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Shopping bag with big red glasses smiling. How can staff be trained in effective customer service and improved memory so they can be effective witnesses for theft?

Illustration by Security Management

Training Employees to Be Better Bystanders

By April 2020, it was common knowledge that you could endanger someone if you got too close and breathed wrong—exhaling both air and the COVID-19 virus. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other public health departments advised residents to stay home to help curb the spread of the virus and only leave home for emergencies or when necessary.

But since people still needed to eat, people increasingly either ordered take out or embraced home cooking. They headed to supermarkets and grocers, with lines of socially distanced customers waiting outside of stores.

“Next to healthcare providers, no workforce has proved more essential during the novel coronavirus pandemic than the 3 million U.S. grocery store employees who restock shelves and freezers, fill online orders, and keep checkout lines moving,” The Washington Post reported in 2020. “Many report being stressed and scared, especially as their colleagues fall ill to the highly contagious coronavirus.”

While some approached this time with an attitude of unity, others felt mounting frustrations from the pandemic, an unstable economy, and restrictive mandates about face masks. For the frustrated, grocery store employees became frequent targets.

Interactions with belligerent customers bucking against stores’ mask policies resulted in violent confrontations that often made headlines. Since then, active shooters and organized retail crime (ORC) groups have increasingly stalked retail and grocery store aisles.


So, retailers are trying to keep their employees safe by shifting policies and training away from apprehensions. Instead, they want staff trained in effective customer service and in improved memory so employees can be effective and safe witnesses.

“The number one rule is do not try to be a crime stopper,” says Mark Porterfield, CSO and senior vice president of operations for GardaWorld Security Services.

While every retailer might enforce or present the rule differently to employees, they all receive training on shoplifting within their first training session, according to Porterfield. This training includes clear definitions on shoplifting and theft, how employees can identify it, and how to prevent it.


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As part of prevention efforts, William Alford, co-founder and CEO of Circle the Wagons Group Purchasing Organization, says employees are trained to detect suspicious behavior, like, when a customer lingers in an aisle. In such instances, the employee is trained to approach the customer and ask if they can be of assistance. While honest customers will appreciate the customer service, someone considering theft may be dissuaded thanks to the additional attention he or she has received.

“You can approach them in a very friendly manner,” Porterfield adds. “What that does is that it creates a deterrent. The shoplifter knows that the employee has been close to them, has a better identification of what they look like—their hair color, their eye color, height, and weight, things of that nature.”

And when a violent situation arises, training now advises employees to stay away from a belligerent customer or thief, by at least an arm’s length, according to Porterfield. Instead, the focus is to be a good witness and direct attention to details, making mental notes about the thieves or attackers. “That way, you can report it to proper law enforcement when the time comes,” Porterfield says.

Sara Mosqueda is associate editor for Security Management. Connect with her on LinkedIn or Twitter: @ximenawrites.