With organized retail crime (ORC) on the rise between 2015 and 2020, according to the National Retail Foundation (NRF), and recent media attention of high-profile lootings and smash-and-grabs, perhaps the biggest challenge for loss prevention (LP) executives today is reducing loss and boosting asset recovery where applicable, while simultaneously focusing on safer workplaces.  

“In retail, you’ve got to balance protecting inventory and safety of your people. With the violence of today, that safety component has taken a more forward role for the loss prevention executive now than in the past. You’ve got to balance procedures, policies and strategies around employee safety first. Everything else follows after that,” says Alan Saquella, Corporate Security Executive and Assistant Professor at Embry-Riddle.

Prior to teaching, Saquella spent decades as an enterprise security executive and loss prevention director after, first, beginning his career in law enforcement. Last summer, he retired from Cox Communications as Director of Security and Investigations, in charge of security programs as well as investigations and asset protection within the organization’s retail locations. While insider theft and threats were once the bigger focus, Saquella says retailers have had to shift that focus to a rise in external threats, such as organized retail crime and violent incidents.

But before focusing on the generic, it’s imperative to research where the retailer’s loss originates and invest the appropriate time, resources or services to determine the likelihood of specific risks at specific locations.

“You need to take a hard look at the balance of inventory shrink. What’s the amount of external theft caused by casual shoplifters, organized retail crime or violence versus internal theft. It’s important to tailor your security programs to each individual market. If you have excessive issues with street-facing stores that have easy access to big roads, then your processes and procedures will look different compared with a location inside of a shopping center or mall,” Saquella says.

Tailored risk mitigation is hardly a new concept in the world of loss prevention, but thinking outside the box in terms of operational execution of mitigating those risks is what the industry needs, Saquella adds. There are, however, a number of tried-and-true practical steps loss prevention programs can incorporate. For casual shoplifting and everyday retail theft, electronic article surveillance devices, a focus on product location (i.e. expensive products away from the entrances), as well as hiring employees that are willing to engage with customers can go a long way.

But those strategies won’t deter typical ORC or smash-and-grab situations. For loss prevention leaders reassessing their organization’s response to ORC and looting or other potentially violent scenarios, Saquella says they should be willing to look beyond the traditional. For ORC mitigation, the focus should be on technology that can be used to both warn employees of a potential incident before it happens and help law enforcement apprehend such offenders.

While working for one retailer, Saquella’s team realized that for several of the organization’s locations, loss prevention needed to begin outside. “We deployed cameras outside of those stores with artificial intelligence (AI) license plate capture systems. We not only caught several groups this way, but we were also able to share this information, such as vehicle and people descriptions, with other organizations. Working together across retailers is really helpful because you need to catch these people before they ever come in, if you can,” he says. Security teams can also set up such technology to give staff early warning when a license plate is recognized from previous incidents or area crimes, prompting employees to lock doors and/or call the police.

Similarly, video surveillance and AI can help retailers with potential looting or violent crimes by alerting employees to a person holding a weapon or gun in the parking lot and giving them precious seconds to call the police, lock the store, or run and hide.

There are endless tools beyond video surveillance and analytics that can help loss prevention professionals, and technology improvements continue to present new possibilities each day. For example, there are a number of intelligence gathering services, such as LifeRaft Navigator, Topo.ai and others, that security teams can use to aid decision-making regarding potentially violent incidents, looting or protests within a location’s vicinity.

“They gather intelligence on the dark web, finding information about organized retail crime groups and others that you can’t find on your own,” Saquella shares. With these types of technologies and services, security teams can ask to be notified about protests, looting or other violence that may occur within a determined range of a particular location, allowing organizations to make loss prevention decisions based on defined processes and procedures, whether that be to close a store early, board up a store’s windows or beef up employee presence.

“There is plenty of technology out there to help security professionals,” Saquella says, “but you have to be able to reach outside of your realm and think about using more intelligence gathering.”

Once, when Saquella’s organization had a problem with the continued theft of large lithium batteries, the team acquired several GPS-locating decoy units to catch the perpetrators. The problem, however, was the organization had 55,000 cabinets housing those batteries in more than 300 locations. With so few decoy units, the loss prevention team didn’t know where best to place the units. Saquella and his team partnered with a university and student team to determine the most strategic locations. The students used satellite imaging to determine that 36 locations all had the same characteristics and seemed to be the highest targets for repeat offenses — in this case, they all backed up to an alley, had little lighting outside and direct egress. “By focusing on those locations, we caught the ring within three weeks,” Saquella says, referring to the criminal group.

While external crimes within retail may be on the rise, the good news is that processes and solutions that can help mitigate risk and focus on the safety of the organization’s people and assets do exist; security teams just need to be willing to look for them. And, with those solutions in place, loss prevention leaders need to design and continuously update their risk mitigation tools in response to that intelligence for the most robust security program, being sure to communicate those processes and procedures regularly and often to well-trained management and employees.