud of?
ART: One is our Operation Chill program, which has been in place for a long time. One of the things that I stress with the field team is our engagement with local law enforcement, particularly through these last couple years with everything that’s happening in the world. We fully support our law enforcement partners, and we in asset protection will act as a conduit to bring folks together. When I came into this role, I wanted to really emphasize the need for establishing and maintaining strong local partnerships with law enforcement. The field team has accountabilities associated with how consistent they are in having quality meetings with the agencies that serve the communities we operate in.
Operation Chill is what we call the free Slurpee coupons that we give out every year to law enforcement so they can take those and go interact with people in the community. They give coupons for free Slurpees to kids that they see doing good things, like helping someone or wearing a helmet while riding their bike. Our law enforcement partners love it, and we get great feedback. Operation Chill is something that continues to evolve, but it is one of the key programs that we use.
Another thing we have done to support law enforcement and our stores, is created a centralized way to deal with all requests for video or other information to support an incident investigation. The Central Investigations Center responds to thousands of requests a year to quickly provide video support to law enforcement.
JIM: Were there any unusual or significant lessons that you learned from the pandemic?
ART: Some of the things COVID-19 helped us understand was that, as a business, we had the ability to move way faster than we’d been moving beforehand. In terms of decision-making and addressing issues, we got much more agile. I had mentioned earlier that we were involved in these daily calls on supporting the field, and that gave an opportunity for the zone vice presidents to bring up any issues they were having. There was so much emphasis on solving issues that the decision-making process was much faster. Now that we’ve demonstrated that we can act with that speed, it’s something we want to continue to do.
The other thing that came out of COVID-19 was the importance of teaching, training, and talking about de-escalation. I see a lot of folks in the industry really trying to land the message of how to de-escalate situations. There’s a lot of emotion out there, whether it’s politically or locally within a store. You have customers on both sides of any given issue, and we have folks out there that are trying to work in stores who are dealing with some of this conflict. It was a very challenging environment to work in, and I think landing that message was one of the things that worked out very well, and it is something we continue to drive within our training and communications program.
JACK: How do you try to manage loitering and homelessness in and around your stores and parking lots?
ART: The loitering and vagrancy issue is a huge challenge. We do use some technology in dealing with that, whether it’s music or noise devices, which can have mixed effects. But then sometimes those don’t work, because depending on where the store is situated, our neighbors could be impacted by loud noises or other things we’re using to deter folks from hanging out on the apron.
I think back to our relationships with law enforcement, coupled with our desire to drive awareness around de-escalation. In areas where we have law enforcement that will go and interact by the store and have a general presence, we see much better results. It’s a very challenging area of the business, and something that we’re consistently looking for other ways to help manage.
JACK: A few years ago, credit card theft at fuel pumps was a hot topic. Is that still an issue?
ART: Skimmer activity is something that we still deal with. Not all areas have been able to make the switch over to EMV [chip-and-pin] as quickly as we would like, so we do still see that pop up in certain areas of the country. We work very closely with our management to find ways to continue securing the pumps, and we’re hoping that gets better here very soon as we continue to upgrade equipment and upgrade the security around the pumps themselves.
JIM: Let’s back up a bit and talk about you personally. How did you get started in loss prevention?
ART: I got into retail just out of high school. My first real job was with Toys“R”Us as a store employee. My original goal was to get into law enforcement and become a police officer because I was interested in the problem-solving aspect of solving crime. Along the way at Toys“R”Us, I went through the ranks and got into management. One day I ran across a person I knew that worked for the company and had keys to everything in the building. I asked my manager who he was, and he told me it was the “loss prevention guy.” It just clicked that this might be something I would really be interested in doing.
I continued my career growth in operations, moving from store to store within the company. One day I went to deal with a loss prevention issue where I suspected an employee was stealing video games. I called the LP guy and sat through my first LP interview. I didn’t have any solid evidence, but I knew exactly who it was based on some circumstantial evidence. I presented what I had to the LP person, and he offered to have me sit in as the witness. He didn’t seem too concerned with my lack of evidence. Watching that process and how that worked, and to see this suspect then admit to a huge amount of theft, I just thought it was very cool. At that point, I was sold. I was going to be in loss prevention in some way.
Mark Stinde was the person who conducted that interview. I conveyed to him my desire to get into loss prevention, and within a couple of years I got my first opportunity to join the team and move into this industry.
JIM: Besides Stinde, is there anyone else you would describe as a personal mentor for you?
ART: I would say that a lot of my leadership style I get from my father. He worked in management most of his career, and the way he led folks was more with a quiet strength, and that’s what I always strive to do. The Chief Administrative Officer Rankin Gasaway, who I report to now, has really helped me in the last couple of years as I grow as an executive. One of the things he mentioned to me once that really resonated with me was that our role is often to absorb chaos and return order. That comment really put into words what my approach has been my whole career.
Throughout my career, people have said to me, “How are you so calm when you hear about a serious incident?” My response is that no matter what my reaction may be, we still have to deal with what we have to deal with. That’s a power that I always like to strive to have and to convey to those who work with me, and to provide that to the folks that we support, whether it’s operations, HR, or anybody else. When something is presented to me or my team, I want the organization to know that we’ll be able to handle it, provide good direction, provide good support, and be the calmest group in the room.
JIM: Thank you, Art, for your time with us. Best of luck to you and the team at 7-Eleven. I think it’s time for me to have a Slurpee.