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Thou Shall Not Steal: A Loss Prevention Career at Lifeway

Melissa Mitchell is director of loss prevention and inventory control for LifeWay Christian Stores, which is headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Mitchell joined LifeWay after a tour of duty in the U.S. Air Force and then over 20 years in retail loss prevention. She worked her way up from store detective to regional LP manager with such notable retailers as T.J. Maxx, Revco, Roses Department Stores, Cato, and Service Merchandise. As she moved to more senior levels and started a family, two factors influenced her career decisions—her commitment to having a strong family and her desire for quality of life.

“I’ve experienced what so many of my peers in the LP profession go through. The retail industry is turbulent, which increases the obstacles that have to be overcome to have a quality of life, which for me is a quality life with my family, and a consistent career track,” Mitchell said.

But as she contemplated her next career move after Service Merchandise, a jewelry retailer based in Nashville, closed its local doors, a good friend in the finance department at LifeWay Christian Resources called to tell her that LifeWay had decided to launch its first-ever LP program and asked if she would consider applying.

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“I was initially resistant to the idea of even interviewing here,” Mitchell recalls. “I was nervous about the Christian aspect of the job. In every position I have ever held, from the U.S. Air Force and throughout my loss prevention career, faith was a topic that was specifically not to be discussed in the workplace.”

It was a double-edged sword. Mitchell was drawn to the idea of starting an LP department where there had been none, but at the same time she was hesitant about how it would work in what seemed an unconventional environment compared to the loss prevention departments and retailers she had known.

“While there was definite appeal to working at a company that had faith and the values of LifeWay front and center every day, I struggled with the idea of working in a company where people would actually talk about those faith and values. I was uncertain about how this corporate culture would compare to those I had known before. As I thought about it though, it occurred to me that maybe the greatest part of my hesitation was based on my own discomfort with the idea of my faith as a front and center part of my business day. I knew that to some degree, this was going to be out of my comfort zone. In the end, though, I felt drawn to LifeWay.”

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A Loss Prevention Career the LifeWay Way

Mitchell seems at ease talking about the LP program she has built at LifeWay over nine years. She even navigates politely, even-handedly, through such clichéd questions as…

“Who would steal Bibles?” The same shoplifters that steal other merchandise. They are stealing what they consider to be a commodity.

“Aren’t shoplifters afraid of having to answer to a ‘higher authority’?” No more or less than they are concerned when they steal from other retailers.

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“There is a growing demand for the product we carry,” Mitchell explains. “As such, the resale value is increasing as well. The products we sell are also sold in other retail stores, but we provide a more consolidated target for shoplifters wanting this type of product to resell.

“Loss prevention at LifeWay is built on the same basic LP principles used by the majority of my peers, just applied in a different environment,” Mitchell said. “To be successful, I had to be willing to work hard to win people over to the concept of a loss prevention program at LifeWay. To win those people over, I had to learn to be transparent on both a professional and personal level. This was counterintuitive to the way I had grown up in the LP field. My experience had been that while LP should always be a partner, there was still some intentional separation between the LP folks and the rest of the employees.”

Even though employee and external theft were low by retail industry norms, LifeWay recognized that it existed. Mitchell said there seems to be a general perception on the part of shoplifters that because LifeWays associates are compassionate and forgiving they are also naïve, which gives them the impression that it will be easy pickings.

LifeWay Christian Stores are usually located in communities in the South and Midwest, but there are also metro stores in Atlanta, Columbus, Charlotte, Houston, and Dallas. The stores are small, between 7,000 and 8,000 square feet, and typically stock a core assortment of 25,000 SKUs with 109,000 unique SKUs across the chain. LifeWay’s customers are primarily individuals who shop for devotional and inspirational reading materials and Christian-inspired general merchandise, and churches that purchase quantities of Bibles, Sunday school materials, and other supplies. LifeWay Christian Resources, a collection of enterprises that includes the bookstores, describes itself as “a ministry that is funded by a business model.” Any earnings net of operating expenses are reinvested in LifeWay ministries

There are no LP personnel employed in LifeWay stores. Across the chain, Mitchell has deployed a variety of merchandise protection strategies and theft deterrents on a store-by-store basis based on local needs and issues. These range from EAS systems to cameras to domes and mirrors. At the Nashville headquarters, Mitchell’s staff consists of an LP investigator, an LP analyst, and a project manager, in addition to four inventory control analysts.

Lifeway Thou Shall Not Steal Image 2Clearly, the heart and soul of the loss prevention career at LifeWay is the long-established Christian culture and ethos of LifeWay itself. There is an expectation on the part of customers about the type of customer service they will receive. They could buy a Bible at another store, but the thing that sets LifeWay apart is that service, described in a single word, is “personal.”

For customers seeking to find which translation of the Bible is right for their needs, the personal time that the associates spend with them is invaluable. For someone going through a difficult time in their lives, looking for the right book to help them deal with their situation, associates take the time to find just the right resource that will help them.

“Although we have had the same LP challenges as the rest of the retail world, the factor that is unique to LifeWay is that loss is associated with stewardship, and the associates take that responsibility seriously,” said Mitchell.

An example of how LP is the same basic applied principle, but a different application, is LifeWay’s Integrity Line. This is the toll-free number that employees can call to report fraud, theft, ethical violations, and other internal issues. Mitchells said that “At my previous companies, this type of program offered cash rewards for accurate information. At LifeWay, the idea of a financial gain for reporting another associate’s potential dishonest acts would sink this program from the start. The employees would see it as an insult. They feel it is their duty in terms of being good stewards.”

While the “basics” of LP at LifeWay are industry standard, Mitchell recognized that she needed to let go of her preconceived notions and learn how to create a tailor-made LP program to fit LifeWay’s business model and specific culture.

“At the store level, we try to take an approach of giving all associates LP responsibilities that are tied to stewardship; in effect making all associates LP associates,” she said. “All new managers and associates receive LP training. Our corporate retail trainers work with the entire staff of every new store on the importance of LP, and we are always on the agenda of our managers-in-training academy and sales meetings.”

Mitchell also introduced a “Heroes of Loss Prevention” program that recognizes outstanding associates with a certificate and letter recognizing specific acts of vigilance, audit scores of 95 and over, and other loss-prevention-career-related accomplishments.

“LifeWay employees have a distinct dynamic and attitude,” said Mitchell. “There is a stronger connection between the associates and the company. For LP, the upside is that employees are committed to the mission-oriented sense of responsibility that is nurtured in our organization. On the other hand, when there is employee dishonesty going on, other employees generally take longer to recognize the signs. People just do not see their coworkers as dishonest.”

Nevertheless, employee theft does occur. “When an employee incident is discovered, it is often a crushing blow,” Mitchell said. “In that store there are usually deep feelings of disappointment, but also a sense of compassion for the individual and concern for his or her family.”

A Different Approach to Employee Interviews

If LifeWay store associates find incidents of employee theft upsetting, what is the experience for those who commit a dishonest act in this environment? For Mitchell, whose earliest loss prevention career experiences involved investigations and interviews, it does not seem surprising that interviews have a different dimension than they do in other companies.

“Our employees are active in their churches, and faith is a central part of their lives,” she said. “It is the foundation for the store staff, and something that creates a specific atmosphere for customers. It is not unexpected when we have shoplifting incidents, but the associates take the losses more personally.”

Mitchell is often asked by her peers in LP how the employee interviews differ from interviews at other retailers. According to Mitchell, the main difference is the barriers that must be overcome. For a LifeWay associate to admit to an act of dishonesty, they are acknowledging that they have violated their own religious ethics. Also, because LifeWay is a ministry-based company, they are acknowledging that their action has impacted that purpose.

“The striking thing for me in regards to employee interviews is that I often see true remorse in contrast to the ‘I’m-sorry-I-got-caught’ type of remorse,” she said. “For the small number of associates who commit a dishonest act, there is a feeling of having crossed a line that is so much more important to them than a company policy or a written law.”

Problem Solving in a Loss Prevention Career

In 2008, LifeWay significantly expanded Mitchell’s portfolio by asking her to take on inventory control. She agreed with little hesitation and said, “In this day and age, a loss prevention career no longer fits the old model of good guys, bad guys, prevent, catch. I was already deep into measurement Lifeway Thou Shall Not Steal Image 3and tracking, so inventory control was a natural extension.”

However, Mitchell also realized that she had to learn a whole new language and solve a new and different set of problems. “It took me out of my comfort zone at first. I decided to approach it as I do an investigation. When we are facing a new problem or some other challenge, I interview everybody to get their insight and recommendation. I outline the issues and the pros and cons. Then I make logical decisions based on the evidence.”

Mitchell’s problem-solving approach has led to LP becoming highly visible within the “corporate” organization, LifeWay Christian Resources, which is the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Even though Mitchell reports to the CFO of the retail division, her LP team has taken on the LP needs of other divisions.

For example, LifeWay Christian Stores participates in the SBC annual meeting, which often draws over 10,000 attendees. LP is responsible for the security involved in running a 10,000-square-foot bookstore in the convention center. The department also assists in working on physical security and LP issues involved with hundreds of conferences and summer camps at facilities in Ridgecrest, North Carolina, and Glorieta, New Mexico, two of the largest Christian conference centers in the country.

Mitchell and her department have also played an integral role in developing LifeWayStores.com screening services, which are offered to all of their church customers. LifeWay works with an outside background screening firm and vigorously promotes the importance of background checks in the hiring of employees and recruitment of church volunteers who will be interacting with others

“I remember when my husband and I were visiting churches trying to find a new church home,” she said. “I took our kids up to the Sunday school class for their age group, and dropped them off. At the time, I did not give it a second thought even though this was not the standard rule I applied in any other environment where I did not know people personally. Only as I was thinking about it later did I realize I had made an assumption that could have affected my children’s safety. I did that based on what I think was a subconscious perception that in a church environment, there was not even a reason to think it through in the same terms I would apply to any other place. Imagine how hard it is to be objective about the people you work with in that church environment on a daily basis.”

Mitchell said that churches work hard to ensure that they have availed themselves of every avenue possible to exercise due diligence in this area precisely because they know that people have an automatic trust level within their walls. They take the trust instilled in them and what it represents seriously. For that reason, she considers the availability of the background check service a vital component of LifeWay’s work.

“The challenge is to help our church customers understand that background checking is not a process that makes a decision for you. It is a process that allows you to make an informed decision based on all of the information available.”

As Good as It Gets in a Loss Prevention Career

Mitchell has great respect and affection for LifeWay associates in Nashville and throughout the stores division. She also seems to still relish the unique nature of her experience there. “It is a tale of letting go of some of the basic ideas that I had embraced for the whole of my loss prevention career as applied to everything from interviews to business relationships. My experience here has been about not just thinking outside the box, but learning to make a whole new box.”

Reinvention and the taking on of new, sometimes unexpected, challenges is a theme running throughout Mitchell’s life. She was born in Portland, New York, a village of about 400 people in the rural western part of the state. Somewhat unexpectedly, as a sophomore in high school, she won a scholarship to the New York Military Academy. This was in 1976, the first year it became a coeducational institution with women admitted as full-time students.

Lifeway Thou Shall Not Steal Image 1“It was a fantastic experience,” she recalled. “Being in the first class of women was not a main factor for me in my decision to attend, it was just coincidental timing. I thrived on the academic opportunities along with the structure and sense of boundaries.”

After graduating and attending a nearby university, Mitchell decided she missed the military environment. She enlisted in the Air Force and was in basic training the year that several positions formerly classified as combat were opened to female soldiers. Mitchell was among the first group of women to enter these fields. Attaining the rank of sergeant, she served at bases in the United States and Germany as an aerospace physiological training instructor, training pilots and crews.

Mitchell’s military background impressed future employers. Fresh out of the Air Force, she answered a T.J. Maxx ad for a store detective in Newport News, Virginia. “I was there for about six months before I progressed to another level in loss prevention, but I loved being a store detective. I liked the challenge of trying to get shoplifters to talk about some of their other crimes.”

Throughout her career, Mitchell has welcomed new directions. After T.J. Maxx, a stint at Revco taught her about drug and pharmacy issues. Service Merchandise exposed her to jewelry retail. “I had to learn quickly about diamonds and the specific LP issues surrounding these extremely high-value items. It was a fascinating change of dynamic in these types of investigations, both internally and externally, due to the high value. I had the most interesting case of my career there, involving a multi-state string of armed robberies in our stores totaling $5 million. It was a fantastic experience working with the FBI, particularly because we caught them.”

Along her loss prevention career journey, Mitchell left the field for a year when she had her youngest son. “I knew at the time it would most likely mean taking a step back in position when I wanted to return to the field, but I have no regrets. I am as competitive as anyone, but early on I decided that I could have it all by deciding what ‘all’ was for me personally,” she said

Nine years into her tour of duty with LifeWay, Mitchell said that one of the most challenging and exciting aspects remains the process of implementing an LP program from the ground up. “There was a wide spectrum of preconceived ideas about what LP is, and how that might look, at LifeWay. As in any company that has not had a formal LP program, there was concern about how LP would fit into our existing culture. I also had preconceived notions about what the loss prevention career would be like from my end of things. I was deliberate about talking through scenarios involving employees who committed dishonest acts. I wanted to make sure we all had the same expectations going into this as a new program

“The leadership at LifeWay has done more than just allow me to put a program in place. They signed on for what is very understandably at times uncomfortable change, and they have stayed the course.”

Mitchell continued, “Life Way has also supported me in LP roles outside the company, being generous with my time when it comes to participation in the National Retail Federation.” Mitchell sits on the NRF’s LP Advisory Council where she chairs the Awards and Recognition Committee and is an active participant in the NRF’s annual LP conference.

“This has had a big payoff for me in terms of personal and professional development,” Mitchell said. “Through the networking facilitated by this experience, I am fortunate to be able to pick up the phone and call anyone of my peers across the country to discuss an idea or issue.”

In summarizing her LifeWay experience, Mitchell concludes, “I have spent my entire professional life trying not to blur the line with professional versus personal in my job. At LifeWay, we are an organization where faith is at the forefront of what we do, and faith is about as personal as it gets. I have been impacted by the people I work with…their heart, consistency, and level of transparency. I am not the same person I was when I walked in here nine years ago. I also think that they, on some level, have been influenced by me. I think that’s as good as it gets in a career.”

Editor’s Note: To read more about Mitchell’s career journey, check out her conversation with Jim Lee, executive editor, in “The Attitude of Success that Marks the Career of Melissa Mitchell.”

This article was originally published in 2010 and was updated February 10, 2016. 

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