After hearing loss prevention leaders describe recent efforts to enhance the security of their stores after closing, it becomes immediately clear that the long, delicate dance between burglars and security continues.
There is change, certainly, such as in the drivers of nighttime risk, with organized gangs, the opioid crisis, ATMs, and enhanced residential security raising the threat of retail store break-ins, and in the increasing availability and affordability of tools to protect stores, including remote video surveillance, more robust locks and other physical protection, and better overnight visibility through more feature-rich alarm or access control systems.
But while risk and security have both evolved, the push and pull between opposing forces seems the same as it has ever been. Burglars look for retail victims that have what they want and offer a way to get it; LP executives button up their stores enough to dissuade them within strict financial confines.
This is why LP stories offer useful instruction. They indicate how retailers balance protection and budget; what LP leaders are selecting from today’s security menu; and what they’ve found useful—or not—to thwart nighttime adversaries. While any LP case study necessarily relates to a retailer’s specific threats, risk, and vulnerability, they all suggest avenues for beating overnight criminals to the punch-or at least countering their schemes more quickly and efficiently.
It’s vital intelligence because in the dance to protect stores after they close, it’s better to lead than to follow.
Where Do We Stand?
Unfortunately, as an industry, retailers might currently be on their back feet. FBI data indicate that while residential homes have never been safer from burglars, the same is not true for retail stores and other commercial establishments.
Perhaps as a result of the availability and popularity of Internet-connected home security technology, there was a substantial 7.1 percent drop in residential burglaries in 2016, the latest year for which law-enforcement data is available. But it’s a different story for commercial businesses, of which retail establishments have the highest burglary rates, along with office-park suites and single office buildings. In 2016, burglary of nonresidential properties, such as stores and offices, rose by a substantial 2.6 percent. Overnight burglaries increased by an even greater amount, by 6 percent, according to FBI data.
The average value of losses in commercial burglaries is also growing, topping $2,500 in 2016. By comparison, a robbery of a gas station continues to offer thieves a smaller payday, falling to $970 on average.
Burglary isn’t only stubborn in the United States. In Britain, according to the 2018 Crime Report by the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS), burglary of convenience stores is significantly less common than robbery events, but it is more costly to the industry overall. On a per-incident basis, the average loss in burglary events is triple that of losses in robbery incidents, according to the survey of ACS members. More broadly, across all premises in the wholesale and retail sector, data from the UK Home Office’s Commercial Victimization Survey indicates that burglary has grown slightly more problematic over the last five years. In 2017, 12 percent of businesses were victims of burglary attempts, compared to 11 percent in 2012.
On the ground in the United States, LP executives report to LP Magazine that burglary risk ebbs and flows, often following local crime patterns. “We see the same amount year over year,” said Chris McCarrick, CFI, senior manager for asset protection solutions at Kroger. “The needle hasn’t really moved.”
So the problem that burglars pose to retailers may not be substantially worse than in years’ past, report LP executives. But it certainly isn’t going away.
Let’s Get Physical
How products are merchandised in stores continues to be a major risk factor of overnight raids, according to several LP leaders interviewed by LP Magazine, including Mike Keenan, CPP, CFI, LPC, who has led LP at Macy’s, Ross, and Gap and is now president of Mike Keenan and Associates, a retail loss prevention consulting company. “It seems like a simple thing, but defense starts with not tempting people, like not putting the most expensive stuff in windows,” he said.
As such, Keenan and other retail security experts believe that robust burglary prevention needs, at its foundation, for LP to understand their business and items that are most likely to entice thieves after hours. Then, LP can erect barriers between thieves and their targets, added asset protection consultant Sean Ahrens, CPP, security market group leader at AEI. “It’s been true in the past, and it’s still the case, that the goal is to delay an aggressor’s access as long as possible, ideally to the point of response,” he said.
The role of enticement is highlighted in a 2014 report from the Center for the Study of Crime and Justice at Colorado State University, “Pharmacy Robbery and Burglary: The Offender Perspective.” Said one offender: “As we left [the store], I told my buddy, ‘Hey, did you see all those Lortabs on the service desk?’ He stated, ‘That’s not even the best part; they leave those pills there over night after they close.’ To myself, I said, ‘Is that right?’ So began my habit of pharmacy burglary.”
Several years back, product availability was acting as a catalyst of overnight incidents at Food Lion stores, according to Joe Darnell, manager of asset protection services for retail business services at Delhaize America and its Food Lion and Hannaford brand stores. Baby formula and cigarettes were kept at service centers located at the front of Food Lion stores, sometimes unprotected and sometimes protected behind glass cases with flimsy doors. Although the items were safeguarded during the day from boosters, the products were inviting targets after stores closed. “We were having a rash of breaking and enters where they’d bust out the glass at the front door and, inside of a minute, steal $5,000 worth of cigarettes,” Darnell explained. “So we had to determine a way to combat that problem.”
Step one in the winning security formula employed at Food Lion stores was to shed some light on after-close security events. The LP team added relays to panels to integrate its energy management and alarm systems, so an alarm activation immediately floods the front of the store in light, in addition to subsequently triggering loud sirens and strobe lighting effects. “Some might say that we were making it easier for burglars by lighting the store for them, but our findings were that it helped attract police response and also acts as a deterrent because it lets the individuals breaking in know that they are visible.”
The move helped improve suspect identification via store surveillance video and undoubtedly chased away others, but it was an incomplete solution. “They’d still have time to hit us and get out. We had to slow them down,” explained Darnell.
Using store remodels as an opportunity, with the goal of upping the effort necessary to make off with targeted merchandise, the LP team retrofitted the existing product cases with heavier doors and sourced hardened display cases when new ones were purchased. “We wanted them to have to work,” said Darnell. “One minute is a long time when there is an alarm and lights are on, and you’re still just trying to get to the product.”
Ultimately, they surpassed their target goal. In internal tests—taking hammer to cases—time required to break through case doors averaged one minute and twenty seconds. “We felt like if we could slow them down, we could catch them, or they’d go somewhere else.”
The measures have clearly done the trick. Food Lion stores have tracked a steep decline in break and entry, from a high of 78 incidents in 2013 to just twenty in 2017. Losses have similarly dropped. The typical $5,000 in merchandise loss from break-ins five years ago is now often limited to just the cost of repairs to damaged property as thieves often give up and leave before they get at the products they’re after.
The same layered physical security approach is central to after-hours protection strategy for Bill Heine, chief security officer at Brinker International, which owns the Chili’s restaurant chain among others. The restaurants face a fair number of burglaries annually, but more than burglar alarm systems—and the increasingly sluggish response they garner—Heine relies on physical barriers to keep individuals who break in from leaving with items of value.
“We create physical barriers inside the building that make it very difficult to get to any product that people want,” Heine explained, noting that liquor stock is locked up and that even locked food coolers are further subdivided so that expensive food items, such as high-end steaks, are behind yet another locked barrier. Floor-bolted safes and computer equipment reside safely behind several layers of protection in back offices, which include higher-end doorframes and reinforced doors that are almost impenetrable.
Internal layers of security can’t be merely for show, however, as burglars will test to find weak spots or overlooked vulnerabilities, suggest comments in the “Offender Perspective” report. One burglar, on the topic of a retail store using steel cages after hours to protect its pharmacy, said, “They pull that steel cage down over the counter; it’s really pointless. I jumped on the counter, and I removed a ceiling tile out of the way, and I just climbed up into the ceiling and dropped down to the other side. I think I left there with nine bottles of Lortabs, 500 pills each.”
As a result of its hardened, layered approach to security, a typical burglar hitting a Chili’s restaurant might do $1,500 to $2,000 worth of building damage by the time they tear up a door or bust out glass, but they don’t get away with anything of real value-“maybe a few half-empty bottles of booze before running off,” said Heine. “And they usually drop half of those.”
Heine thinks a lot of new security technology is great but notes that retail establishments with doors and windows are still vulnerable to a good crowbar. “It’s been my experience that creating physical barriers is ultimately more important than the burglar alarm system.”
Indeed, while the latest motion detection or glass-break sensors may notify retailers of an intrusion, they aren’t much of a deterrent to a gang of smash-and-grab thieves. And as high-tech security systems become more commonplace, retailers have to expect that more thieves will simply attack facilities head on and count on quick getaways rather than trying to commit theft undetected.
This summer, one of the toniest streets in the country, Rodeo Drive, provided a cautionary example. High-end retailers were hit six times over the course of two months, including a burglary crew smashing a glass wall at a Saks Fifth Avenue department store. Hoping for some assistance from the public, police released security video of one of the break-ins in late May. In it, four cars slow to a stop alongside luxury shops in the early morning hours. Crews hop out of the vehicles armed with sledgehammers and begin trying to smash their way into a store. Police said thieves gave up trying to shatter the extra-strong security glass of a Saint Laurent display window, so the gang moved next door and smashed into Zadig & Voltaire. They made off with thousands of dollars worth of clothes-disappearing less than two minutes after they started the assault.
Because a lot of these gangs know they have limited time before an alarm goes out, it’s always valuable to take steps that complicate the ability to enter in the first place, advises consultant Mike Keenan. While there is always a level of force that can defeat security glass—ramming an SUV into a store front will certainly get you inside—several experts suggest hardening windows to the extent that building parameters make it possible, by taking advantage of new construction to install laminated or tempered glass for example, or adding window film to existing windows and doors. Security window film might not prevent a determined individual from gaining entry—someone with a baseball bat might be able punch around the edges of a window and push it through—but it is an easy and substantial upgrade over glass that simply shatters when someone throws a rock at it. “You want that thief to pick someplace else, and in a lot of cases that will be enough to do it,” said Keenan.
Window film is cost-effective compared to installing new windows and comes in a variety of solutions to help retailers meet a range of protection concerns, from bomb blasts to break and entry to weather events, according to Jake Oberle, US marketing supervisor for 3M Window Film & Architectural Finishes. But it is not, he warned, bullet proof. “That is one of the biggest misconceptions,” he said. “The main purpose for safety and security window film is to keep the glass intact, making entry of individuals or objects harder to penetrate.”
Oberle advises retailers to understand testing methods as well as performance data on the film they are planning to use. “Installation is also extremely important. The product can be ideal for a specific situation, but it has to be installed correctly.” He added that retailers should ensure that companies they’re working with have experience and/or certification in installing safety and security film.
Like Food Lion stores and Chili restaurants, after-hours protection at Academy Sports + Outdoors stores relies heavily on knowing its risks and having a hardened physical exterior and layers of security. “We have always been very cognizant of what’s in our stores and focused on perimeter protection and denying entry,” said Joe Matthews, vice president of loss prevention. Their toughened building envelope includes a variety of features, such as reinforced glass, tilt-wall construction, bollards, risk-based use of iron gates, and hurricane shutters.
Moves to toughen the building perimeter have paid significant dividends for Academy Sports + Outdoors. “We used to have a lot of smash and grabs, but as we really hardened our stores, we’ve seen a major decline in the number of burglaries,” said Matthews. Measures taken inside stores-to isolate and protect merchandise most likely to be targeted-also thwarts theft by extending the time necessary to commit it. “Most of our locations have very quick response times, so we look at the specific time it takes and then examine what needs to be done to delay them even more,” explained Matthews.
As part of a larger company initiative targeting waste and improving operations at Kroger supermarkets, the limitations of its existing alarm systems—or the lack of them at some locations—was identified as an area of risk. So as part of its project, the company approved capital dollars for new alarms, and the company is currently in the middle of a large installation rollout. It is already paying off. “Preliminary results have been fantastic,” said Chris McCarrick.
More than simple alerts, the system is providing visibility into overnight store operations, improving the safety of overnight store associates, and curtailing shrink due to theft. An hour after close, the new system must be armed until an hour before opening while specific doors can be disarmed without taking down the entire system, which allows for enhanced security without disrupting workflow. After being armed, individual PIN codes and exception reports provide intelligence on store activity during the night.
“The feedback we get from the field and store management teams is that it’s giving them better control over the building. Before, a back door could be opened in the middle of the night, and if it was a direct store delivery, someone propping open a door to have a smoke, or a bad guy, they might never know it,” said McCarrick. “This gives us line of sight when those activities occur, when parts of the system are disarmed and by whom, and provides exception reporting to understand those activities.”
The capabilities of today’s alarm systems are a significant upgrade to the monthly alarm company report from years’ past, according to J. Patrick Murphy, a former LP director and now a consultant and expert witness with LPT Security Consulting. “The technology has allowed LP to work smarter not harder,” said Murphy. “It allows the LP manager to know every day if anyone has bypassed an alarm zone and to investigate the reason, if it’s some problem with alarm training, or if it’s an equipment issue, or if it’s something more ominous than that.”
McCarrick notes that the new alarms, which are monitored internally by the Kroger Central Alarm Center in Portland, Oregon, have required a culture change. “Because if the building isn’t armed as required, the calls start to go out,” he said. To help ease transition and to help managers get the most out of intelligence features, district AP managers go into each store to provide instruction, answer questions, and provide training on the system.
By running a contact from the alarm panel into the back of Kroger store DVRs, alarm system exceptions are bookmarked by the video surveillance system. So, for example, if a door is opened overnight outside of a scheduled time, a manager can immediately scan a time line to identify that exception and then click it to watch a video of the event. “Video review is a great supplement to the system,” said McCarrick.
Joe Matthews also highlighted the role of video in after-hours protection of Academy Sports + Outdoors stores. “There is a short window of time from the moment they open the door to when the alarm bells, whistles, and sirens go off-and we also have surveillance video from the parking lot and video of them entering the store.” Marrying video and alarm systems can also improve management of alarm events, a valuable asset since false alarms continue to be a significant nuisance and source of expense, according to several LP executives.
“For some c-stores or strip center stores, false alarms are the number one item they’re concerned with,” said Ed Warminski, general manager at Supreme Security Systems, a security alarm system solutions company in the Northeast. In addition to fines, false alarms eventually provide a drag on police response, and thieves may intentionally trigger alarms over the course of weeks in the hopes of causing just this type of casual response.
As a result, Warminski said its retail clients are increasingly opting for the company’s Supreme Verified service, which provides video verification by pairing security alarm signals or motion sensors with video surveillance cameras. Remote users can look in live on the camera associated with the triggered alarm, and clips of what caused the alarm get immediately sent to central station operators as well as to the cell phones or emails of store personnel who need to see it. If the cause of the alarm is an intruder, police—now knowing they’re being asked to respond to a crime in progress—respond 85 percent quicker on average than they do to an unverified alarm, according to some data. Arrest rates also increase, Warminski noted.
“False alarms fines can be very expensive, and responding to those alarms are a waste of manpower for police,” said Keenan. “So it’s a win-win for the municipality and the retailer if you can make it happen.”
In 2014, Food Lion stores began putting IP cameras in their parking lots. When an alarm comes in to the Delhaize America central station they can immediately pull up video of the scene. “We’re now able to tell the police department that the suspect’s vehicle is ‘a dark color sports utility, possibly a Ford Explorer,’ and sometimes we’re even able to give them the license plate number or part of it because we get that good an image,” said Joe Darnell.
Even though it has been possible to access store surveillance video over the Internet for more than a decade, Pat Murphy believes it’s a technology solution that has not been adequately leveraged by the retail industry. “It’s the greatest technology. You can confirm that someone is in the store, and police can get a description, or you don’t have to go to the store in the middle of the night because it’s just something that fell off the shelf,” he said. “It’s now so inexpensive, and the additional capability more than justifies any additional cost.”
While image quality isn’t the same, Murphy noted that even old analog cameras can be retrofitted to provide LP practitioners a remote view inside their stores. “The fact is that there is no real hurdle to change from a camera system that can only operate within the store to one you can see from anywhere,” he said.
Security for All
Technology has had the effect of democratizing retail security—providing smaller retail establishments the feature-rich functionality of a surveillance video management system but as a service. Indeed, in some cases it is retailers with smaller footprints that are most apt to embrace advanced security technology.
While most major retailers continue to use the traditional metal key for entry, for example, some smaller ones are leveraging value from electronic access control, such as Soupergirl, a DC-based food delivery company with one production facility, two store locations, and 35 employees. “The traditional key and alarm situation was not going to work for us,” said owner Sara Polon in describing her company’s use of Brivo’s cloud-based physical security platform in a May webinar, “Small Business Doesn’t Mean Small Security.”
Polon said the scalable cloud-based platform was needed to address numerous pain points common among small retailers. “Employee turnover is a huge problem, and there is no way of knowing who’s made a copy, so rekeying is a big problem. And people forget alarm codes, and sharing them is an issue. And I can’t be everywhere, and contractors and delivery people need access at different times,” said Polon. “But all those problems disappeared,” she said. If an employee leaves, Polon just deletes him or her from the system, and the worker no longer gets in. And if an ex-employee kept a key fob and tries to enter, she can see that. If there is an alert or an issue at a store, she can log in and see video of what’s going on. “I don’t have to run out there in the middle of the night.” She also doesn’t have to ask employees to run to the store to let workers in after hours. “I was literally in New York City when one of our contractors got to one of our DC stores. I just let him in to our facility from my hotel room.”
Polon says the reporting and alert features of the software, as well as remote video capabilities, have been critical for her as she tries to stay hands on as she manages the company’s growth. She can run one-time or scheduled reports on activities, see who is coming in and when, limit store access to employees based on when they need it, and get alerts if they try to enter at other times. But it is the remote access capability that is her favorite feature. “It has been a gamechanger for us—letting deliveries in, letting contractors in, and enabling work to get done.”
Large retailers seem intrigued by the idea of electronic access control but not yet driven to embrace it. “Using access control in a store environment is kind of a difficult thing to do; it just hasn’t seemed to be cost effective,” according to consultant Mike Keenan. Delhaize America is dipping their toes in, using fob access instead of keys for side doors of some Hannaford stores. Joe Darnell suspects, as they continue to evolve their security program, that card access will begin to play a bigger role. “It seems to be where the industry is heading,” he said.
Several LP executives report that they successfully manage traditional rekeying costs with products that offer interchangeable core locks, and others don’t see the security need to do away with traditional keys. “I was never worried about key control if the alarm system was working well,” said Keenan. One LP executive offered a similar view. “In my twenty-three years, I’ve never had anybody break in with key,” he said.
Kroger’s Chris McCarrick said they examined the possibility of using the solution in conjunction with its security upgrade but concluded that the cost wasn’t justified. “Card access is very expensive when you’re rolling out at scale,” he said.
That is not to say that retailers aren’t utilizing some of the latest technology in service of burglary prevention, but they could do a better job connecting technologies, according to Catherine Walsh, senior vice president and general manager at Tyco Retail Solutions. “A major flaw among retailers in their security strategy is not having a cohesive approach,” she said. “Video surveillance, access control, and intrusion detection are a few of the critical components that comprise a layered approach to help prevent intrusion, but they’re much more effective when working together as an integrated security solution.” She said new technology is available to seamlessly integrate with existing systems for insight into loss events and to help retailers better understand, in detail, why after-hours loss events are occurring.
It’s the opinion of some in the industry that cutting-edge exterior and interior video surveillance technology is needed to take protection against after-hours burglaries or break-ins to the next level. True or not, LP leaders also believe that strong physical protection is still the most critical source of after-hours security.
It’s not sexy, but devices like locks remain vital to store protection, according to Sean Ahrens. “I firmly believe that the first line of defense, and the number one thing retail organizations should do, is to harden the facility, including properly designed doors and good-quality locks that are life-safety code compliant but provide really rigorous defense against prying.” He suggested that, for high-risk stores, the added expense and installation time of three-point locks are worth it and that little things-uncovered hinges, a tiny gap that allows a crowbar into a door frame, the quality of the deadbolt-“make a big difference to someone trying to break in.” He also prefers doors without handles when they’re not necessary. “I hate handles. They’re pry points.”
Good physical protection has another advantage: it typically won’t break the bank. Most practices recommended by police crime-prevention units are affordable, such as securing sliding-glass windows with the same types of locking devices used for sliding-glass doors; installing security bars on side, rear, or other windows that a burglar might break to enter; and installing locked security guards on ladders and trimming tree limbs to prevent roof access.
“Naturally, with an unlimited budget, you could add an awful lot for burglary protection, but realistically you need to be strategic and maybe not invest the same in low-crime areas as others. Protection strategies need to be cost effective, strategic, and based on risk,” Keenan advised. “Understand the business, understand the risk, and understand what’s doable—that’s really where the science meets art in protecting stores after hours.”
[SIDEBAR] Do You Have What It Takes to Prevent Store Break-ins? Insights, Opinions, and Advice
LP Magazine interviewed more than one dozen retail security consultants, industry leaders, and LP executives and asked what they think about different security tools and strategies to prevent after-hours store break-ins. Their responses suggest that retailers might benefit by asking, “Are we…”:
- Up and running? “A common misconception for stores is assuming that their security system is on and working; therefore, there is no need to run maintenance tests or update the system,” warned Catherine Walsh, senior vice president and general manager of Tyco Retail Solutions.
- Loud enough? “An audible alarm is very effective. It creates an added level of anxiety for the thief,” said retail security consultant Mike Keenan. Consultant Sean Ahrens agrees, suggesting a 128-decibel horn. “It should be as loud as possible inside and also outside to add witness potential,” he said.
- Bright enough? Numerous LP executives cited quality security lighting as vital to their efforts to protect stores overnight. “Motion detector lights are also a very effective deterrent. People don’t want to be seen,” said Keenan.
- Locked up? Building hardening is important, and that has to include the roof, warned Ahrens. “I’ve seen otherwise well-protected stores with scalable roofs that provide thieves with easy access inside.” Secure rooftop skylights, ventilation shafts, air conditioning and heating ducts, and other possible entry points on the inside with grilles or grates. Those that cannot be secured should be alarmed. Ahren also advises connecting key-containing Knox boxes to the building’s alarm system, examining window wells used for emergency egress, see if there are connections to other buildings, and so on. “You need to see how everything looks through a criminal’s eyes.”
- Installing to standards? Ahrens advises retailers to have detailed specifications for alarm installations. “I’ve seen too many stores where a guy comes in, slaps an alarm on the wall, and says, ‘You’re good to go.’ Then someone breaks in and just rips it off the wall.” Consultant Pat Murphy suggested that large retailers can effectively balance risk and budget by creating a few specific alarm and camera packages to apply to different stores based on their risk profiles.
- Securing evidence? In the event of a break-in, you don’t want to find that the thief was able to destroy evidence of their crime by taking store security equipment. “You want to have that video in the cloud” or have some other solution to protect video evidence of a break-in against such tampering, advised Keenan.
- Following guidelines? “It’s not uncommon for retailers to put together great [crime prevention] programs but then not have them followed by store managers,” said Keenan. “I’m a big believer in audits.” Conducted in conjunction with other operational and compliance audits, he suggests that a quarterly security review with a mini audit in the final quarter is optimal for ensuring that a retailer’s burglary prevention is as good in the store as it looks on paper.