While employee safety has always been a priority in retail organizations, the recent increase in violent incidents has brought the issue front and center for LP leaders, even becoming the number one concern for many. Of those who answered LPM’s Violence in the Retail Workplace Survey, approximately 60 percent said they had witnessed an incident of workplace violence within their company in the past year. Providing more details, 23 percent of survey respondents said they were a victim of verbal assault, 14 percent said they were a victim of physical assault, 10 percent said they were the victim of bullying or emotional assault, and 3 percent said they were the victim of a sexual assault.
“In the past seven months, I have had to investigate the shooting death of an employee on our sales floor, the shooting of a guard that was hospitalized for several months, and countless assaults on our employees and guards by people who believe they are entitled to steal from our store without being approached,” one survey respondent candidly reported.
“Incidents involving shoplifters are growing in terms of risks to employees interacting with individuals with malicious intent,” said another. “Many weapon-related [incidents with] pepper spray, verbal, and even physical abuse of employees continues to grow.”
The evidence of this increase in violence is all over the news as well, with outlets across the country—and even across the pond in the UK—reporting on incidents of retail employees being violently attacked daily.
“Employee safety has always been a number one priority, particularly among loss prevention professionals, but in recent years not only have we seen an increase in gun violence, but also in aggression relating to shoplifting and ORC groups,” Amanda Hobert, president of the Metro Area Organized Retail Crime Alliance (METRORCA), told LPM. “Additionally, we’ve seen flash mobs, robberies, and even weather-related safety concerns. I think the pandemic’s impact on the economy has created a situation of desperation for many who turned toward these behaviors to survive. Many retailers have a hands-off policy when it comes to stopping an offender, which unfortunately most of them know and take advantage of.”
While the idea of ORC groups causing this uptick in violence has been debated by some, other LP professionals we spoke with affirmed this belief.
“Recently we have seen many ORC groups escalate to more violent behaviors and involve the use of weapons in committing crimes,” said Chad McManus, chair of the Georgia Retailers Organized Crime Alliance (GROC). “As criminal groups become more brazen, the safety of employees is increasingly at risk. Over the past two years, there has been an increase in physical assaults on store associates, and assaults on employees using weapons.”
Others were quick to point out that it’s ORC combined with the pandemic and changes in law enforcement policies that has created the perfect storm responsible for the increase in retail violence.
“Employee safety issues have been consistent since I started in the industry [in 1995] but there was a dramatic uptick in 2020 following the COVID-19 pandemic and policing reform topics the country faced,” said Marty Andrews, vice president of loss prevention at VF Corp. “The pandemic was a catalyst for erratic behavior to become more acceptable as customers wanted to state or show their opinions on COVID, social distancing, and mask requirements. Then ORC increased dramatically, so the magnitude of incidents compounded with the violent nature and fearlessness of repercussions has heightened safety concerns.”
Julie Giblin, vice president of loss prevention and safety at Ulta Beauty, added that safety priorities in retail have shifted from traditional workplace safety to a more holistic approach that includes associate health, wellbeing, and a culture of care which extends beyond the workplace. The pandemic cued a significant shift in how our industry cares for the health and safety of associates, whether in stores, distribution centers, offices, or working remotely.
“Today, retailers are facing new challenges such as aggression and violence in and around the workplace, heightened ORC activity, the impacts of a global pandemic, and associate experiences at home which can impact the workplace,” Giblin said. “Today’s news is different. We are all seeing more displays of aggressive behavior, intimate partner violence, suicide and self-harm, and tragic mass shootings across our country in public spaces like malls and shopping centers than ever before.”
The threat of active shooters alone is a marked difference from LP concerns of the past.
“Active shooter threats are a concern now more than ever, not just in stores, but in any communal venue or event,” McManus said.
According to the FBI, active shooter incidents in 2021 surged by more than 50 percent from 2020 and nearly 97 percent from 2017. Of these, the two shootings that caused the most casualties happened at workplaces. A shooting at the FedEx Ground Plainfield Operations Center in Indianapolis in April 2021 and a shooting at a Kroger in Collierville, Tennessee in September 2021 both resulted in fifteen casualties.
The FBI has yet to release its Active Shooter Report for 2022, but it’s expected to be even more devastating, as incidents of shootings, especially in retail establishments, were prevalent in the past year. In May 2022, a 19-year‑old killed ten people in a racist mass shooting at a Tops Friendly Market in a predominantly black area of Buffalo, New York. Two separate Walmart stores also saw mass shootings in the past year. One was carried out by a manager who opened fire on employees gathered in a break room in Chesapeake, Virginia the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, killing six people. In Evansville, Indiana, a former employee opened fire and critically wounded one victim.
“Active shooter threats are one of the biggest things that are top of mind for myself, as well as a question I am confronted with regularly: Are our teams ready? Do they know how to respond?” Andrews asked. “Active shooter situations are an impossible situation to provide comfort on. People struggle with the simplicity of whether to run, hide, or fight. All active shooter situations are unique, and in the moment, you must decide which one of the three options you are going to take while also recognizing you may be forced to pivot from one option to the other.”
Active shooter training is no doubt a necessity for any retail organization in 2023, but Andrews isn’t the only one worried it might not be enough should an incident happen.
“I’m sure that almost all large retailers have implemented active shooter training for their employees at this point, but if we have newer employees in our stores who are less versed on these procedures, it can have an adverse effect on everyone in the building,” Hobert said.
This touches on another factor adding to the perfect storm of retail violence: the labor shortage. And while this was an issue across most industries during the pandemic, few suffered as dangerous of consequences as retail.
“Worker shortages were something I think all companies navigated during the pandemic,” Andrews said. “The pandemic caused turnover and experience levels dropped. With less experience in the stores, training becomes a priority, but nothing can replace real life experience on handling safety issues and concerns. With that there is a curve to regain that experience.”
Amanda Hobert cited this labor shortage as just one piece of the domino effects the pandemic caused.
“With employees stretched thin among stores and departments, it makes it easier for our ORC subjects to take advantage of the situation and get away with large quantities of merchandise,” Hobert said. “Again, most of these subjects are aware of our hands -off policies and are aggressive if approached, even from a service standpoint. We also have very green employees in our stores still learning safety best practices and protocols, which certainly impacts overall employee safety.
“Overall, the pandemic made us all react to safety challenges we haven’t faced in the past,” Hobert added. “As we attempted to overcome each concern, new ones arose, like a domino effect.”
What Can Be Done?
It’s clear that LP professionals are finding it harder than ever before to keep employees safe. But what are retailers doing to tackle these challenges? It varies.
“We track all incidents and are continuously evaluating where we are having issues and concerns,” Andrews explained. “Our employees’ and customers’ safety are always going to be our guiding light. Everything we focus on is not putting anyone in harm’s way. Our techniques are on de-escalation. We are also utilizing more third‑party security then we have ever had in the past. In certain locations this is a requirement to support the business.”
“We’re leveraging several new innovative technologies, and have revised our shoplifting policy and de‑escalation training,” said Ben Dugan, executive director of organized retail crime and corporate investigations at CVS Health.
Julie Giblin said her team must take special considerations with 92 percent of their employees being women.
“While we are not a lesser gender, we are more readily targeted or at risk in many of these dangerous scenarios,” she explained.
Another consideration is that, because Ulta Beauty has proudly promoted thousands of associates into management roles, the organization has many first-time managers on staff who may not have been previously exposed to workplace violence, aggressive behavior, shoplifting, or ORC. Because of this, they may not readily recognize the signals that a coworker is experiencing something harmful outside of work such as pressures with school, family, and relationships. Giblin said that women are more likely to be victims of violence, especially intimate partner violence, which can impact workplace safety.
“Ulta Beauty continues to invest in health and safety training, technology, and a comprehensive workplace violence prevention program led by a cross-functional team in partnership with workplace safety consultants and experts in crisis management and threat assessment,” Giblin said. “Every company should have programs in place—not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because the foundation allows for evolution as culture shifts. This pushes companies to stay relevant and ensure they are reflecting employee needs and workplace realities of the moment.”
Many retailers are also turning to new technologies to help them solve these complex challenges. Dugan said his team is using subject identification tools, product protection devices, time delay safes, and more.
Andrews said he’s always evaluating options and looking for the best strategies to keep employees (and customers) as safe as possible.
“I am someone that is never satisfied until a problem is completely rectified,” he said. “We are not there yet, so I will be open to any and all options and truly appreciate out of the box thinking.”
For some, recent advancements in artificial intelligence and technologies like face matching and body-worn cameras might be the answer. But with any technology, Hobert reminds retailers that training is key.
“I’ve read of some businesses exploring the idea of face matching technology to prevent safety incidents, but I don’t think there’s any specific technology as much as the utilization of the technology where we have to ensure our employees are trained correctly and effectively,” she said.
The Power of Partnerships
Strong partnerships are also crucial in the fight against ORC and keeping employees safe.
“Having a relationship with your local police department, landlords, mall offices, and neighboring retailers is a critical component to helping with safety,” Andrews said. “I am seeing more cross-collaboration and concerted efforts to work together to tackle safety issues we are all facing.”
Dugan said that CVS Health even introduced local ORC positions to maintain these relationships.
Most states also have Organized Retail Crime Alliances (ORCAs) where they can connect with other retailers and find support.
“GROC was founded on partnerships and the sharing of information to keep our stores, consumers, and communities safe,” McManus said. “Throughout the pandemic we have continued to hold our annual conference (albeit virtually) and monthly intel sharing meetings. Sharing trends, identifying suspects, and the exchange of information among retailers is vital in the fight against ORC. We are stronger together and are all working toward the same goal.”
METRORCA, which provides support to New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, shares information about violent offenders and more with its members. Law enforcement, Hobert says, is another important source of information on safety risks.
“Having the knowledge that certain offenders may be violent is very crucial to our safety,” Hobert said. “A lot of this intel comes directly from our law enforcement partners, as they understand the challenges we face in retail. As for other connections, [we need to support] each other. There have been countless times that I’ve learned from another retail partner that a specific group or subject is violent, which in turn ultimately helps to keep our employees safe.”
Legislative efforts could also help to ease retail violence. Multiple states have already passed laws that enforce stricter punishments for shoplifters, especially those who become aggressive toward employees or customers.
“It is my belief that until there are consequences for these criminal acts that are happening in our retail locations, we will not see a change,” Andrews said. “Without the support of the local police departments and prosecutors, we are left with all bark and no bite on these issues. It is going to take collaboration of retailers voicing the same concerns and demanding change. If this does not happen, we will continue to see retailers closing their doors for the simple fact that they are not profitable and cannot operate a safe environment for their employees and customers. The fact that we are seeing this happen and businesses openly talking about losses impacting overall profits is a step in the right direction, but it is going to take more to move the needle.”
Will This Violence Just Grow Worse?
With rapidly increasing inflation and a recession potentially looming, it’s easy to wonder at just how much worse retail violence could become, especially if more strict legislation doesn’t pass on a national level.
“The issue is going to continue to grow unless we see changes,” Andrews said. “The problem is not going to go away, and I see it just gaining more momentum. We must get effective policing and laws that punish crimes, and are then upheld by the prosecutors. We have been rapidly heading in a direction I never imagined we would see. The efforts must start immediately.”
Some retailers disagree that inflation and economic pressures increase ORC and violence in stores, but Hobert believes there is a mounting sense of desperation among people as a result of the pandemic and the deteriorating economy. “I don’t know if [this desperation] will grow worse, but the tide might take a while to change,” she said. “In unprecedented times, retailers have pivoted quickly to respond to the challenges we’ve all faced. With employee safety being one of those challenges and a top priority, I think we’re all in a sturdy position to prevent it as best we can.”
McManus is also confident that retailers are taking the necessary steps to assuage the retail violence epidemic. “We are seeing a trend of increased violence, and with eyes wide open, retailers are proactively responding and putting measures in place to ensure a safe workplace and secure environment for customers,” McManus said.
When it comes to ORC and retail violence, it seems that most retailers can agree on one thing: the only way we can beat these issues is to work together.
“We strongly believe in the power of partnerships with retailers, solution providers, and law enforcement agencies,” Giblin said. “And most importantly, we believe we are better because of the consistency and rigor we bring to operating as a people-first company. To win at ORC, the entire industry needs to work together, sharing learnings and insights along the way. Our hope is that in doing that, we can deter this behavior for all stores and all cities.”