A ‘Perfect Storm’ for Criminal Activity: US-Style Smash-and-Grab Retail Crime Expected for Canada [Feature]

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The COVID-19 global pandemic has been responsible for the spawning, or acceleration, of a number of different trends since the onset and spread of the virus. It’s influenced a more digitally-savvy consumer, sparked a reimagination of the service and experience retailers provide and introduced a new way of working for many. In short, it’s changed, at least in some small way, just about every aspect of the retail operation, forcing an evolution in the way things are done and a financial reconfiguration of the retail balance sheet. For loss prevention professionals, the new retail landscape and expanding ecosystem changes their jobs substantially, presenting them with a host of new challenges and threats to consider and address. Not least of these potential threats, according to industry expert and President of retail consultancy Bottom Line Matters, Stephen O’Keefe, are incidents of smash-and-grab style attacks against retail locations similar to those that are occurring with frequency in California. And, they are incidents that he warns will inevitably occur north of the border as a result of a ‘perfect storm’ for criminals operating across the country. 

“There are a few factors that have been contributing for some time toward the creation of a scenario that’s ideal for the type of criminal activity that they’re currently experiencing on the West Coast of the United States,” he asserts. “Reductions to law enforcement budgets and the number of active police officers in provinces and cities across the country has been a growing issue over the course of the past decade or so. It’s a serious problem on its own for a number of different reasons. However, when you combine that fact with a Canadian legal system that’s reluctant to tie up the courts with crimes that they often consider petty, in favour of more serious crimes, then you’ve got a system that isn’t addressing these threats against the industry. And, because there is an understanding that nothing will be done to prosecute retail crimes like shoplifting and theft, most retailers have instituted ‘no stop’ policies in order to avoid violent incidents that put the health and safety of their employees at risk. The result is a scenario which presents criminals with very little risk and plenty of potential reward, and retailers everywhere with a serious dilemma.”

Copycats in Canada?

O’Keefe also points to unfortunate economic conditions that have been brought about by the pandemic as another layer of influence adding to the complexities of the ‘perfect storm’, rendering certain areas of the country more susceptible to crime. South of the border, San Francisco is an example of one such place that’s been blighted by smash-and-grab crimes against retail locations. The trend began some time ago shortly after the onset of the pandemic with a handful of isolated incidents that seemed to fly somewhat under the radar without catching the attention of law enforcement. However, it wasn’t long before the crime trend spread throughout the city, growing to involve multiple individuals in organized groups and planned attacks against retailers. Many of these attacks have targeted high-end luxury retailers with perpetrators leveraging tools and weapons like hammers to smash glass display cases in order to grab items like jewelry and other valuable merchandise. It’s an alarming situation, and one that O’Keefe believes should serve as a warning of sorts to retailers operating in Canada.

“Circumstances in San Francisco, and now other parts of California, have gone from bad to worse,” he says. “It’s concerning for everyone involved. It’s led many retailers in the affected areas to barricade their premises and for local law enforcement to increase their presence within the city’s retail districts. However, what’s perhaps most worrying is the fact that there have been copycat incidents cropping up across the United States in urban markets like Minneapolis, Chicago, Nashville, and elsewhere, by groups that are leveraging the same methods and behaviours to commit their crimes as those that originated in San Francisco. Because of this factor, these crimes are catching the attention of quite a few retailers in Canada. They’re starting to ask whether or not these types of crimes will migrate north of the border. And the short answer is: yes, they absolutely will, unless the threat is dealt with appropriately by retailers and law enforcement.”

Developing appropriate response

It’s a situation that O’Keefe explains has been made that much more difficult to accurately understand and address as a result of a lack of reporting on the part of retailers. In both the United States and Canada, he says, industry players often refrain from doing so to law enforcement because retail crime, incidents of shoplifting in particular, do not receive adequate attention from the legal system. Non-reporting lends to the creation of inaccurate data that skews perception and undermines the seriousness of the crimes being committed. And, with the smash-and-grab trend sweeping across the United States, O’Keefe says that there are considerable concerns mounting here at home with respect to the ways in which the threat of these types of crimes can be properly dealt with.

“There are a number of retailers in Canada that are looking at these incidents in the United States and trying to figure out how they can remove that target from their stores,” he says. “And this is when the theory of crime displacement is often considered when attempting to determine the appropriate way in which to respond to the threat. For instance, in most traditional cases, cameras have been used as a critical tool in helping to curb shoplifting. The idea is that if someone wants to steal without being identified, cameras will significantly mitigate the risk of theft. However, the criminals committing these smash-and-grabs in the U.S. are masked. And, given that we’re living through COVID-19, a time when everyone needs to be wearing a mask for public health reasons, the cameras do little to remove the threat of these crimes being committed. Because of this, retailers are being advised to respond to these incidents by backing off and calling 9-1-1. There are many within the industry who aren’t satisfied with this advice and have been left feeling as though their hands are tied behind their backs.”

The power of loss prevention management systems

Retail Loss Prevention

Although barricading a storefront seems completely unreasonable, and in-store cameras will not serve to prevent these types of crimes against retailers, O’Keefe suggests that there are ways in which merchants can safeguard their stores, merchandise and employees. By properly maintaining and adhering to their loss prevention management systems, they can more accurately detect trends like these smash-and-grabs and help the business determine the tools and measures that need to be in place in order to effectively address the situation. In fact, according to the veteran loss prevention expert, it may just be the most important aspect of the retail business when it comes to quelling the effects of the ‘perfect storm’.

“For retailers that have made the decision not to arrest shoplifters stealing from their stores, they need to do what they can in order to make themselves softer targets to criminals. And, to do this most effectively, they’ve got to rely heavily on their loss prevention management systems – the underlying foundation of the company that allows everything to operate optimally and safely. It’s a system that assists retailers in understanding the strategies and methods that are required in order to appropriately address the crimes that are being committed. It allows them to develop and sustain a logical thought process to guide and direct decision-making. It helps in identifying technologies that can be implemented to mitigate and, in some cases, eliminate the threat of theft altogether, including smash-and-grab incidents. And, until law enforcement and the Canadian courts treat these incidents of crime with the seriousness that they deserve, it will likely serve as the most significant mechanism at retailers’ disposal, preparing them and equipping them to take the matter of retail crime into their own hands.”

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Article Author

Sean Tarry
Sean Tarry
Sean Tarry is an experienced writer who leverages his unique storytelling abilities to bring retail industry news and analysis to life. With 25 years of learning, including over a decade as Editor-In-Chief of Canadian Retailer magazine, he’s equipped with a deep understanding of the unique world of retail and the issues, trends, and innovators that continue to influence its evolution and shape its landscape.

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  1. “For retailers that have made the decision not to arrest shoplifters stealing from their stores, they need to do what they can in order to make themselves softer targets to criminals.”



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