EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an interview with Frank Johns, LPC, chairman of The Loss Prevention Foundation and is sponsored by the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention (NASP).
What is your philosophy on the apprehension of shoplifters?
The first thing people should know about me is that my roots are in store operations, not asset protection. I was never a big proponent of the “hook ’em and book ’em” kind of thing. In fact, I still see a lot of risk in that and feel where we are still doing that process, we need to take a much more aggressive position on trying to stop it.
When I was hired to run asset protection at Mervyn’s, I tried to bring a store operations perspective to it. At the time, no one had ever looked at the whole process of apprehension and how much it was costing us to do it. We were playing the same game year after year with many of the same people. Agents would roam the floors looking for shoplifters and apprehend them. Sometimes it was for things that only cost us a few bucks, yet we were willing to go out the door and pursue the person, risking harm to our employees, just to bring the suspect back and have them arrested. It seemed ridiculous to me, so I sought to come up with a way to stop the cycle of this whole process.
Tell us about the prevention program you implemented at Mervyn’s.
After doing some research, I came across an organization called Shoplifters Alternative (SA), known today as the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention (NASP). SA was a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness about the shoplifting problem and educating those who had been caught to help prevent them from repeating the offense.
After learning about the programs, I decided that instead of just doing the same thing as we do every day, Mervyn’s would take a different approach and see if we could break the cycle of stealing. Our focus was on juveniles, and we began providing education in conjunction with a reduced civil demand-at the company’s expense-for juveniles who were apprehended in our stores.
Was your idea well received?
There were lots of meetings and discussions, but in the end, everyone bought in and was widely accepted. At the time, Mervyn’s was merging with Target, a company that had always been more on the liberal end. There was more focus on how to help people and how to make things better for the population in general. The program was so well received that it was eventually adopted across the Dayton Hudson Company brands.
What was the reaction from the parents?
Most parents were surprised, yet very pleased, by what we were doing. Their feeling was that typically, all retailers do is take their money. For a retailer to come out and do something to help your child stop this kind of behavior was unheard of. Even more surprising was that we were willing to put our money where our mouth was and not only pay for the program, but reduce their civil demand as well, as an incentive for them to complete.
Parents were quite appreciative, as they looked at it from the standpoint of, “We don’t know what to do to stop our kids from doing this kind of stuff.” I think they were taken aback that a retailer would say, “We are going to put some money into this because we want to help kids stop.” We got a lot of feedback and many people thanked us for stepping up and doing something above and beyond what a typical retailer would do. As a result, we retained a lot of loyal customers.
Do you feel a program like this would be as successful if implemented today?
Yes, and possibly even more successful! I think with what is happening in 2019, programs like this give you more bang for your buck. Today, there are more challenges. Criminal justice and police look at [shoplifting] like a nuisance crime, and society often views it as harmless. As a result, it is often not addressed effectively. The things we used to put people in jail for, we no longer put them in jail for. Then, because we could not stop it, we end up tolerating it instead of addressing the root cause of it.
I would like to see retailers start to do the same thing we did at Mervyn’s, but on a larger scale to make more of an impact. I believe the industry should embrace a program like this and promote it. Collectively, the industry could say, “We as retailers are coming together to help address this before it escalates into something worse.”
Do you feel shoplifting is a gateway crime to other more serious crime?
I believe so. Shoplifting is often an entrance type of crime. It will escalate to things that are much worse. Why are they shoplifting? Are they doing it to support a drug habit? Is it a cry for help? That is why I believe you can never stop trying to do something to curb the issue.
If all we do is throw up our hands and never adequately address it, this will likely be an entry point into the criminal justice world. Of course, this is only anecdotal, and I do not have any empirical evidence to prove it, but when you talk to people who have been incarcerated, they often tell you shoplifting is where their criminal career started.
Do you think retailers should invest in school and community prevention programs for kids and teens?
I think it is a great idea. When we implemented the program at Mervyn’s, the kids had already shoplifted. We need to get to a point where we are intervening earlier. Today, kids are not taught the same at home as they used to be; the more we can do as a community to try to help stop this kind of behavior does everybody good. This kind of program should be done in schools at an early age, where young people learn how wrong it is and what the ramifications are so it is not so easy to just do it when they get older.
Remember, these teenagers are going to be tomorrow’s citizens. In addition, they are likely going to be in a retail job somewhere. I think it should even go as far as educating internal offenders. Shrink comes right off the bottom line, so the value in retailers helping to prevent shoplifting before it starts is tremendous.
Do you believe there is a value to retailers collaborating with their local communities to address shoplifting?
Absolutely! I also believe that has to come from corporate. They have to make sure that the stores in the community are actively working to make the needed connections. If you are the store manager, you have what I like to call a “community circle” that you need to be involved with. As the store team leader, you need to be involved and constantly ask yourself if you have the proper connections with the police, prosecutor, and courts because you are part of that community. If you are there just running that store and do not have the proper relationships in place, then you’re not going to get anywhere. Nothing is going to change.
You need to have some sort of interaction and relationship in place if you hope to make headway on these types of issues. When the police are saying, “Well, the store really doesn’t care” and the retailer is saying, “Well, the police don’t really care, so we are just going to kick them loose,” the only person who wins is the shoplifting offender. So, how about the two meet and discuss the things they can and can’t do to best address this situation?
I will bet you probably only have about 10 percent of retailers focused on doing something like that—and 90 percent haven’t even stepped up to talk to anyone in community relations at the police department. I really think that is where it starts.
What’s a retailer to do? Do you have any parting words?
I think there are many things that retailers can do, many of which we have discussed here today. I know that some retailers, on occasion, have associates go out and help do things around the community such as clean up neighborhoods or help feed the homeless. While this is important, there is also a need for retailers to help rid the community of this kind of gateway crime through education. It is an important investment in the future. We have a shoplifting epidemic in our stores. The whole thing is like a cancer. Do you want to take it out one cell at a time when you have the opportunity? Or do you want to wait until it is too big to do anything about it? I believe that the more you can get in front of it, the better. Consider this—what would be the harm in trying?