Most thefts are by people driven by desperation, negligence, or a mixture of both
By Sylvain Charlebois
Grocery theft has always been a major problem, but with food inflation as it is, shopkeepers now fear the wrongdoers more than before.
In December, some Ontarians visited stores in Trois-Rivières, Que. to steal $4,000 worth of meat. In Sherbrooke, Que. a man was arrested following a shoplifting incident a few days before Christmas, and two other people are still on the loose. They had stolen over $2,000 worth of groceries.
Since they got caught, these thefts were probably perpetrated by amateurs, who may have been already doing this for a while. The volume and the amounts tell us, though, that they were targeting a resale market, likely in the food service industry.
These two cases are obviously known due to media coverage. But most such incidents are handled by store management itself. Cases of grocery store theft are grossly under-reported, and obtaining food theft data is extremely challenging.
Most thefts are in-store, off-the-shelf, of only a few products, and usually thefts by people driven by desperation, negligence, or a mixture of both. But the most troublesome and financially damaging incidents for grocers are those carried out by internal employees. These cases rarely make headlines due to their sensitive nature, as the optics can be embarrassing. Volume and valuation for these cases are usually more important.
Theft, in general, in food retail is taboo. But with the food inflation rate exceeding the prevailing inflation rate for more than a year now, the industry realizes that its theft problem is worse than before.
According to some industry data, an average-sized food retail store in Canada can have between $2,000 and $5,000 worth of groceries stolen every week. With the relatively narrow profit margins in grocery, this amount is huge. To cover losses, grocers need to raise prices, so in the end, we all pay for grocery theft.
Some stores are increasing security to prevent theft these days. There are certainly security guards at the entrance, but there is also more security personnel dressed in civilian clothes, patrolling the stores all day pretending to do their shopping. It’s a discreet tactic but one that is very effective.
Elsewhere in the world, certain methods are much more visible. Some stores in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere have even installed anti-theft alarms directly on certain products, especially on meat cuts, cheese, and confectionery.
No merchant has done the same thing in Canada, at least not yet. But don’t be surprised if you see these devices here in Canada at some point. Also, you can expect more cameras, more surveillance, and more security in general, as your favourite grocer won’t have a choice.
The other challenge facing grocers is self-checkouts. In a recent survey by our Lab, more than 65 per cent of consumers now prefer to use a self-checkout with an order of fewer than 20 items. They are increasingly popular. But monitoring at the point of service is challenging: the technology is still not yet ready to limit theft.
Limiting labour and handling required by the consumer at the exit during the self-checkout process is not easy. Using the smart cart, which calculates everything automatically, or a giant black box in which we put all our products at checkout and calculate everything in a few seconds can help. Canada, though, is still not there.
The world’s first self-service supermarket, the Piggly Wiggly, opened in Memphis in 1916. Customers were allowed to visit the aisles on their own. Like today, a customer would receive a basket and choose from the various items they wanted. That was 107 years ago, and, back then, the greatest fear was also theft.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.
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