Neighbo(u)rly Perspectives: Mitigating Retail Violence in the US and Canada

Welcome to the first of our six-part Neighbo(u)rly Perspectives column. Here we’ll share insights and best practices around key loss prevention topics from our experience working with retailers in the United States and Canada. The first topic we’ll explore is retail violence, looking at how retailers in both countries are experiencing it, and some of the evolving technologies and practices that retailers are using to deal with it.

Recent Bump in Retail Violence

Retail violence has increased significantly in both the US and Canada in the past few years.

According to the National Retail Federation’s 2023 Retail Security Survey, 88 percent percent of retailers reported that shoplifters are more aggressive and violent compared with one year ago. And those that specifically track the number of violent shoplifting incidents reported that they saw their number of shoplifting events involving violence increase by over 35 percent on average.

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The Retail Council of Canada reported that retail-related violence is on the rise there too, with offenses against retail staff, security personnel, and customers rising 150-200 percent between 2019 and 2022.

No retailer is immune. Convenience stores, fast food restaurants, grocery stores, and malls are likely targets. Any type of retailer can experience in-store violence with perpetrators ranging from unstable or angry individuals to organized retail crime (ORC) gangs.

While the health and wellbeing of workers and customers is of the utmost concern, business sales can be impacted too. Large retailers are closing stores in major US cities, in part due to increased violence against workers as well as substantial losses from theft.

Factors Shared Across the Border

Retail violence is a reality on both sides of the border, and while the scale of retail violence may be bigger in the US, many underlying factors are similar in both countries. The increase in ORC is particularly troubling. These operations know how to exploit local laws and steal goods in quantities that remain under the felony dollar-amount threshold. For them, retail crime is a business opportunity with few penalties and little risk. Rising costs in general are also putting a strain on people and driving them to act more boldly and aggressively.

Staffing constraints are a factor in both countries. Police departments and first responders often need to do more with fewer resources, and petty crimes such as shoplifting are sometimes not prioritized. This emboldens recidivism as well as escalation to more violent crimes. Retail staff shortages are widespread too. To keep valued workers out of harm’s way, they’re often trained to “do nothing” when they spot a theft. These policies help avoid violent encounters but also embolden thieves.

Innovative Security Approaches Can Help

Retailers often add video surveillance or security guards as threat levels increase. Video can be used as a training tool to help employees learn how to deescalate a situation. However, these tried-and-true deterrents aren’t always enough to combat retail violence.

Likewise, keeping merchandise such as personal care items in locked cabinets isn’t feasible with short staffing. Standard operating procedures (SOPs) based on threat conditions of the past may not help solve new problems associated with retail violence. Retailers in the US and Canada are turning to technologies that can increase real-time situational awareness, deter criminal acts, gather evidence, and enhance collaboration with local law enforcement.

  • Real-time situational awareness: A unified security platform integrates a range of technologies from a single command center, giving stores the ability to identify and respond to threats faster. For example, a unified platform can combine video from various sources like automatic license plate recognition (ALPR) or body-worn cameras equipped with real-time analytics for detecting known suspects or vehicles, which may signal a crime is about to occur. Unified security platforms can also include automated SOPs to put emergency plans into place instantly, such as notifying employees and law enforcement.
  • Modern deterrents: Self-checkout stations in the US and Canada are an increasingly common target for criminal activity. Weight sensors and overhead cameras connected to a unified security platform can alert staff to irregular activity and speed responses. Body-worn cameras (BWCs) are also being tested. To enhance employee safety, provide real-time visual awareness of situations or escalations, and provide visibility where fixed security cameras aren’t present. Early feedback indicates that these benefits are being realized by the stores testing them.
  • Evidence gathering: Retailers are being encouraged by law enforcement to bolster evidence gathering and collaborate with other retailers to bring down large ORC theft and fencing operations. Modern security systems with cloud-based storage and sharing capabilities can easily meet those needs. More retailers are using ALPR systems to monitor and track vehicle information. ALPR systems help identify criminals whose license plates are on a hotlist when they enter a store’s perimeter or parking lots. And to manage the massive amounts of video and data retailers are finding digital evidence management systems invaluable. These systems also support collaboration with law enforcement agencies, attorneys, and the public.
  • Private and public collaboration: Security technology that integrates with local law enforcement can produce crime fighting partnerships. For example, a major US city has partnered with multiple retailers in a specific area that had repeated robberies and violence. Those retailers installed real-time camera connections that are visible to the police department’s real-time crime center. This aids in threat assessment and early dispatch, giving responding officers visibility into emergency situations. Active programs to recruit police officers, along with a national approach to prosecuting retail crimes, can also strengthen crime prevention.

Making Stores Smarter and Safer

A retailer’s top priority is to keep its employees and customers safe. Technology is one tool that helps US and Canadian retailers mitigate retail violence. A multi-layered approach that includes unified security platforms, sophisticated real-time analytics, and private-public collaboration can help, while also protecting a retailer’s employees, customers, and brand.

Scott Thomas is the US National Director, Signature Brands at Genetec and a member of the LPM Advisory Board. Nada Ebeid is the Canada Regional Director, Signature Brands at Genetec.

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