Thefts Increase in Retailers in Canada that Remain Open During COVID-19 Pandemic: Expert

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As the shopping sources have narrowed in this COVID-19 pandemic, so too has the supply chain for shop thieves, says retail security expert Stephen O’Keefe.

“Criminality tends to migrate, and in this case, retailers who are open to supply the essential such as grocery and medication, have been hit hardest because the market is small,” said O’Keefe, a Toronto-based veteran of the retail industry and President of Bottom Line Matters, a web-based loss prevention and risk management solutions company for small to mid-sized retailers.

O’Keefe said there is a group of people out there that thrive on crime. It’s their job. It’s their livelihood. They pay their rent and bills through the proceeds of crime – the cash that they get.

“Just as anybody else they look to the marketplace. Where am I going to get that next paycheque if I’m laid off? Or where am I going to get that next toilet paper roll if I’m shopping for groceries? So you hoard. It’s this human nature thing. You look and say where is my future food going to come from?,” said O’Keefe.

A BOARDED UP H&M AT THE CF TORONTO EATON CENTRE. PHOTO: NOW MAGAZINE

“So what’s been happening is we’ve shut the door because we’ve literally shuttered the doors of a lot of retail businesses. So these guys who are shoplifters who might steal let’s say $200 to $300 a day and convert it to cash somehow, and it’s kind of this normal thing that they do, now don’t have access because a lot of the stores that sell the non-essential things have shut their doors.

“These shoplifters now are wondering what they are going to sell to their market which is people who are re-selling or the people who are buying stolen goods and giving this shoplifter cash. So they look to other ways and other activity and what they’re finding is the grocery stores are experiencing more of it. It’s not that there are more shoplifters. It’s that the market itself, the supply chain, has narrowed. They’re going after these retailers that they normally never hit.”

Customer service is critical at this time for retailers. Employees need to make sure they are aware of who their customers are in the store and what they are doing.

O’Keefe said criminals involved in organized crime have to feed their supply chain and have become more brazen, even moving into the robbery and break and enter category.

There have been a number of cases across Canada where retail stores, who have temporarily closed their doors through this crisis, have been hit.

“Break-ins have gone up everywhere. But there are things retailers can do to protect themselves,” said O’Keefe.

“Risk of exposure is still the number one deterrent to the majority of criminals. Retailers must find what works for them to maintain this measure at a social distance. This includes cameras, and security guards, but should also involve a buddy system. The way this works for independent businesses is the same way it works for neighbours. Let your buddy know when you are around and not around, and even take turns watching out for one another.

“Limit the assets if you plan to be away for a while, and notify the potential thief. Let them know there is nothing to steal through signage. If you have empty registers, keep them open if they are visible from a window. Thieves do their homework, and an empty register is a waste of time and effort for them, and the risk of being charged with a B&E is still the same if the register is full or empty, so let them know the risk isn't worth the reward.”

O’Keefe was Walmart Canada’s VP Loss Prevention & Risk Management for 15 years. He currently advises on loss prevention affecting shrinkage and profitability for retailers and has more than 30 years experience in retail theft prevention with some of Canada’s largest retailers. He is considered a leading authority on loss prevention, security, risk management, health and safety and process improvement.

SOME LUXURY STORES ON BLOOR STREET BOARDED UP TO PREVENT THEFT. PHOTOS: CRAIG PATTERSON

Before establishing his own consultancy firm, O’Keefe held a variety of loss prevention management positions with Sears Canada, Zellers, The Hudson's Bay Company, and Walmart Canada.

In 2016, he was awarded the Retail Council of Canada’s Loss Prevention Lifetime Achievement Award.

“The key is retailers have presented a risk of exposure to somebody considering doing something dishonest against them. That’s the key to loss prevention. I know my company name is Bottom Line Matters but that’s the bottom line. It really is. The bottom line is you have to present a risk of exposure because anybody who is doing a crime is going to evaluate risk reward. When they look at the risk side, they consider the reward . . . but when they evaluate the risk part they look at whether they are going to be seen, observed, caught,” he said.

Because of the coronavirus, there are less people out and about and less risk of exposure so the retailers really need to consider the things they can do from their business to put in that risk of exposure.

“I am shocked that camera sales for security companies have not gone through the roof because the first thing I would do is put extra cameras everywhere,” he said.

“Social distancing does not mean that you have to be absent.”

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