Shoplifting is one of the most pressing issues for food retailers today, but asset protection is just one part of the equation in keeping grocery stores safe for their customers and employees, Tom Cosgrove, senior manager of industry relations for FMI – The Food Industry Association, said at Winsight's RetailTEC conference Wednesday.
Active assailants, organized retail crime, natural disasters, employee theft—even bomb threats—are among the issues the association is working with its members to combat, he said during his presentation: “Guarding Profits: Strategies for Protecting Your Assets.”
Asset protection managers across the country are “using their brains a lot more than their brawn” these days, deploying new technologies like artificial intelligence and computer vision to reduce crime, Cosgrove said.
“It's more than just apprehensions in that cops and robbers approach …" he told attendees. "During the pandemic we had civil unrest, we had customer and employee arguments, we had employee-on-employee arguments. And so overnight, we had to train our associates to also understand de-escalation.”
He said FMI also worked with its asset protection group, a taskforce made up of asset protection managers across the country, to address a series of bomb threats made at grocery stores in the spring. The perpetrators were making anonymous calls and demanding thousands of dollars in gift cards from grocers and mass merchandisers, Cosgrove said.
Winsight Grocery Business’s coverage of the threats in May revealed that major retailers such as Walmart, Target, Kroger, Smith’s, Pick ’n Save, Harps, Brookshire’s and Whole Foods Market received the threats.
Asset protection managers started sharing information and then the FBI and Homeland Security launched an investigation, according to Cosgrove. Doug Baker, FMI’s vice president of industry relations, worked with FBI agents and other law enforcement officials to identify similarities between the various threats, Cosgrove said. Federal investigators discovered that the calls were coming from overseas and made via hijacked Google Voice accounts, he explained.
In response to the threats, the asset protection taskforce created a digital portal that enabled security officers at the stores to communicate and share information, according to Cosgrove.
Cosgrove walked attendees through the myriad safety topics FMI has worked on, but the topic of shrink was the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Laundry detergents, particularly those sold in pod form, liquor and popular over-the-counter medications were the biggest items on the list targeted by shoplifters and retail theft rings, he said.
Much of the theft taking place in grocery and mass merchandise stores is happening at self-checkout lanes, he said. Product switching at self-checkout lanes is one of the most common methods, but “associate avoidance” is a form of shrink that is often overlooked, Cosgrove said.
Some less-experienced cashiers are reluctant to have a conversation with customers at a self-checkout who may be stealing because they are averse to confrontation, according to Cosgrove. “Some of these younger associates might just want to go up and key in their code when there’s a problem with the machine just so they don’t have to have that conversation, so sometimes they are enabling this stuff to occur,” he said.
Cosgrove said FMI is working to reduce retail theft in a number of ways, such as its support of the Combating Organized Retail Crime Act of 2023, which allows judges to order criminal forfeiture for organized retail crime convictions.
The association has also encouraged the use of sites such as arrest.org, which allows asset protection managers to upload photos of potential perpetrators to help establish patterns of theft. The software was used recently to track a serial shoplifter who traveled up and down the East Coast amassing more than $30,000 in stolen goods.
“Anybody who sells product, whether you're a clothing store or a hardware store or a food retailer or a c-store, you can be a part of these groups. And hopefully you might be able to identify a pattern in your area,” Cosgrove said.
Cosgrove added that FMI is also focused on a number of other initiatives to reduce theft, such as promoting use of anti-theft stickers that are difficult to remove and make it harder for stolen products to be resold.