Brand Protection Requires a High Bar for LP’s Business Partners

Sponsored by The Zellman Group

Many characteristics comprise a retailer—products, price, customer service, store design, and more. Nothing, however, has a more profound impact on potential customers than how they feel about a retailer. What the name evokes. The impression it gives. Simply put, a retailer is its reputation.

Unfortunately, while it can take a retailer substantial time, effort, and money to craft the image they want, minor missteps can do it damage. One perceived wrong move could reverberate endlessly in the echo chamber of social media.

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Loss prevention plays a critical role in reputation management. How theft incidents are managed can either enhance or harm the view that community members have of a store. For example, large retailers that have chosen to rely on local law enforcement to respond to minor shoplifting incidents have found themselves the subject of criticism by local politicians and police and attacked mercilessly in the press.

The same potential exists when partnering with a civil recovery firm. The ethics of some civil recovery programs have come under fire recently, making it critical to partner with a firm with a strong reputation for ethics. The Zellman Group (Zellman), a loss prevention services firm and leader in civil recovery for the retail, food service, and hospitality industries, has made ethics a cornerstone of its business for 20 years, according to attorney Michael Ira Asen. “Stuart and I set this up to find an alternative to the business practices being demonstrated in the industry,” he said. Asen and CEO Stuart Levine developed the Zellman Civil Recovery program.

“Our competitors are not as risk averse as we are,” said Asen, who has an AV Preeminent rating from Martindale-Hubbell, one of the highest professional ratings available to practicing lawyers in the United States. “We look at the practice from the perspective of the retailer and put ourselves in our clients’ shoes. We don’t want to do anything that reflects badly on them.”

The risks are real. As noted, retailers have had their reputations sullied because of the business practices of unethical recovery firms. The possibilities for negative consequences include: legal problems; bad publicity; and antagonizing individuals who might otherwise become valuable customers, including the shoplifter and his or her family and friends.

One key to Zellman’s success—and its ability to get money for retail clients without the reputational risk—resides in part due to its ability to locate the elusive “sweet spot” in civil recovery. “We are able to find that sweet spot between fair recovery and treating people honestly and not too aggressively. We don’t go overboard,” explained Asen. “We extend our professionalism and our experience to every case we handle, and in that way we’re able minimize the level of antagonism.”

The experience Zellman brings to clients is substantial. Michael Ira Asen has over 40 years in legal practice. Stuart Levine has 20 years of retail loss prevention experience, including executive positions at Lord & Taylor, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Limited Brands, before he started the Zellman Group in 1997. Lauren Bridgeo, vice president of operations at Zellman, also brings LP experience to the benefit of clients. “Stuart and I are former retailers, so we have a long history of being in their shoes,” she said. “I can speak the same language with them when they have a concern or a question, and I am sensitive to what their needs are, what they’re looking for, and what is driving them—because I have been there.”

Bridgeo says that transparency is another aspect of the ethical model to which Zellman is committed. The company uses technology—novel in the industry—to provide clients with visibility at any given time into: the cases the retailer has brought to Zellman; where each case stands with respect to collection; and all data relevant to cases and restitution. It’s a level of access unmatched by other civil recovery firms, according to Bridgeo. “Retailers have told us that the ability to see what’s going is a big deal for them,” she added.

The ethical approach that Zellman follows requires not only a commitment to the client but also to the shoplifting offender. “We treat the subject with the same level of professional competence we extend to the client,” said Asen. “We’re not strong-arming these people or gouging them for every dollar. We’re after an objectively fair result, fair compensation, and always treat the subject with the utmost dignity.”

Done fairly and ethically, civil recovery is a socially beneficial strategy, according to Asen. It doesn’t clog the courts, allows retailers to be more proactive (rather than simply absorb massive losses from accumulated shoplifting theft), and often puts offenders on the right track. In fact, statistical analysis of Zellman data suggests that recidivism rates are competitive with—or may even exceed—figures touted by restorative justice programs, according to Asen. “Civil recovery is straightforward, and based on the kind of behavioral cues that we all get from the time we’re born: you do something wrong and there are consequences,” said Asen. “And then you remember it that it cost you something and you are less likely to do it again. It’s a time-honored process.” Additionally, while a San Francisco Superior Court judge recently ruled that one company’s restorative justice program violated the state’s extortion and false imprisonment laws, civil recovery has been challenged multiple times over 25 years and survived each challenge, according to Bridgeo.

For every retailer, protecting its hard-fought reputation is critical to business success—and it is something that is perhaps more important now than ever before. For LP, this fact raises the importance of partnering with businesses that are committed to protecting that good name. Get in bed with a firm that behaves less than honorably, and a retailer runs the risk of paying a hefty price. This is especially important with respect to civil recovery, in which ethics of some firms have been called into question, and indicates the imperative of finding a partner capable of hitting that “sweet spot.”

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