Retailers in Canada are increasingly sounding the emergency alarm about the impact to their businesses and communities of a growing wave of crime and violence.
In British Columbia, retailers have joined forces to create SOS: Save our Streets, which is a new public safety coalition demanding governments step in and deal with the issue.
“Every British Columbian knows the escalation in crime and violence in our communities has reached epidemic proportions, and governments need to step up and do their jobs to make our streets safer,” said Clint Mahlman, President of London Drugs, and a founding member of SOS.
“SOS is a broad and growing coalition committed to raising the alarm that our streets, our businesses, and our fellow British Columbians are at risk, and only governments, particularly the federal and provincial governments, have the resources, expertise, authority, and responsibility to change things for the better.
“Community groups and local businesses across the province have been expressing concern over the growth in violence against innocent victims for years and have been asking government leaders to do something to protect citizens and their streets. Governments at all levels have responded in piecemeal fashion but are not acting in unison or with any sense of urgency as street-level problems continue to grow. SOS says the current approach of government is not working, and streets and communities are becoming more unsafe.”
SOS members say retailers across BC are facing growing amounts of theft which impact prices and local shoppers. SOS says absorbing the cost of retail theft and more security is costing BC families $500 annually.
Mahlman said the level of violence, vandalism and theft in all of retail but certainly community-wide is at a crisis point.
“Certainly we see this in British Columbia but we know this could be true throughout the West. Many community groups and downtown business associations and certainly other retailers, restaurants, service industry, are feeling that if the governments don’t act now that we will be past the tipping point and we’ll end up like San Francisco, Portland or Seattle where the downtown cores are no longer safe and retailers will have to close,” he said.
SOS wants to establish a set of measurable results that provide British Columbians with statistical evidence that show whether streets and communities are getting safer or not.
“These dramatic costs that are associated this, the human costs, the human toll, the direct costs due to vandalism, supporting employees through their mental health or having to take leaves due to the violence and certainly the ongoing costs of security system, recovering theft, is sadly causing a number of retailers to either close or think about relocating and that’s not good.”
Mahlman said the Retail Council of Canada, London Drugs and many retail colleagues have been lobbying governments for many years prior to COVID that this is a major issue.
“And frankly it seems to have fallen on deaf ears. The reason for this coalition is to bring a number of people together to try and amplify our voice to ask for change,” he said, adding this is a problem that is not solely in downtown cores of major cities but smaller towns are experiencing this as well.
He said the movement needs other national retailers to step up and also voice the same concerns.
Linda Annis, Executive Director of Metro Vancouver Crime Stoppers, and a city councillor in Surrey, said the SOS network across the province reinforces how widespread the issues are.
“People are afraid, and they’re frustrated,” she said. “The SOS coalition means a louder voice for communities, one that is hopefully heard by our politicians who have the authority, resources, and responsibility to make these issues a priority. After all, when your streets and neighbourhoods aren’t safe nothing else matters.”
Meanwhile, a new report, Crime & Safety in Western Canada: The Small Business Perspective, from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) found that 43 per cent of Alberta small businesses have been directly or indirectly impacted by crime.
“The public does not have to look far to see that crime and safety is a problem in our communities and for businesses. We recognize that these are complex issues without simple solutions, but it is important to highlight the toll these issues are having on our local businesses,” said Keyli Loeppky, Director of Interprovincial Affairs at CFIB.
The report said Alberta small businesses say they are struggling to manage theft, property damage, waste and litter, loitering, and public intoxication. Many (73 per cent) are also worried about the safety of their customers and employees.
Small businesses are already implementing measures to better protect their business, customers, and employees, including spending more money on security, adjusting operations, and providing additional safety training for staff. Some report having to pay more to attract and retain employees, further contributing to labour shortage challenges, said the report.
“Many small business owners are expected to be their own accountant, HR department, and marketing team. They did not anticipate also having to work as security, social worker, emergency medical provider,” added Loeppky. “A collaborative approach is needed by all governments, stakeholders, and law enforcement to address these very real challenges.”