Prepping for the Holidays

Challenges, Strategies, and Combating ORC

The holidays can be hectic. Not only are they chaotic for consumers, but for retailers, too. Around the holidays, organized retail crime (ORC) and retail theft increase due to various reasons. Financial hardships in providing gifts, expensive items on display that are tempting to steal, criminals feeling they blend in better as more people are out shopping, and more. Ultimately, the surge of ORC and retail theft not only causes losses for retailers, but disturbs financial industries, inflicts physical harm, and impacts employees’ emotional well-being.

ORC is on the rise. Violence in retail stores is becoming more common, and the consequences for victims and retailers can be severe. It is always important to be conscious of safety in retail stores, even more so as things start to heat up during the holiday rush.

Through all this, the professionals of LP work hard to execute tactics and strategies to prevent loss as efficiently as possible. Understanding appropriate preparation, effective planning, and common ORC schemes better equips retailers for a more successful holiday season.

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The Ramp Up

Rick Beardsley

Retailers’ experiences with holiday preparation regarding asset protection vary. Many businesses start prepping as early as July. Along with many other things, an aspect that contributes to the difference in the holiday prep time frame per store is how big an impact ORC has on that store. The holidays are also a busy time for organized retail crime, it’s important stores are prepared. We want to take the appropriate steps to keep stores safe and profitable. Senior Director of LP and Safety for At Home Rick Beardsley said, “In terms of the real holiday rush, it’s a much more compressed season; we start about a week before Thanksgiving, and it gets really busy.”

He also notes that to help prepare employees for the upcoming holiday season, training programs that emphasize good hiring practices, strong communication, enhanced security, and both employee and customer safety often take place as early as July. “We do all the basics like everyone does; we implement training related to seasonal things that occur more often, like till- tappers, physical security type of things that could happen around the register, and more. We do a lot of awareness around those things as part of the holiday rush.”

Employee asset protection training has evolved drastically in the past decade. Several years ago, if you witnessed someone steal and walk out of the door, you could walk up to them, apprehend them, and bring them back inside. However, things are different now as safety priorities have changed, and the violence involved with ORC is worse than ever.

Keeping the Focus Where it Belongs

Joe Laufenberg

“Around the holidays, we’re not doing any work that’s going to put any of our stores at risk by adding things to the network, such as asking for resources from the stores to test something out, or implement a new program. So, if we are planning on implementing something, we’ll look at the calendar and decide when the best time to do so is,” said Joe Laufenberg, senior director of asset protection at Skogen’s Festival Foods.

He notes that if they want to implement something new, they typically do so after the holiday rush, when they can focus on the project and customers simultaneously instead of during the holiday rush, when their main focus is customers and not putting extra strain on employees.

To decrease the overwhelming number of ORC incidents that occur each year, employee training is crucial—especially around the holidays. Having done thorough training not only can prevent loss, but minimize violence and, in extreme cases, even death.

“Training is pushed to our employees on a daily basis, and we encourage our team members to go into our training platform daily. Five minutes a day pushes the training they need to have for that day,” Beardsley said. “We ramp up our two-huddle-per‑day topics around safety and loss prevention during seasonal time.”

Appropriate training gives employees the confidence they need to respond properly during an incident.

“The frequency of the day‑to-day incidents our team and associates are experiencing is now escalating at a faster rate than I have ever seen before. So, for us, making sure that constant communication and that training is happening is vital, to make sure they’re prepared for those scenarios,” said Laufenberg. “Right up until the holidays, our job as asset protection is to equip our associates—equip them to do the job, to have the knowledge to support all the asset protection initiatives. And when we get to the holidays, that’s a time where you must just sit back and trust all that work is going to pay off, and the team is going to be equipped to handle whatever comes.”

Communication

Another critical aspect of effective planning when it comes to LP, is clear communication. Having an ongoing, flowing form of communication not only helps employees day-to‑day but allows LP teams to implement the best possible practices. “There’s a ton of communication from our support teams. They take all the notes from last year and previous years and apply all that knowledge to this year. We have morning huddles, and we have a huddle for every shift. Every associate attends, and they talk about what they need to be prepared for that day, and what’s coming up in the week,” Laufenberg said. “We really focus on taking care of the associate during the holidays. It’s a time where so many of our team members are going through a lot of stress in their lives. They’re being asked to do a lot of things for us, and they’re trying to manage a lot of things at home as well. So, we talk a lot about self-care and keeping things fun. We have corporate chaplains that go around to the stores, just to keep a pulse. Our stores are the busiest they’ve ever been, and our labor is not like it used to be. So, we must take care of our team members to make sure that they’re able to serve our guests.”

Leaping the Hurdles

“At At Home stores, gift card fraud has always been a significant problem,” says Beardsley. “But especially during the holidays. Often, criminals will steal merchandise, return it to the store they’ve stolen from, and then receive a gift card. This type of ORC is common at At Home. And as we prepare for the holidays, it is stressed in our training programs. As a result, our employees are better able to handle these situations in the appropriate manner.”

“We know who they are. We know their bank account. We know lots of stuff; we’re working with Homeland Security. The criminals are doing a refund, and they might not even go outside before they do so. They might just walk right up to the register and (request to) refund it,” Beardsley added. “That’s why they try to make a purchase as quickly as possible. I always have somebody on call; we turn off gift cards left and right. If the perpetrator does a refund, and we can prove it, we turn the gift card off.”

This form of fraud has become more prominent over the past few years, especially as transactions become more digital, with cash payments generally becoming less frequent.

“Holidays bring a unique set of challenges,” Joe said. “We see more gift card fraud around that time. Obviously, there’s more gift cards being purchased, but we put an emphasis on testing our controls around the holidays, making sure that all the restrictions and security settings we have around our gift card sales are in place.”

Gift cards aren’t the only challenge during the rush, of course. Preventing theft can be an intimidating process and takes repetition for associates to become more comfortable with it.

“It’s all about prevention. You want to approach the suspect before they conceal something. What we’ve been focusing on is teaching our teams what to look for and, when they see it, how to address it in real time,” said Laufenberg.

Many retailers teach their associates to assume the customer has a positive intent, and to never approach someone in an accusatory manner. If you approach a customer in the act of stealing with good customer service, they will most likely walk away from their scheme thinking they won’t get away with it.

Progressing with Technology

Technology can prevent loss better than ever. Organizations must prioritize using appropriate, high-performing technology to minimize ORC and theft, especially around the holidays. But sometimes, using the technology you already have can be sufficient.

“We’re not using any new technology specifically for the holiday rush. We’re just using the technology we already have in a different way. Or, in a more expensive way” said Beardsley. He touches on the importance data has in LP and making sure companies can access the data they need to prevent loss.

Another benefit of technology is that it may not have bias the way humans do, leading to more accuracy.

“We use cart containment systems at the higher-risk stores. Around the holidays we see cart-walkout theft occur more often,” said Laufenberg. “Another tool we use is our temperature monitoring system. We monitor all the food temperatures—especially around the holidays, where you have product stock levels that are higher than normal. We keep a close eye on our temperatures around the holidays to make sure we’re not losing product.”

Self-checkout theft is also a bigger issue around the holidays, though many solutions to the dilemma are being implemented in stores.

“We see a lot of walk-offs during the holidays, for example at the self-checkouts where there’s phantom scans of credit cards, and they’ll walk off with a cart full of groceries for free,” Laufenberg said. “Training attendants for self-checkout is vital to make sure that one: We have the right number of staff watching over them, and two: They’re aware of what to watch for. Additionally, if they do see something, understanding how to handle it in a guest-friendly way and correct the issue is crucial.”

Taking advantage of what technology has to offer is vital in our rapidly evolving society. As technology advances, progressing with it can offer benefits in preventing loss, and providing the accurate data you need to plan your next steps.

The Journey Ahead

Skogen’s Festival Foods has a “see-something-say-something” system, and the results it has generated have been remarkable.

Laufenberg said Festival Foods takes an associate’s photo after proper action has been taken and creates a short story about what occurred. Incidents occur often, so these bits come out every day. What Festival Foods has found is that sharing associates’ real‑life stories and experiences not only helps to minimize loss but encourages others to speak up and report, creating a positive snowball effect.

Prepping for the holiday season requires thorough planning and training ahead of time. There are a variety of different aspects that need to be taken into consideration when preparing for holidays: employee training, hiring practices, enhanced security, both employee and customer safety, and more. Ensuring this holiday season is a safe one begins with clear communication between asset protection teams and associates, all while taking full advantage of available technology. Understanding your risks and assets is imperative to a successful holiday preparation process.

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