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Smash and Grab Defense Strategy

In a Nov. 24 robbery of the Nordstrom Inc. store at Westfield Topanga mall, thousands of dollars of purses were stolen and a security employee was attacked with chemical spray while confronting the suspects. Similar incidents have inspired a defensive response from retailers.The Nordstrom robbery was one of several incidents in the region widely reported in November and December. Rodeo Drive storefronts for Louis Vuitton and Saks Fifth Avenue were smashed Nov. 21, though no merchandise was taken, while the Nordstrom at the Grove shopping center lost thousands of dollars of product on Nov. 22 in a robbery and several Valley T-Mobile stores were robbed on Dec. 13, spurring concerns about organized crime in the retail sector.“Stores should be trained to know what to look for. An example of that is, basically, if you see that there are a lot of people coming in at one shot, and they’re passing by your store, you walk in your store and automatically call security. That communication has to be better. That’s the first thing,” Louis Perry, president of Encino-based Kadima Security Services said, stressing that crime prevention is more effective than crime response. “The second thing is, there are stores that have these electronic devices that are put on top of merchandise. And that allows that product to be alarmed.”In high-end boutique stores, shoppers may be required to book an appointment to browse with a sales associate one-on-one. In some cases, stores may limit hours of operation or the number of customers allowed inside at once. What’s more likely, experts said, in department stores and other locations where more customers cannot be accommodated in such a way, are anti-theft devices and surveillance cameras.“There are all kinds of new devices being developed,” Perry said, adding that surveillance and tracking technology keep store employees out of harm’s way when dealing with theft. “Technology has to be created to offset this new wave of crime that we’re dealing with in society.”Retailers themselves are also coming up with solutions and learning to use what manufacturers and security firms offer.“Some tracking devices exist that if you go and steal a product, they’re able to track where that product goes. … We’re seeing technology coming out, more so on that home improvement side, where you go in and steal an electric drill or something like that, and maybe that product doesn’t work unless it goes through a certain technology from the store to kind of turn it on so that you can use it. So that way, if you just steal it, it can’t be used,” Rachel Michelin, chief executive of the California Retailers Association in Sacramento, said. “We’re seeing smart carts in the grocery store, where if you fill up your cart and you try to walk out without going through the checkout and paying for it, then it sets off alarms and keeps people from leaving.”For customers, Michelin and Perry indicated, the increased security measures are becoming more commonplace. Meanwhile, Michelin is working on a public policy or economic measures to curb the rise in property crimes, especially with organized groups of thieves.“We’re working with the governor’s office on some ideas on how we can put some guardrails around this,” Michelin said. “We’re going back to really looking at the populations that need support and utilizing this as an opportunity to reach them and get them in connection with services and programs that can help them on a different life path, while at the same time letting these really bad actors who have these organized crime rings know that this type of behavior won’t be tolerated in California.”Representatives from the Nordstrom at Westfield Topanga did not respond to requests for comment.

Police responseThe Los Angeles Police Department announced the arrest of 14 people involved with smash-and-grab robberies on Dec. 2 and have increased patrols around shopping centers in the region in an effort to curb organized theft incidents.Retail crime, Michelin said, largely divides into two types of incidents: those committed by people living in poverty or with substance abuse issues and more targeted, orchestrated robberies that are arranged by what she called “masterminds” of criminal activity. For most incidents in the first category, she said, diversion programs and job training are a better alternative to jail time. Still, she said, the California Retailers Association is working with the governor’s office to address legal solutions for repeat offenders.“In general, the issue of organized retail crime, that isn’t a new issue. This has been something that we’ve been dealing with for years,” Michelin said. “I would say, though, that what we saw with those days around Thanksgiving with a lot of these smash-and-grab robberies, took it to a whole new level. Typically, we hadn’t seen that level of violence that we’re seeing in some of these organized retail crime incidents.”The most common items targeted by organized retail crime incidents include designer clothing, laundry detergent, designer handbags, allergy medicine, razors, high-end liquor and pain relievers, according to the National Retail Federation.“Things that can be easily sold, like beauty products and razors, are still a big area (for organized theft),” Michelin said. “Things that they can sell on a street corner at a swap meet. But then, more and more, we’re seeing things that are stolen that can be sold on the online marketplace. So now it has kind of ballooned, where there aren’t as many specific items because now people are able to sell it online.”Downward trendDespite recent high-profile incidents, property crime reported by the LAPD, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program, has been consistently trending downward over the last five years, with record-low rates of most crimes reported in 2020 — the latest comprehensive data available.The lower-than-average property crime rate in 2020 has been largely attributed to coronavirus-related lockdowns, according to experts. As a result, comparing 2021 data to 2020’s record lows, total property crime increased 3.4 percent this year, according to LAPD numbers released Dec. 11.However, compared to 2019, the same LAPD data indicates total property crime remains down 5.8 percent. Notably, “personal/other theft,” the category that includes shoplifting, is down 31.3 percent compared to 2019. Burglary, defined as breaking in with intent to commit a theft or felony and has the potential for violence, is down 6.9 percent. Robbery, the crime of taking something through force or fear, is down 12.9 percent. 

Katherine Tangalakis-Lippert
Katherine Tangalakis-Lippert
Katherine Tangalakis-Lippert is a Los Angeles-based reporter covering retail, hospitality and philanthropy for the San Fernando Valley Business Journal. In addition to her current beat, she is particularly interested in criminal justice topics, health and science stories and investigative journalism. She received her AA in Humanities from Moorpark College in 2016, her BA in Communication from Cal Lutheran University in 2019 and followed it up with a MA in Specialized Journalism from USC in the summer of 2020. Through her work, Katherine aspires to help strengthen the fragile trust between members of the media and the public.
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