No One Winning Approach to Loss Prevention Culture

“I have worked in loss prevention for a number of years now and recently joined a new company. At my new company, I have grown a little frustrated over what they claim to be effective loss prevention strategies. They don’t seem to know what they’re doing. While the company likes to give the illusion of having a strong LP presence, there is no loss prevention culture to speak of, and it’s just about impossible to get things accomplished or have the type of impact that we should have.”

Does this sound familiar? It should. For anyone who has been in retail loss prevention for any significant length of time, it’s probably something that we’ve heard repeatedly. In fact if we’re being honest, it’s likely something that each one of us have voiced ourselves at some point in our careers. Having spent many years in executive search and working as a loss prevention career consultant, I interviewed thousands of loss prevention professionals working for just about every retail organization that has a loss prevention department in this country. Yet regardless of the particular organization, there are always those who think they have a better way to get things done. While it may bruise an ego or two, there isn’t a single leader out there that hasn’t been criticized at some point by members of their own team.

The individual that forwarded this message provided some additional details and thought it would be a good subject for an article. I believe it is—but perhaps it won’t be the particular message that they were expecting.

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It has always been common to hear “at my previous company we did things this way…” or “where I used to work we did things that way…” from the occasional new hire when they come on board. And our response? “You no longer work for that company—you work for us now.”

That response wasn’t about stifling ideas or discouraging a new or different way to accomplish our goals. Rather, it was about breaking down rigid perceptions and seeing things in a different way. It was about opening eyes to a different approach to loss prevention. If the loss prevention professional isn’t receptive to changing the way that they do things, there’s very little chance that they’re going to be successful in their new company. In fact, lacking the ability to adapt, there’s very little chance that they’re going to have long-term success in loss prevention as a career.

In many ways this is expected. We are all products of our own environments and will tend to fall back on the things that we know and the ways that we’ve learned. Our professional identities are largely shaped by our professional experiences, and we often fall back on what is familiar and comfortable. Often the comments are made with the best of intensions. But we always have to remain open to new and different possibilities. And while we often associate this practice with a particular career level, it can—and does—happen at every level of a professional career.

Establishing a Culture

How do we go about establishing the loss prevention culture within a particular organization? What makes a particular strategy successful? This is the challenge that loss prevention leadership must face on a regular and consistent basis in the retail setting.

Retail organizations are extremely diverse. It’s fairly simple to recognize the differences in the way that we might have to approach loss prevention in a grocery store versus a department store, or a department store versus a specialty environment. With the physical and organizational differences in the stores, the sizes and structures of the staffs, the products and store resources, and other philosophical and practical variables, the loss prevention needs and strategies quickly stand out. But there are many other factors that will come into play, and each much be addressed by loss prevention leadership in order to establish a successful program.

The products sold will factor into the loss prevention culture. In a clothing-based retailer, for example, a retail shrink of 1.5–2 percent may be considered acceptable. However, a retailer that primarily sells electronics will be dealing with products with much lower profit margins. In this case, a 2 percent retail shrink number could potentially put them out of business. Tighter inventory controls, physical security, audits, cycle counts, and other measures may be more urgent in this type of retail setting, which can dramatically change the approach of the department, the way that budgets are allocated, the size and responsibilities of the loss prevention team, and other key departmental decisions.

In other situations, safety can play a much bigger role. While safety is always a concern, a warehouse-type retailer with merchandise stacked twenty-plus feet off of the ground will have heightened concerns. Grocery stores must deal with issues such as Freon, meat cutters, spills, and even concerns such as insects and pest control. Quick service restaurants must deal with fryers, grills, and other food-related concerns. In the home improvement world, retailers must deal with propane, fertilizers, splinters, lifting incidents, and a host of other issues. Robberies are a much larger issue in some retailers, while controlled drugs may play a role in other organizations.

Looking at a different perspective there are other influences that may be less visible but more important, even in companies that appear very similar. Company history, the overall company culture, the influence and cooperation of other departments, budget constraints, supply chain management, seasonal and geographical issues, leadership philosophies and objectives, and a host of other factors will play a part in the approach of the loss prevention department.

Naturally, departmental leadership will influence the approach of the department as well. The director and vice president of loss prevention will consider their own approaches, experiences, and backgrounds when determining the way they want to lead the department. They will gather information from mentors and colleagues. They will stand on the shoulders of those who came before them, learning from mistakes as well as victories in order to build upon these lessons. They will consider departmental dynamics, available talent, professional backgrounds and experiences, their own skill sets, and many other tangible and intangible considerations when making these decisions.

All of these influences and many others will come into play when determining the approach of the loss prevention department, and this only scratches the surface. It’s not a simple matter of determining whether the loss prevention department will focus on investigations, audits, or catching shoplifters. When asking the question why we do things this way, a flood of answers may come to mind.

Carrying the Message Forward

Once these decisions are made, it’s then the responsibility of every member of the team to carry out the mission and vision of the department as determined by loss prevention leadership. While individual team members are typically provided certain leverages in carrying out those duties based on positions, skills, abilities, responsibilities, accountability, creativity, and other factors, there is still an immediate and unwavering need to fulfill the objectives of the program. This is absolutely essential to building a winning culture and ensuring that every associate in the company takes ownership of the loss prevention program. If we are having difficulty getting the buy-in of the store teams or if we believe that there is a problem with the way a particular approach is managed, maybe it’s best if we look in the mirror first. A little information can be very dangerous, and these decisions are rarely as simple as some may think.

Every day we look at all things digital and how these different factors influence the incidents and events that take place in the retail setting. We look at the criminal element that’s involved, the situations as they unfold, the decisions that are made, and how the evolving role of loss prevention impacts every one of these circumstances in the retail setting. Ultimately, the role of loss prevention is to enhance the profitability of our companies, just like every other role in retail. In loss prevention, this requires a collaborative approach and a shared effort from the entire team. The approach may be different. It may not be one that we are accustomed to or understand. But that doesn’t mean it’s not the best-possible approach for that particular department.

There’s no one winning loss prevention culture. Every program is different—and it’s different for a reason. A constructive evaluation of our loss prevention program is a healthy and positive thing. However, that evaluation should take place with an open mind and a much broader perspective. This makes us much better at what we do and makes our departments that much stronger and productive.

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