Exclusive: Retail security is a changing game

February 11, 2022


Philip Ingram MBE delves into the retail security landscape and explores how technology is transforming the sector.

The pressure on retail has never been greater. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought in restrictions that have had a massive impact across the retail sector and forced many high street names to rethink their business structures, processes and with all of it, risk appetite. 

Commercial models are hybridising and we are seeing in-shop and e-commerce experiences blending as retail tries to navigate its very difficult path through an increasingly competitive and, some could argue, saturated market where tradition in shopping habits and loyalties have lost their place to convenience and choice.

However, it is not just the retail environment that is changing; criminals are targeting retail in a different way. What seems to be a never-ending fact is that criminal enterprise are more commercially agile if you see them as a business, compared to many of the businesses and individuals they target. Retail is also an increasing target for organised crime. The environment is therefore critical to the approach to security.

In the US, a major grocery retailer, Hy-Vee – who operates more than 280 retail stores in eight Midwestern states, including Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin – has deployed a new retail security team in its stores.

In a press release at the end of 2021, the company said that it will begin introducing its own security force “as part of its ongoing efforts to ensure the health and safety of both its customers and employees.” What is slightly shocking from a UK perspective is that in the video released by Hy-Vee, it shows the security team members carrying a handgun, taser, pepper spray, two magazine pouches, handcuffs, a flashlight and wearing a body camera.

In the UK, one major high street retailer said in a briefing that its staff were not to refer to shoplifters as shoplifters anymore, but they were to be called “non-paying customers.” What was more shocking is that they banned staff from taking any form of direct action against said “non-paying customers.” The company then slashed the security guard staff, clearly content at the levels of stock loss; however, talking to some members of staff, they explained: “We are concerned that we are being left alone with no protection and nobody seems to care, the police are not interested and now the company doesn’t seem to be interested –  it is only a matter of time before something serious happens.”

Patricia Vella, Chair of Trustees for a local Reading charity, Christian Community Action (CCA), has a less conventional view on retail security and her environmental considerations are rightly different again. The charity has five shops and she remarked: “Our shops also operate as informal support centres so a high proportion of the footfall is people in need, some of whom will also have mental health issues or addiction problems.

“Since the purpose of the charity is to help people in need, conventional law enforcement options are rarely the most appropriate response when dealing with shoplifters or members of the public creating a disturbance in our shops.”

New tactics for a changing environment

Retail security is becoming more complex with this blend of in-store and online with the sector now relying on click-and-collect as well as home delivery, expanding the threat landscape from a fixed location of bricks and mortar to warehousing, delivery vans, customers’ homes and the all-encompassing cyber-space connecting it all together. The threat landscape is increasing and becoming more diverse.

On a global scale, it is assessed by the US National Retail Federation in its 2021 Retail Security Survey that the retail industry loses £73bn annually in what they refer to as “shrinkage”, but this includes “financial loss due to missing revenue, wasted inventory, stolen goods or improper accounting.” The best way to mitigate retail shrink is to improve security and increase visibility into product movement.

“Traditional security tactics simply can’t keep up as shopping methods diversify, which is why visual artificial intelligence (AI) technology is gaining momentum. AI provides a deep layer of intelligence and a constant watchful eye that can enable retail security executives to maintain inventory count accuracy, minimise shrink and improve real time decision-making.”

Whilst smart technology is being employed more commonly and we are seeing self-service tills and self-scanning options in supermarkets, it remains out of reach for many retailers. So, are there better ways of securing the retail sector?

Fraser Bishop a Film Production Security Risk Advisor and former Retail Security professional remarks: “Within the larger retail centres, my time in the shopping centre itself, outside of the individual stores, provided so much value. Uniform and plain clothes patrols, behavioural detection, CT awareness, K9 response, law enforcement liaison, control room operations and intelligence all added to the wider security environment. Individual stores focus on profit protection; however, retail centres are frequented by crime gangs who have been known to bring their fights to the shopping centre.”

“As always, our priorities are recruiting and retaining staff,” adds Simon Weston CBE, The Weston FM Group. “It is all well and good having a minimum wage where the whole industry knows what it’s costs are, but to be realistic the rate is now affecting our chances of recruiting, training and keeping first class staff.”

Jon Eddery, Technical Project Manager at MAST Security explores the dilemma further: “With an increase in incidents, foil lined bags, assaults on staff, specialised racking to prevent grab and runs, tagging and EAS gates right the way back to the fundamentals of training and awareness, more than ever, we need to think outside the box and utilise technology to reduce risks.”

Bridging the gap

Evgenia Ostrovskaya, Business Development Manager at Genetec, highlighted the retail security dilemma well when she said: “The top priorities for retail security will be doing more with less while improving the overall customer experience. This will be made possible by bringing everything together, from access control to video surveillance, through a unified physical security platform.

“Unlocking the potential of existing devices and equipment will deliver data in new ways to streamline operations and derive actionable intelligence. It is also important to recognise however, that with a more connected physical store, there is an increased cybersecurity attack surface. Retailers will need to put solid governance in place to keep their networks secure or the results may be catastrophic.”

Retailers, especially the larger ones, need to recognise the increasingly sophisticated threat landscape and ensure that their security/loss prevention budgets reflect the need for the right technological solutions to support properly trained, motivated and experienced staff with skillsets to enhance the business.

The 2021 Retail Security Survey concludes: “On the front lines, today’s loss prevention professionals are asked to stand between increasingly sophisticated criminals and a retailer’s bottom line. They bridge the gap between employees and shoppers and aggressive criminal activity. They have expanded their role into helping their organisations fight global cybercrime. They have faced an unprecedented global pandemic, which changed retail overnight.

“Loss prevention professionals confronted all these challenges without giving much ground as overall shrink remained steady. They are looking to the future with continued investment in technology resources and people. However, retail loss prevention professionals need additional law enforcement help. Many have established great partnerships, but more must be done to give law enforcement the tools they need to go after these sophisticated criminals.”

This article was originally published in the February 2022 edition of International Security Journal. Pick up your FREE digital edition here.

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