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'The problem of theft in garden centres'

- a timely article by Alan Hollensen of the NGIAV.

That theft is a growing problem in garden centres is obvious - but what may not be so readily apparent are the various ways businesses are being robbed, the scope of the problem, and the sheer size of the losses.

The issue of theft needs to be considered in two principal categories. The first is theft by customers. This is the issue that retailers are most familiar with and the one they are most willing to tackle. From an industry point of view, it is also the smaller of the two categories.

The second area, the bigger and more damaging issue, is theft by staff. Many garden centres are simply unwilling to confront this issue head on because to do so may reveal shortcomings right across the business. This could be anything from staff supervision, pricing policies, inventory control or even stock-take accuracy.

In other words, looking closely at the opportunities available for staff to steal would highlight many if not all of the management deficiencies of the owner or operator. It's easier to ignore these potential problems and put your faith and trust in the supposition that staff will not avail themselves of the opportunities you have so kindly provided them.

The bad news is - the opportunity creates the thief!
If people, staff or customers are given enough opportunity to steal, then it is only a matter of time before many of them will be tempted. And once they start, they will not stop until they are either caught or the physical, financial and management environment alters to a degree that drives the risk of being caught to an unacceptably high level.

Customer theft:

With garden centres now moving much more heavily into gift lines, they are witnessing a dramatic rise in attention from shop thieves. Gift lines, it can be fairly said, are ideal stock items to steal because they are often quite small, frequently of high value and have plenty of visual appeal.

It is interesting to note that the profile of the average garden centre customer and the profile of the average garden centre thief is now thought to correspond almost exactly.

Many experts in this area consider that the typical thief is likely to be a middle-aged female who could easily afford to buy the products they steal. It may also be the case that they have been a customer of yours for some time, that you know them by name and think of them as a 'loyal' customer. And indeed they are!

This person will steal from you on a regular basis and they will continue to do so until they are either caught or until the apparent risk rises to a level that forces them to move on to another retailer.

This type of thief typically begins criminal activity by accident. They get in the car after visiting your garden centre and discover they have put something in their bag and quite innocently forgotten to pay for it. Instead of quitting while they are ahead, they return and soon will be stealing stock on most visits. So how do we counter this type of thief?

Shop layout:
This is a fundamental issue. Configure your show-room to reduce the opportunity to steal by improving sight lines and removing blind spots as far as practicable. There are very real constraints at work here as every retailer knows. The primary function of the business is to sell stock, not deter thieves and so the show-room must be set up in the best way to meet this goal. Having said that, there is generally ample scope to reduce the opportunity to steal without fatally compromising the ability to merchandise stock effectively.

Customer Service: Attentive service still remains one of the best deterrents.
All customers should be greeted at some time while they are in the show-room of the garden centre. Any customer who raises the merest suspicion should be given close personal attention by staff and essentially tracked as they move around. If they are holding an item, offer to carry it to the counter. If they express interest in something, talk to them about it, but remain nearby.

This attention has the effect of 'increasing the effort to steal' and this is one of the fundamental strategies available to store owners.

As a necessary first step though, try to educate your staff to the concept that nobody should be excluded from surveillance attention. There is no need to pay the well-dressed middle aged female more attention, but neither should this customer be ignored.

Raise the risk
The average thief is much more scared of the threat of exposure than the threat of punishment. It is also to be noted that the older the thief, the greater this fear of exposure. Bear in mind that the police will hardly ever prosecute a shoplifter for theft of product under $100 in value.

Exposure, not the fear of prosecution is your best defence.

Reduce the potential gains
Again the best remedy here is an active, attentive staff. This strategy is not based on catching thieves but rather on reducing the opportunity to steal. In this regard it may already be apparent that staff management is a vital component of any anti-theft program. These simple fundamental steps in securing your garden centre must be applied by all staff at all times in a manner that is absolutely consistent.

One last point in regard to limiting potential gains; empty the till of notes at least a couple of times a day. Record the amount and place the cash in the safe. This task is meant to secure the till from theft by customers and needs to be managed in such a way that it does not, by default, create an opportunity for staff.

Theft by staff: A case study

A garden centre set a trap to catch a young girl suspected of stealing from the till. A $100 note, suitably marked and recorded, was placed in the cash drawer and sure enough when the till was checked a couple of hours later the cash had been taken.

The police were called in and the girl confessed. Yes, she had been stealing from the till on a regular basis, but No, she didn't have the $100 note.

Quite unknown to the girl, her assistant had been stealing from the till as well and the police discovered the money in his wallet when they spoke to him.

The two sales assistants confessed to stealing $1,200 between them and were charged.

The garden centre had been having trouble with its POS system and when they eventually found a back-up and were able to review the transactions it was discovered that it wasn't $1,200 that had been stolen - it was $34,000. The police refused to amend the charges.

Stock is attractive to staff thieves, but cash will always be the primary focus and it needs to be yours as well. In this regard the till is your primary line of defence. Its correct operation and the review of its activity needs to become a fundamental part of the garden centre's management.

Once again I need to stress that consistency is of absolute importance here. To the same degree that till journals for example, are reviewed in an inconsistent manner, then to the same degree an opportunity has been created to steal from the business.

Protecting the till from theft by staff: The usual warning signs are these:

  • A large number of Sale returns.
  • A large number of No-sales.
  • The till will not reconcile at day's end.

    If staff are allowed to process a sale return without supervision, then they have been given a licence to steal money. They may not do so, but the opportunity is definitely there and we have already noted that it is opportunity that creates a thief.

    Guard your business against this type of theft by:
    Restricting the staff who have the authority to process a sale return. Not allowing a single operator to process a sale return. Make it a rule that two staff members need to be present.

    Reconciling electronic sales dockets to ensure that money obtained as credit from one customer is not deposited into the account of either another 'customer' or a member of staff's credit card.

    Never allowing a cash refund for a non-cash sale.

    No-Sale dockets:
    These may be generated to top up the till with change or for some other sensible reason to do with the day-to-day working of the shop. However, the No-Sale docket should always be signed by the operator and returned to the till, and the reason it was generated in the first place needs to be written on the back.

    Large numbers of No-Sales should sound an alarm in the owner's mind and staff should be asked why it is necessary to open the cash drawer.

    Till will not reconcile:
    Even a primitive cash register will have a journal roll. This will reveal all the silly mistakes that operators make during the course of a day's trade. Most of these are simple things like a sale being put through for cash when payment was made electronically and it needs to be understood that most of these are entirely innocent.

    Observation and tracking of till overs and unders though, may reveal a pattern and if this is the case then the business has a problem.

    On more sophisticated systems it is now possible to track discrepancies to a particular shift or to match the hours of a particular worker. Whatever system is used, overs and unders need to be recorded and discrepancies need to be followed up with staff likely to be at fault. Individual attention to this problem will work to discourage theft by highlighting the fact that you are alert to discrepancies and that you follow them up in a timely manner.

    Even these simple precautions will be of no avail unless Z-Reads and X-Reads are carried out on a daily basis.

    Z-Reads must be completed at close of trade every day. This is the basis of your till reconciliation and the front line defence against the theft of money.

    X-Reads are under-utilised as a defence against the theft of cash. Use a spare cash drawer with another float and balance the till at a random time each day. This will limit the opportunities to steal money. Then when a problem is encountered, the trail will be fresh.

    Bigger stores mean bigger theft
    These last points highlight a serious problem. As a business gets bigger, so too, the opportunity to steal gets bigger! Although the systems are more sophisticated and the whole accounting process may be computerised, it is also true that the line of command grows longer and communication becomes more difficult. Reports that are supposed to be a daily part of the reconciliation process may not be completed for each day's trade. When a lack of consistency creeps into the system, expensive tools become expensive toys that will not do the job for which you need them.

    Simple solutions are best:
    I believe that this is a problem that often requires professional assistance.Having said that, it is easy to throw a large amount of money at the problem yet still not solve it. I would much rather see an approach which took in aspects of environmental design to eliminate the problem rather than invest some $20,000 worth of video equipment to catch people after they have stolen from your business.

    Begin your anti-theft campaign with simple messages to your staff. These need to focus on the two parts of the problem - that is, theft by customers and theft by staff.

    Alert them to your efforts to counter both these problems and then enlist their aid. Staff, despite everything I have written up to this point, are not your enemy. No anti-theft strategy can work without their co-operation and in this regard people need to know the importance of the tasks you have asked them to perform.

    Attack this issue as a team because if you don't, you won't succeed.

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