Retailers have always been intimately connected to the communities they serve. From the days of the general store with the potbelly stove where pioneers gathered to discuss the weather and harvests, retail has been the center of most communities. Retailers have supported Little League teams by buying uniforms or putting signage on the fences. Retailers have donated food and clothing to homeless shelters. Retailers have played an important role in local schools.
Today is no different. Retailers offered COVID-19 vaccinations. They took the lead in managing pandemic‑related response, providing safe ways to shop for essential products and services—this despite the growing challenges of homelessness, organized retail crime (ORC), civil unrest, and active shooter incidents.
Through all this, asset protection organizations have been at the center of retail’s response and crisis management of these challenges. Here are two examples of AP’s leadership responding to the needs of their communities that were presented at the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) Asset Protection Conference on April 26, 2022.
Providing a Safe Harbor
Late in 2021, an active shooter event took place at a location just a tenth of a mile from a Meijer supercenter, which ultimately became a refuge for several of the individuals who were present at the site of the shooting.
Meijer is a regional supercenter based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with more than 250 stores in the Midwest. The privately held and family-owned retailer’s stores range in size from about 150,000 to 200,000 square feet. The company’s mission is to enrich the lives of the communities they serve as reflected in the words of the cofounder Fred Meijer: “I want to leave the world in a little better shape than when I entered it.”
Paul Jaeckle, LPC, is the vice president of asset protection for Meijer and was at the corporate headquarters that day when their remote operations center began getting calls about a heavy police presence in the area and the possibility of an active shooter incident unfolding. Within fifteen minutes of these reports, the Meijer store began receiving several hundred individuals fleeing the site of the shooting and looking for safety.
“Now, mind you, the store is open. We had customers inside the store. And now we have a very vulnerable population coming inside looking for a sense of security and safety,” Jaeckle related. “So, what do we do? Do we lock down the store? How do we manage the store team? What do we do with our customers in the building? These were all things we were faced with to maneuver through this situation.”
Despite having hundreds of thousands of items inventoried in the store and essential services from gas station to pharmacy to food, the Meijer team relied on their mission to serve the community to make decisions. “In that particular moment,” Jaeckle said, “nothing mattered beyond providing a safe harbor for those individuals.” They closed the store and safely escorted their customers out and back to their vehicles.
At the same time, he explained, they didn’t know exactly what to expect going forward. The police response was focused immediately to the location of the shooting. There was no way to know if the shooter might join the fleeing individuals coming into the store, creating a threat to everyone. Some Meijer team members had loved ones who were present at the location of the shooting, which presented another management issue. The corporate team was faced with making rapid decisions based on fast-changing and incomplete information.
“We had a group of individuals looking for safety from juveniles to adults, some without their guardians present. They didn’t understand what’s happening. And they were looking for some sense of structure and safety,” Jaeckle said. “On the back end, we began to have law enforcement on the property asking those who fled to the store to write statements, asking them to help recreate what happened during the shooting and leading up to it. How did that all play out? What did you see? Where were you?”
He added, “That’s a really big piece when you think about those of us in retail. How many of our cashiers are trained to be able to facilitate a situation like this almost as a counselor? We don’t train for that.”
While Meijer had an active shooter playbook and trained their associates on team safety and securing the store, this situation brought to light a number of aspects that go beyond traditional active shooter training. According to Jaeckle, one of the more important learnings from this incident was that the first steps for recovery, in terms of reunification and the mental healing for the community, begins with the decisions made during the incident. “If you make a misstep there, you hamper the ability for the community to begin to heal. For us, that was a really important aspect. I would challenge every retail team to think about that differently,” he said.
Another learning moment involved the role of the remote operations center in helping manage the situation. “We had one of our coordinators on the phone with our store director for essentially the four hours from the time that we had the first individual arrive at the store until the time that the last individual was picked up and reunited with their family,” he explained. The coordinator walked the store director through what to expect and when and explained what the next things were to prepare for. This coordination helped position the store leader as someone in charge, maintaining control of how the store team reacted to the situation.
This communication link with the store also helped headquarters with feedback to understand what the store team needed or didn’t need at the moment. Asked about counseling, the store director explained that the store team, who was still in a state of shock themselves, needed to stay focused on helping the individuals reunite with their families. Counseling should come after the intensity of the event was over.
“I must say that our team members in the store that day truly understand the importance of what it means to be able to support their community. They did an unbelievable job,” concluded Jaeckle.
Asset Protection Outreach
In recent years, local law enforcement throughout the country has experienced greater demands on their officers due to increasing theft and violence, civil unrest, mental health issues, and homelessness, compounded by tightening budgets and shrinking resources. Coupled with many states who have raised the felony‑theft threshold, this has impacted police response to shoplifting and other retail theft activities. Every LP organization has likely experienced calls to police that are either not responded to or are delayed sometimes hours before law enforcement arrives at the store.
This situation prompted Target’s assets protection team led by Oscar Arango, LPC, vice president of AP, to look at this problem and determine what, if anything, they could do differently to minimize the number of calls to police. They asked themselves, “Why is our first response to call police, even if the situation isn’t really that serious? How can we handle situations in the store that are not life threatening or serious criminal incidents differently to resolve the situation without engaging law enforcement?”
Arango explained that the team reflected on what their company culture stood for at Target. “Our purpose at Target is to help all families discover the joy of everyday life. That’s what our values, our culture stands for,” he said. “So, we asked ourselves if we were living those values with all the guests we engage when they walk in our doors. It was a moment of realization that, no, sometimes we make things worse.”
Given that Target’s guests may be living with stresses in their lives—be it caring for a sick loved one, going through a divorce, struggling at work—a negative interaction with Target employees or AP team members can compound the stress and escalate to difficult situations. This led leadership to determine how to create training programs to mitigate bias and equip their store teams to better handle situations encountered in stores every day that would demonstrate to their customers that Target truly cares for them as members of the greater community. This led to a role they call Asset Protection Outreach Coordinator.
“The whole goal of this position is to create an outreach program within local communities. We’ve put them in specific markets and will continue to grow the program going forward,” Arango said. “Their sole responsibility is to connect with that community, find resources, and create a personal connection so that when they see these frequent guests coming into our stores that are struggling with something, there are resources for them. And then they train our teams on how to engage with those guests.”
Arango shared a story as one example of how this program has proved successful. A young woman was observed shoplifting food and other commodities for a second time in one of their stores. Their outreach coordinator happened to be in that store and could tell that something was wrong with the situation. The coordinator stopped the woman and told her, “I don’t care what’s in your bag. I just want to know if you’re okay.”
The woman responded by telling the coordinator that she became homeless following a divorce and was living in a homeless encampment where she had been assaulted several times. She was shoplifting because she had no way to pay for food to eat. She opened her bag and gave back all the food and merchandise she had taken, which included items from other retailers.
The outreach coordinator told her he could connect her with an agency that could help her find a safe shelter in the community. The woman returned a few days later to tell the coordinator that, indeed, she had found a safe place to stay and that her daughter could visit her now because she was in a more stable environment.
“That interaction could have gone completely different,” said Arango. “We could have put her in a much worse situation.” Acknowledging that there are many really bad situations that occur in stores where this kind of interaction would not be appropriate, he added, “But there are also a lot of things happening in our stores that we don’t know about that if we just switch the way that we engage our guests, we can really end up in a positive outcome.”
This outreach program has created a cultural shift within the Target AP team that is moving away from categorizing people as either good or bad. Now if someone is outside a Target store asking for handouts from customers entering the store, rather than calling police, a Target employee will engage with the person in an empathic manner to see if they can help the individual. Arango called this “leading with humanity.”
He explained, “This hasn’t changed how we mitigate theft. We still go after organized retail crime. We still have to keep people safe. We still have to protect the reputation of Target. But how we do that can make all the difference in the world.
“I think if we can all collectively think about how we can do things a little bit differently, while spending our energy and resources on those really bad guys by identifying, investigating, and resolving ORC, everything else can really make a difference in the communities that we serve.”
Contributing to the Greater Good
The past few years of the COVID-19 pandemic and social and political unrest have put a new light on the role of asset protection organizations. While the traditional responsibility of reducing shrink and stopping theft will continue to be part of the AP role, customer and employee safety and protecting the brand will have greater emphasis. How asset protection and retailers connect and engage with the community will continue to grow in importance.
Does this mean that AP is going soft? Arango acknowledged that there will always be people attracted to the loss prevention industry who want the adrenaline rush of stopping a thief who is pushing a cart of merchandise through the store exit. But both he and Jaeckle believe that the majority of AP leaders understand that their teams need to have a more compassionate attitude toward customers and have a broader vision of how to contribute to the business and the greater good of the community.
Corporate responsibility, community engagement, and diversity, equity, and inclusion are not necessarily in asset protection professionals’ titles. But AP teams have often trailblazed new paths within the retail enterprise. This will likely be another example of how loss prevention and asset protection organizations continue to find ways to provide added value and play a more significant role in the retail industry.
This story was originally published as a part of LPM’s Summer 2022 Issue.