Why retailers' shoplifting fears are wrapped up in reusable bags
Crowds of people milling through a store with reusable shopping bags and bookbags in tow is simultaneously a dream and a nightmare for some Canadian retailers.
They're happy to have the customers, but are worried about the small percentage of people who see their reusable bag as a tool for shoplifting.
"At one time they [retailers] might have had two or three suspicious looking people in the building," said Stephen O'Keefe, a consultant who helps companies with loss prevention. "Now, with reusable bags, they look around and maybe 30, 40 per cent of their customers appear to be suspicious."
O'Keefe spent years with Hudson's Bay, Sears and was the vice-president of loss prevention and risk management with Walmart Canada.
"The anxiety is real. You can't take that away, that might be a healthy thing as a retailer, it might cause them to be more diligent," he said.
Laurie Jennings has felt that anxiety first-hand. He's the owner of the Masstown Market grocery store near Debert, N.S.
He doesn't have an exact figure, but Jennings estimates his business loses thousands of dollars a year to shoplifters.
Jennings said some people decide not to use the store's carts or baskets while they shop. Instead, they put the items they want to buy directly into their reusable bags.
"Whether it's intentional or inadvertent, it's easy enough to walk out the door with your bag being full of product and purchases being unpaid for, so it is a concern," he said.
"I'm sure that 99.9 per cent of folks with reusable bags aren't thinking about that at all, but it is another method for those, that small minority of folks that are looking to take advantage of you, to get one over on you for sure."
Every theft has a huge impact on Jennings' business. His store makes about two or three cents profit on every dollar of product sold, so if someone steals a $10 item, his store needs to sell a couple hundred dollars worth of food to make up that loss.
Shoplifting causes big losses for retailers
Last year, the Retail Council of Canada estimated that shoplifting accounts for up to $5 billion a year in losses for Canadian retailers. The council is a non-profit association funded by the industry that represents more than 45,000 retail stores across the country.
Some of the council's members are also worried about how criminals could turn reusable bags into tools for shoplifting, said Jim Cormier, the council's Atlantic director.
He said some retailers have taken a stand and won't allow people to carry large bookbags or duffle bags around a store in an effort to cut down on shoplifting.
But other stores could take a different approach to be welcoming to shoppers.
How some retailers are embracing reusable bags
"In some cases, you will probably see some retailers bending over backwards for the customer saying, 'Look, if you want to bring in a duffel bag, then we may allow that,'" said Cormier.
If that happens, he expects store staff will stick close to customers.
"The customer will need to be ready for more aggressive hospitality," said Cormier.
"A retail salesperson may be right over your shoulder at all times being very helpful and wanting to help you at every step of the way through the store to ensure that you're getting everything you need, but at the same time keeping an eye on you, making sure you're not walking out with some of their product unpaid."
O'Keefe said good ways to deter people from shoplifting include aggressive hospitality, using a security system that has visible cameras, doors that require motion to open and having a store layout that forces customers to walk by cashiers when they leave.
At the Masstown Market, Jennings said he uses many of those techniques in his store and also has signage.
"We have some signs up in the entrance saying that we appreciate the use of reusable bags, but please shop into our carts and our baskets and we'll be happy to fill them up for you," said Jennings. "Filling them up at the checkout makes a whole lot more sense."
Still, O'Keefe doesn't believe simply having a reusable bag will tempt more people into stealing from stores. He said many shoplifters are repeat offenders and have been stealing for a long time.
"It wasn't that they were an ordinary shopper turned shoplifter because they had the bag, they had the intent to come in and steal and just looked at the bag as a tool," he said.