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Kroger Jumpstarts Collaboration Among Solution Providers

There is no shortage of forums where issues related to loss prevention get discussed and dissected. First, industry events are ubiquitous. There are the big shows that address retail issues broadly and smaller ones that zero in on specific asset protection challenges. Significant ones, like organized retail crime or the supply chain, spur their own associations and groups that hold their own meetings and conferences. More narrowly focused events are also plentiful, if you want to do a deep dive into open-source intelligence investigations, for example. And the number of online seminar invites can clog inboxes.

Additionally, large vendors will occasionally bring together their clients to swap success stories and share advice for getting optimal value from products and services. From a research perspective, the Loss Prevention Research Council (LPRC) enjoins vendors and end users in pursuit of validating solutions and laying the foundation for future LP breakthroughs.

But here may be a new one.

Kroger is the nation’s largest supermarket by revenue, ranked 23 on the Fortune 500 ranking, and only six companies in the nation employ more people. At that scale, it’s natural for the company to have relationships with a who’s who of service providers—Sensormatic, Axis Communications, Zebra, Appriss Retail, and on and on.

- Digital Partner -
Kevin Larson

“We oftentimes find ourselves having dialogues with solution providers, including about how they might work with others, but this was an idea to bring everyone together to have an open conversation about what each does for us at Kroger,” explained Kevin Larson, senior manager of corporate asset protection, transaction monitoring. Kroger’s AP Director Tom Arigi and VP of AP Mark Stinde drove the show, but it was Larson who was tasked with “herding the cats” and pulling off the event.

For one-and-a-half days in late July, thirteen key solutions providers, including a couple going through an RFP process, gathered at a conference hotel to discuss their work with Kroger. “We wanted to get them all together so they could share what they do for us from a shrink standpoint and from a safety and security standpoint,” said Larson.

In addition to vendor presentations, the LPRC’s Dr. Read Hayes guided an ideation session on the event’s second day, using its “zones of influence” model to discuss how the retailer’s various security layers intersect and to brainstorm untapped synergies. The goal was to give everyone a better understanding of the Kroger asset protection ecosystem and to generate ideas how providers might work together to provide even more value for Kroger. 

“We have excellent partnerships but want to get to exceptional partnerships,” said Larson. “The sessions helped map out areas that could be worked on and put it in the hands of providers to takeaway, so they can dialogue with one another and build better solutions.”

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He’s not sure, but Larson thinks Kroger is the first to try this approach. “I’ve never heard of a company doing this before, where they bring all their providers together to strategize on building a better ecosystem.”

Mapping Better Solutions

Read Hayes
Read Hayes

Read Hayes, PhD, CPP, director of the LPRC, identifies five zones of influence where it is possible to apply treatment to impede retail theft. The shelf point/product asset, for example, is the first zone that can be influenced to deter crime. But it expands out from there, into zones 2 through 4—the category area, the interior, and then into the parking lot, and finally zone 5, the public/cyber sphere. The model connects retail security to theft prevention and sales promotion by highlighting how measures in each zone can make “green shoppers” feel more at ease and “red shoppers” more uncomfortable.

The zone model provides a useful way to appreciate the whole of a company’s security posture and to suggest how different components do—and could—work together. During the brainstorming day of the event, providers chimed in to indicate how they thought their solution could help in each of the various zones.

Ned McCauley
Ned McCauley

“This forum lends itself to open discussions around the most acute problems facing the retail market,” said Sensormatic’s Ned McCauley. “Combining this with the LPRC’s framework around zones of influence and applying the scientific method to testing allows for great opportunities to learn.”

- Digital Partner -

The hope was to forge a clearer, more comprehensive picture of the Kroger security puzzle. “We gave them time to reflect and strategize on how the pieces fit together,” said Larson, with the hope that it might catalyze new collaborations that could ultimately benefit Kroger and beyond. “Coming together to collaborate as one team is not only for the betterment of Kroger but also for the industry,” he said.

But how, exactly?

Larson cited a collaboration example from zone 4—the parking lot. One of Kroger’s vendors, LiveView Technologies, supplies solar powered surveillance trailers deployed at 700 stores. They provide deterrence, record surveillance feeds, and keep a close eye on parking areas with 360-degree, pan-tilt-zoom, and fish-eye cameras. Separately, at 1,000 stores, Kroger deploys technology from Gatekeeper that locks the wheels of shopping carts if they are pushed out of a store without going through the point-of-sale.

But what if those two vendors could work together? Maybe the attempted theft of a cart could trigger an alert to the parking lot tower so it could train its cameras on the crime in progress? The companies are trying to figure that out, said Larson, and that kind of real-world, creative problem solving is what Kroger is trying to catalyze more of.

Attendees said main room discussions remained primarily conceptual, but that they may open the door to more creative approaches to addressing existing problems. Most participants were engaged and active contributors to the discussions, said attendees. They also noted that plenty of sidebar conversations took place—and will persist—and that they hold the potential for translating innovative ideas into useful action.

“Be it a people service like we are or a technology company, no one service can sustain a safety or loss prevention program,” explained Frank Camerino at Metro One, a security officer provider. “Technology needs people and people need technology. Now we just need to follow through and put actions together.”

“In terms of breakthrough ideas, I think that comes down to further defining the priorities and the vendor ecosystem necessary to address the biggest problems,” said McCauley. “This is where the LPRC can help validate through test-and-learn programs with fact-based conclusions.”

David Studdert

LiveView Technologies’ David Studdert said he thinks Kroger’s event is a model for the industry and suggested both end users and vendors stand to gain from it. “We tend to get very siloed and lose track of the greater goals in security and safety. Having an open dialogue with other players in the space creates an environment for increased innovations,” he said. “It allows vendors to explore integration opportunities that usually fall away from their core competencies, which can increase the pace of innovation and technology advancement.”

Camerino felt similarly. “It’s great for the industry if we can change the culture of vendors offering different solutions to talk together. We share a common goal and can help one another,” he said, noting that the event sparked ideas for Metro One. “It opened our eyes to how better we can perform with the help of technology. We also see the benefits we can offer to other vendors.”

According to McCauley, that partnership approach was a key value of this unique event. “The big difference between this forum and others was the positioning of solution providers as collaborators and potential partners versus transactional vendors,” he said. “I commend Kroger for their creative thinking and expect the results will come over time as we zero in on the business priorities.”

Reflecting an Evolving Industry

Although Kroger’s event was certainly novel, it was perhaps inevitable, seeming to reflect the burgeoning power of end users, the nature of technology today, and, hopefully, a furtherance of enhancing retail collaboration for the common good.

Retail is as competitive as ever. But there seems a growing acknowledgment that collaborating with a competitor can sometimes be better for both. In the world of LP, it’s evidenced by increased partnering on issues of joint concern, like organized retail crime (ORC) and counterfeiting. At the enterprise level, it’s reflected by the increase in the number of shop-in-shop formats, like Kohl’s plan to add Sephora stores, and other new partnerships, like Home Depot’s decision to utilize Walmart’s GoLocal delivery service for fast delivery of orders to its shoppers. So why not solutions providers?

“We floated a few trial balloons to see, if we tried something like this, if people would be interested,” said Larson. “We recognized that we do have solution providers that are playing in the same space, but we believed it was time to break down some walls.”

When Axis Communications learned of Kroger’s idea, they were all in, according to Hedgie Bartol, LPQ, LPC. “Honestly, I think everyone felt it was long overdue—to sit down in the same room, talk through issues, and educate each other on what we have to offer outside of a sales meeting,” he said.

Hedgie Bartol

Bartol said there is always going to be a need to “protect the secret sauce” but that even competitors may have complementary solutions. “When you start to peel the onion, you find there are ways for many of us to work together.”

That loss prevention is a close community surely helped, and Larson said the reception he got to the idea was overwhelmingly positive. He received several pre-meeting requests to know who would be in attendance and that some attendees had already reached out to other providers before arriving in Cincinnati. “They came locked and loaded,” Larson said.

On-site, attendees seemed fully committed to embracing the goal of the event, according to Larson. “There was no hesitation to be in Company A and presenting to Company B. They knew the overall mission, and they had the attitude of ‘let’s try to come together.'”

While everyone accepted the invitation, it wasn’t always absent reservations. “We were guarded because some of the solution providers are also competitors. At the same time, we felt confident about our knowledge and potential to help solve problems,” said Sensormatic’s McCauley.

It helped, he said, by who was making the ask. “In the case of Kroger, Mark Stinde and team have a reputation for collaboration and rewarding solution providers that think strategically, which made the forum attractive and worth the risk.”

A Hard Shift in Technology

The event reflects a hard shift that technology has undergone toward interoperability and the victory of open standards versus proprietary technology. As retailers and other companies have embraced migrating from an ad hoc security style to a more enterprise-wide structure, their selection and implementation of technology has followed, bending toward off-the-shelf applications and restricting purchases of customized and proprietary security technology. In security surveys of years’ past, end users would frequently cite “lack of interoperability of devices/technology” as an industry problem. Now it’s rare for the choice to even make it onto an industry questionnaire.

“The days of siloed technology are gone, and many times solution providers have technologies that can support one another,” explained Bartol. “I think it’s key to sit down and have an open conversation with one another and share about what you’re really trying to solve. The sum of the whole is greater than the parts.”

Many of today’s security solutions and equipment act as platform technologies—RFID, analytics, video—or else have nodes that allow them to tap into other tools to expand capabilities. This infrastructure connectivity provides building blocks that can be connected and interwoven to create an end-to-end solution.

Still, while APIs (application programming interfaces) facilitate the ability of products and services to communicate with one another, they cost money—and nothing really happens until a customer requires it. Brainstorming is a terrific way to spark ideas, but attaching money to a problem or a priority will always be the fastest way to turn them into concrete solutions.

The blending of the practitioner and vendor community is perhaps another reason why an event like Kroger’s was bound to happen. Asset protection executives are moving more regularly into the sales world, creating even more fertile ground for collaboration.

Rhett Asher
Rhett Asher

“My initial reaction was that it’s a great idea, because retailers have always looked to their vendors as partners and as solution providers, and this is a continuation and advancement of that,” said ThinkLP’s Rhett Asher. “It’s something that has really morphed as more security practitioners have transitioned from the retail world to a solution provider role where they are able to bring a ton of extra value to end users.”

Tony Sheppard
Tony Sheppard

Tony Sheppard, MSM, LPC, is one of those executives, recently joining ThinkLP after nearly two decades at CVS. During his tenure, he says he took joint meetings with a few solution providers, but never the kind of open, freewheeling gatherings like Kroger recently hosted.

For an integrated software platform and information hub like ThinkLP, the more people that come to the table the better, according to Asher. But he sees value across a customer’s vendor base. “I do think it’s a great idea [for end users] to identify synergies between providers and how solutions might come together, but it’s also good for solution providers to have a better understanding of what other vendors do and what possibilities exists for how they might work with you and enhance what you can offer.”

Changing Attitudes on Both Sides

Last, just as retailers have ceded control to customers in recent years, the event may reflect a shifting in the power dynamic between end users and suppliers. “There is the age-old attitude of ‘I own the customer,’ and ‘don’t talk to my customer,’ but Kroger is saying, ‘none of you own me. I drive this boat,'” said Bartol.

But is it for everyone?

Kroger clearly has the size and sway to hold such an event. But could the model work for others? Should other retailers consider gathering its key vendors together to shake hands, discuss roles, and share ideas and forge new alliances?

McCauley suggested that a lot depends on the retailer and its reputation, and whether they have the standing necessary among the vendor community and a history of good partnerships. But being Kroger-size may not be necessary, according to Rhett Asher at ThinkLP, who thinks smaller retailers could also benefit from taking a page from Kroger’s playbook. “From a practitioner’s standpoint, it makes a lot of sense as a way to try and improve your business by getting solutions to work together.”

Bartol agreed. “I absolutely think it’s something that could be beneficial to other retailers, of all shapes and sizes.”

Overall, the first-of-its-kind event was regarded as successful by both Kroger and its vendor participants. “We feel it was an outstanding event, and something that we might do on an annual basis, because the needs of the business are ever-changing,” said Larson.

It held value for participants by illuminating potential synergies and for sparking ideas—as well as for getting people back together.

Although the industry doesn’t lack events, the pandemic has sidelined them for nearly two years. That absence made Kroger’s in-person get together even more enjoyable, and its social aspects a renewed pleasure, noted Axis’ Hedgie Bartol. “It was great to be able to be buddies again, and to again be able to share hugs and handshakes.”

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