Under Performing and Under Siege
Far-Reaching Global Academic Study into Keeping the Most At-Risk Stores Trading
EDITOR’S NOTE: Retail businesses, rather like medieval castles, can appear to be under attack from a legion of issues pounding at the gates. From industrial-level theft by prolific and persistent offenders to anti-social behaviour, some stores face an almost daily fight or flight decision on whether to stand their ground or raise the drawbridge.
In a summary of a far-reaching ECR report called “Fortress Stores, Keeping the Most-At-Risk Grocery Stores Trading”, author and criminologist Professor Emmeline Taylor takes an international view from the battlements of these under-siege stores.
Like many people, I have long been fascinated by the monumental decision that some businesses have taken to permanently close stores.
Citing decreasing profitability due to increasing crime levels, the closures tell a devastating story of the impact of crime, violence and societal issues including mental health challenges, homelessness and drug and alcohol misuse, all of which can spill over into retail environments.
And while it’s almost exclusively USA brands in this position, other international stores are also looking on to see if this could be the foreteller of what’s to come for them.
Overall, high-risk, and low-profit stores need to protect people, assets, and reputation, a balancing act that is not without tensions. There are, for example, social and political implications as well as reputational risks for security and operational decisions in some markets, particularly those in deprived neighbourhoods.
Also, accusations of racial bias and an abandonment of corporate social responsibility are not uncommon in some circumstances. The closure of stores in some locations can remove vital services such as medical supplies, contribute to unemployment rates, and even create “food deserts” where local people, typically in already disadvantaged and deprived locations, cannot access affordable fresh produce within a reasonable distance.
The “Fortress Stores” Project
So, could things have been different? Is there a formula for keeping the most at-risk stores trading, or at least a sequence of principles to be worked through before closing the shutters for good?
The “Fortress Stores” project, commissioned by ECR Retail Loss, the academic think-tank exploring issues impacting the loss prevention and profit protection industry across Europe, sought to understand the overarching strategies that are being deployed around the world in grocery stores (although the findings certainly have relevance across verticals) to combat risk and vulnerability.
The methodology for the project was ambitious. In total, eleven countries were represented, and I personally visited more than thirty of the most at-risk stores identified by participating businesses across six countries (Finland, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, the UK, and the USA). Interviews were held with loss prevention (LP) and asset protection (AP) leads, trade associations, police representatives, product suppliers, and representatives from non-profit organisations.
When visiting stores I spoke at length with security guards, cashiers, self-checkout operatives and store managers.
Preliminary findings were presented for discussion at an ECR Retail Loss working group webinar in March 2023 which was attended by sixty-five retailers, circulated to specific industry experts for comment, and presented in the USA at the FMI Asset Protection and Grocery Resilience Conference in April. The valuable feedback from these individuals and sessions further helped to shape the final report.
Typically, most at-risk stores are characterised by frequent incidents of violence, verbal abuse, high levels of theft of merchandise, theft from customers, anti-social behaviour, and a range of social issues, such as homelessness and mental health, that present additional layers of operational risk and complexity.
They are often located in densely populated metropolitan areas with multiple characteristics that are associated with high crime, such as high levels of deprivation, and transport hubs, for example.
Risk Mitigation Strategies
Taking a step back from permanent closure, some businesses are exerting heightened levels of control over every aspect of the store operation using a mix of technology, design, operational strategies, and people. For some companies, applying a “fortress store” mentality is a last attempt to keep trading in some markets that have become increasingly hostile.
This includes reducing trading hours, changing the merchandise assortment, locking more product away, increased tagging, enhanced and innovative guarding strategies, re-configuring layouts and transforming store design.
At times, the security strategy applied in most at-risk stores was at odds with the broader direction of the company and its brand. There are also difficult discussions taking place about how best to protect employees and assets while maintaining brand reputation and profitability.
Strategies are not always straightforward or easy to implement across the estate. Big-box stores, retrofits and other formats are often not designed to be operated with the enhanced levels of control that is needed to manage high-level risks.
Health and safety regulations and other legislation present additional challenges; prolific thieves take advantage of emergency exits to escape, employees are required to enforce a range of rules relating to public health and restricted product sales which can create “flashpoints” for violence, and some thieves now flaunt their stealing to store associates knowing there is a “no challenge” company policy in place.
There is no “one size fits all” suite of tactics to tackle the range of risks presenting internationally, particularly since local legislation and cultural differences mediate which tactics can be deployed or not, as the case may be.
But what the Fortress Stores project identified is that there is a set of strategic principles that all retailers need to consider in their most at-risk stores.
Keeping the Most-At-Risk
Stores Trading: Seven Key Strategic Principles
The findings from the research are presented as a risk mitigation wheel. The wheel is comprised of seven elements:
Although the tactics that sit within each of the seven strategic principles might be different—for example, approaches to guarding might be varied—the key point is the extent to which the business is aware of risk, accepts the need to do things differently, aligns the different business functions, and takes action.
It is worth reflecting upon these categories. They might, for example, provide affirmation that the risk mitigation strategy being deployed is aligned with international approaches.
Alternatively, they might spark a new idea or approach to thinking about risk and how to counter it. The approaches in some locations are changing the mould and this might leverage engagement and support for delivering a successful risk mitigation strategy in some of the industry’s most challenging stores, particularly when it might be at odds with brand identity.
Data and actionable intelligence are important components of any risk strategy. After all, as the old adage goes, what gets measured gets managed. Some of the important uses of in-store incident data include:
Identifying new and emerging issues and risks.
Identifying “travelling” offenders operating at multiple locations across the estate.
Signalling to offenders that their actions are noted, recorded and action is being taken.
Reducing costs by ensuring that finite resources are targeted and efficient.
Engaging with other businesses on shared concerns.
Generating enhanced “buy-in” from law enforcement.
Creating a risk model.
Monitoring the impact and effectiveness of security solutions and strategies.
Reassuring employees and allowing for successes to be celebrated.
Despite the many ways that accurate data collection and analysis can help a business to manage risk, there was a lot of variation observed in this project. Although some businesses had a robust data collection and analysis process in place, these were the exception.
It was acknowledged by several participants that internal data collection needs improvement. Too many incidents go unreported due to the volume, a lack of staff time, and a lack of confidence that it will result in any action being taken by law enforcement and/or senior management.
Related to the issue of under-reporting, participants in this study described concerns about the validity, reliability, and timeliness of data, both internal and external, that could skew risk registers. It is also clear that more research is needed to better understand risk modelling and the predictive power of different variables.
During the fieldwork, one retailer told me that according to their risk modelling, they had a store that on account of multiple metrics, should have been one of their most at-risk locations, yet it was one of their best performing stores. Investigating further, they found out that a local drug dealer’s mother was employed as a manager of the store and so it was largely considered to be “off-limits” for any criminal activity.
Of course, not every high-risk store can employ relatives of local criminals, but there is a bigger insight here and that is the power of people to protect a store, its assets, associates, and customers.
As I visited stores in person, the despondency among some employees was palpable. They were worn-down by violent, aggressive customers, persistent thieves, and confronted with a range of societal ills daily.
Many were frustrated by the fact that store policies meant that they could face the sack if they challenged a shop thief. It’s no wonder that research by the UK charity the Retail Trust found that retail employees are some of the most unhappy of any industry.
The study found that a fifth (21 per cent) of retail staff do not want to work in the sector, while a further 31 per cent actively want to leave their retail job. Abuse from customers was cited as a major contributor to low morale.
Employees need to be supported in tackling the deluge of thieves and aggressive customers and be given reason to believe they are on the winning side. This includes investing in meaningful and bespoke training so that staff feel equipped to deal with criminal events and challenging issues, as well as providing them with equipment to enable them to quickly report incidents, communicate, and feel protected, such as headsets, hand-held devices for instant in-aisle reporting, and body-worn cameras.
Most at-risk stores are maximising control over all aspects of operation, from opening hours to store design. This principle is about intensifying the control of customer movements in the aisles and throughout the store.
This includes managing entrances and exits through the installation of one-way automated and alarmed gates, creating physical barriers, using “bullpen” and “store-in-store” designs, restricting access to high-risk aisles, reducing, or changing opening hours, or, in the most extreme scenarios, temporarily ceasing trading in order to take stock of the issues and carry out an “operational reboot”.
This typically involves re-visiting trading hours, changing merchandise assortment—including deleting high-risk lines—removing some services, changing policies and re-thinking staffing.
In some locations, it was the restrictions that were introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic that provided clear insight that the store could be managed differently with positive results.
There are multiple strategies to heighten the perceived and actual risks for offenders, whether opportunists or prolific thieves. Situational crime prevention techniques focus on changing the environment to reduce the opportunity or desirability to commit crime.
There are five core categories:
Increasing the effort.
Increasing the risk.
Reducing the rewards.
Tactics to reduce the anonymity of offenders thereby increasing the risk include technologies such as CCTV, facial recognition, automatic number plate recognition (ANPR), and enhanced public view monitors (ePVM).
Being able to identify persistent thieves, particularly those who travel between locations to avoid detection, is important to join the dots and seek convictions, as is automating threat detection using video analytics of movements and behaviours.
Increasing the effort required to commit offences, slowing down the ability for offenders to access or remove merchandise, and reducing the rewards through a range of benefit denial tagging solutions are also being deployed.
To remove excuses for criminal activity including theft and aggressive behaviour, stores are also deploying video analytics at self-checkouts and appropriate signage throughout to remind customers about store policies.
Breaking away from the traditional security guard provision, there are some new and innovative approaches to guarding being used in most at-risk stores.
This includes employing community outreach workers to assist those with social issues who are causing problems, partnering with non-profit organisations to provide a community-focused security provision, employing off-duty police officers, and remote monitoring the most at-risk stores from a dedicated security centre with highly-trained operatives.
Having identified a disconnect at times between externally provided security guards and internal staff, one European multi-national has implemented a hybrid model whereby individuals are trained to fulfil both the guarding function and work as a cashier. Several of the hybrid staff took part in informal interviews as part of the store visits.
Overall, they described feeling much more embedded in the company because of their dual functionality. They felt more integrated with the store team, rather than an “add-on” and reported that this improved communication about security issues.
Other staff members were also positive about these more hybrid roles. They liked, for example, the additional security functionality which provided reassurance, but they also welcomed the customer service support, particularly if a customer was becoming aggressive.
There is huge variation in how businesses are innovating and changing their guarding model. In most at-risk stores it’s not about deploying a specific approach but rather it is about being aware of different models. Acknowledging that the provision in most at-risk stores needs to be thought about differently, aligning the guarding approach with the local context and risk environment, and taking concrete actions to mitigate risk in those stores that have elevated challenges.
When visiting stores in-person it became clear that what the central team thought was happening in their stores often wasn’t the case.
During the store visits undertaken as part of this study, just some of the things observed included placing a bucket of receipts next to self-checkout gates so that customers could scan them to exit, propping entrance gates open, disabling EAS alarms, leaving frequently accessed security cabinets unlocked, only tagging a small number of on-shelf bottles of alcohol because there were not enough tags in circulation, and not wearing body-worn cameras despite being assigned to do so.
In addition, there were a range of “hacks” that store associates had introduced to reduce crime in store. For example, some store members were using personal instant messaging services—in the absence of a store provided system—to share information about known offenders, presenting issues relating to privacy and data protection laws, whereas in another store, associates had attached a large heavy metal chain across the entrance to a high-theft aisle so that they could hear customers enter the area.
As with the importance of data outlined above, ensuring that there is clear and readily available information on what is happening in store is crucial to tackling high levels of crime, abuse and social issues that impact on the store. Staff need to be motivated to report, particularly when crime is high volume and takes up considerable time. Monitoring the impact and sharing “good news” stories can help to energise employees.
The bulk of the above strategies focus on what is happening within a business’s own four walls or in the immediate vicinity of the store. But there are also strategies that involve broader layers of defence.
A notable trend in the highest-risk retail stores, was a recognition that partnership work—with other stores in the area, with law enforcement, and the community—could assist in tackling threat and vulnerability priorities. Partnerships were either formalised, e.g., with information sharing agreements or the payment of a levy into a shared fund, or informal.
The seven strategic principles have been translated into a benchmarking tool for businesses to share across their different functions. The tool provides a score across each of the seven components of the risk mitigation wheel to assess how well they are performing. The benchmarking tool will be available soon at www.ecrloss.com.
The research was supported by ECR Retail Loss, with an additional research grant from Cap Index. The full report can be downloaded at: https://www.ecrloss.com/research/fortress-stores-keeping-the-most-at-risk-grocery-stores-trading