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Q&A: How Retail Security Professionals Can Mitigate Brazen Burglary Risks

Flash mob robberies—or flash robs—continue to make national news as small gangs of robbers take advantage of speedy smash-and-grab thefts and hasty getaways to make off with high-value merchandise. Despite their highly publicized nature, flash robs are only a small portion of organized retail crime (ORC) thefts today.

According to the National Retail Federation (NRF) 2020 Organized Retail Crime Survey, ORC cost retailers an average of $700,000 per $1 billion in sales in 2020. The majority of retailers saw ORC numbers rising; three-fourths of ORC victims surveyed said they had seen an increase in ORC crime over the past 12 months, and more than six in 10 said they see the need for a federal law to combat organized retail crime.

To get more perspective into the challenges facing loss prevention and retail security professionals, Security Management connected with Scott Thomas, national director of retail and hospitality for security technology and solutions company Genetec. Thomas has worked in the retail industry for more than 30 years, including time spent as a national account manager at Checkpoint Systems, where he worked with numerous loss prevention and physical security professionals and technologies. He is currently a member of several retail organizations, a member of ASIS International, and an active participant in the retail security community. 

How has organized retail crime been growing or evolving over the past five years? 

ST. We’re seeing a lot of media attention focused on organized retail crime, or ORC, right now because of the size, violence, and audacity of incidents in major U.S. cities. It has been a problem for decades but has definitely been on the rise in recent years. The National Retail Federation reported that since 2015, ORC has risen 60 percent in the United States, and nearly 70 percent of retailers saw an increase in 2021.

Has violence in retail crime increased? Are there any specific commonalities between these cases? 

ST. It has been reported that the rise in ORC has brought with it an increase in retail violence, with more than 500 people in the United States (including employees and shoppers) killed in retail crimes in 2020. It’s similar in Europe. The UK Association of Convenience Stores reported 40,000 violent incidents against convenience store staff this year.

How have online marketplaces affected ORC profits? 

ST. With the many online platforms available to sell stolen items, the profitability of ORC is substantial. Large ORC crews in some locales have netted in excess of $1 million in illicit profits. That’s one of the main reasons it’s so prevalent—it’s a low-risk, high-reward crime.

How can security professionals change the risk proposition for retail thieves or make it a less lucrative field? 

ST. There are steps to be taken at multiple levels. It really falls to cities and counties to arrest, prosecute, and convict ORC criminals and gangs to try to deter these crimes. Greater collaboration is needed between retailers, law enforcement, and prosecutors to identify ORC gangs, their leaders, and sellers of stolen merchandise.

Technology including predictive analytics, automatic license plate readers (ALPR), body-worn cameras, and video evidence sharing platforms can help coordinate efforts to make felony level cases. The successful prosecution and conviction of ORC gang leaders requires evidence of conspiracy and merchandise totals above the theft threshold. Retailers who have dedicated ORC deterrence teams often put entire cases together, including gang hierarchy, merchandise location, and their online sellers to present to law enforcement and prosecutors. They often coordinate with other retailers, even if they are competitors, to share information. Retailers use the technologies mentioned to collaborate and coordinate their investigations, as well as to provide their stores with advance warning they are potentially the next target.

Online marketplace platforms can actively monitor high volume individual sellers of merchandise listed as “new” and work more closely with retailers asking for assistance on cases. Tracking any mentions of brand or store locations on social media can also help teams become aware of potential suspicious “flash mob” gatherings planned at their establishments.

When shopping online, consumers can impact ORC by being aware that substantially lower prices on branded merchandise offered by unaffiliated sellers could mean items are potentially stolen or counterfeit.

Given the balance of processes, people, and technology, what changes can retailers implement to improve security and loss prevention in the face of mass retail crime? 

ST. There are several technology strategies retailers consider as ORC gang deterrents. There is “defensive merchandising.” This encompasses taking product off the sales floor or putting it behind security fixtures that require an employee to open. The downside to this approach is that the product is not readily available for customers to purchase. Given the staff shortages many retailers are facing, this option can negatively impact sales.

Another alternative is, during off hours, “hardening the target” with ballistic glass and roll-down gates. It’s a costly addition, and in some instances, can still be defeated depending on the size, tools, and tenacity of the gang. 

What sort of intelligence gathering processes or tools have retailers used to monitor for threats of “flash robs” or similar crimes in the planning phase?

ST. Retailers with dedicated ORC teams in place monitor social media searching for their brand’s name in public posts. Occasionally a post calling for a flash mob at a mall or specific retailer may show up, and retailers can determine appropriate action to take if they are concerned.

If a major incident like a smash and grab or flash rob occurs, how can retailers keep employees and customers safe during and after the event?

ST. Much like the SOP for a fire, a specific response plan that is effectively communicated to all employees is needed. Retailer response plans prioritize personal safety to ensure no one puts themselves at risk, but they can also include:

  • Enunciators or visual alarms that alert staff an incident is in progress. These could be triggered by management or store security.
  • Training staff to provide first aid post-event until emergency services arrive.
  • Plans to safely evacuate remaining customers out of the store following the event.
  • Setting up an approach to muster staff post-event to ensure all employees are safe and accounted for.
  • Management procedures to support law enforcement in their investigation.

In addition, technology including panic alarms—fixed or mobile—can also trigger the messaging system, as well as be set up to notify the alarm monitoring companies, designated management, and/or law enforcement and emergency services.