scorecardShoplifting's biggest enablers might be the retailers themselves
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Shoplifting's biggest enablers might be the retailers themselves

Alex Bitter,Dominick Reuter   

Shoplifting's biggest enablers might be the retailers themselves
Retail4 min read
  • Retailers have been talking a lot about how theft is a problem at their stores.
  • But Walmart, Target, and other chains' own policies and practices could be worsening the problem.

The retail industry has spent much of the past year raising alarms around shoplifting and "organized retail crime."

But while conversations about the problem of theft at stores often center on external factors such as law enforcement and the criminal justice system, one of the biggest obstacles to curtailing theft may be a lot closer to home.

That's because major retailers, including Walmart and Target, have policies that can sometimes prevent their own staff from addressing shoplifting at their stores, as current and former employees told Business Insider.

Some workers have been disciplined or fired for going after shoplifters, according to interviews and media reports. Others say a lack of resources and follow-ups after the fact also makes it more logical for the workers to just turn a blind eye to the problem rather than do anything about it.

Most retailers have policies preventing employees from taking action when theft happens

Rhea Gordon, a former Walmart associate at a North Carolina store, told BI she was fired after trying to catch two shoplifters who were taking hundreds of dollars' worth of makeup.

On one hand, Gordon said managers told her and other employees to check shopping baskets, bags, and other areas where customers could hide unpaid merchandise.

On the other, associates are frequently told not to engage with customers who resist or who make threats after employees approach them. Walmart's customer-theft policy, for instance, repeatedly tells associates "to disengage and withdraw from the situation" and contact law enforcement if the situation becomes at all heated, according to a copy reviewed by BI.

"Associate safety is always a top priority and we have policies in place to protect the health and wellbeing of those in our stores," a Walmart spokesperson said.

Dollar General's employee handbook takes a similarly hands-off approach. "If you suspect that someone is shoplifting, you should provide them with good customer service as you would any other customer and inform the manager on duty of your observations," the handbook reads. "Store employees must never become involved in physical or verbal confrontations or touch a customer."

A Dollar General spokesperson said: "We prioritize employee and customer safety over the potential loss of merchandise. For that reason, employees are instructed not to place themselves or others in danger in order to prevent shoplifting."

Lululemon also made news when it fired several workers who had attempted to intervene with suspected shoplifters. CEO Calvin McDonald cited safety concerns with regard to the company's zero-tolerance policy, telling CNBC, "It's only merchandise."

Even if your job is actually in security, your hands are metaphorically tied.

Last summer at a grocery store in Colorado, a security worker, Santino Burrola, was fired after he followed and filmed a group of suspected shoplifters loading a cart full of merchandise into a car.

A Target worker in California told BI his location saw multiple instances of theft a day, with the company's asset-protection employees giving chase — but usually unable to do anything to stop the theft or get information that could curb future thefts.

"The policy is not to touch them but just ask them to please don't steal from us," the worker said. "If they make it to the sidewalk, then they are scot-free." Target didn't respond to a request for comment.

Several former Walmart employees, by contrast, pointed out that the retailer's asset-protection teams were tasked with observing and reporting possible crimes but were otherwise instructed not to disclose themselves or their role to customers.

Retailers don't always hire enough employees — or give them the tools — to prevent theft

It's not just policies that hold employees back. At some stores, workers just don't have the resources to prevent theft.

At Walmart, for instance, associates who monitor self-checkouts are supposed to conduct random "cart checks" of Spark drivers who shop an order before delivering it. The process involves the associate scanning a few items using a phone app before allowing the Spark driver to exit the store.

But one contractor who shops and delivers for Walmart's Spark delivery service in Montana told BI that associates at his store didn't have a phone to carry out the check "nine times out of 10."

The driver said that when that happened, associates would direct him to ignore the cart-check notification on his own phone, telling him that it would "time out" eventually. "Walmart has a system that doesn't work because Walmart doesn't provide them the tools," the driver said.

"They have an electronics department," he added. "Go get a phone, they're right there."

The Walmart spokesperson confirmed that the retailer conducts cart checks but didn't comment on the lack of devices.

There's another seemingly chronic issue: Companies just aren't hiring enough staff.

While pandemic turnover and rising wages have been challenges, many retailers have understaffed their stores for years.

Dollar General, for instance, has operated stores with as few as one employee on duty.

"If there's one person for a store that is thousands of square feet, how much is one human being going to do?" Thea Sebastian, the director of the Futures Institute, told BI. Sebastian and Hanna Love, a fellow at Brookings, coauthored a recent study that found retail theft was hard to quantify — and frequently overstated.

Among the report's recommendations for retailers: Hire enough employees at stores, and make sure they aren't constantly overworked. "A happy worker is going to make for a much happier customer, who then is going to be much less likely to engage in these activities," Sebastian said.

Love said having happy employees — and enough of them — was "not only effective in reducing crime" but would also "just help improve the customer experience."

"Who wants to go into a store when everything's already behind the glass, you can't find a person to open it for you, and you just walk out?" she said.

Do you work at Walmart, Target, or another major retailer and have a story idea to share? Reach out to these reporters at dreuter@businessinsider.com or abitter@businessinsider.com




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