People who shoplift from grocery stores usually start by stealing small quantities of cheese or charcuterie, says Florent Gravel.
But as their appetites and larcenies grow, so does the threat they pose to the bottom lines of grocers.
“Grocers have to always be on the lookout at the front, back and inside their stores,” said Gravel, president and general manager of the Association des détaillants en alimentation du Québec, which represents some 8,000 owners of food stores of all stripes and size. “But these days they have to be even more alert.”
According to Gravel, the low Canadian dollar, a fragile economy, and the spike in prices for some foods in 2015 — notably beef and imported fruits, nuts and vegetables — has been accompanied by increased shoplifting.
He pegged the cost of shoplifting at 1% of all grocery sales, or roughly the same amount as grocers make in profits.
About 65% of stolen groceries are estimated to go out the front door, with employees and/or receivers (delivery people) accounting for 35% exiting through the back.
“It’s a huge problem,” said Gravel.
He expects it will persist if food prices remain high in 2016 as expected.
Last week, the Food Institute of the University of Guelph issued a report that forecasts food inflation rates across Canada from between from 2% and 4%.
According to Gravel, two recent consumer trends have also increased the threat of grocery store shoplifting.
One is the widespread use of reusable bags.
“We never used to let people bring bags into stores, now everybody does,” said Gravel.
The other trend is debit card use.
“People don’t carry money around anymore, so the pickpockets have turned to stealing groceries,” said Gravel.
He said they tend to work in teams that fill up grocery bags with expensive items like meats and cheeses and razors, and leave them next to cash registers.
One or two then create a distraction, and the others pick up the bags and exit the store.
They then sell the stolen goods to unscrupulous people or businesses like restaurants and even other food or convenience stores.
To spot them, Gravel recommends the use of cameras and bar codes that enable vendors to determine whether items have been sold or stolen.
He also suggests grocers take the time and trouble to contact police, and even to take photos and information and file a complaint if law enforcement fails to show, as is often the case.
“A store owner faces huge penalties if they sell a single cigarette to a teenager, but police don’t really seem to care about shoplifting,” said Gravel.
For Ottawa store owner François Bouchard, vigilance and persecution are the grocers’ two best weapons when it comes to fighting shoplifting.
“We have to watch all the time, and act decisively when we catch people red handed,” said Bouchard, owner of the Country Grocer and a board member of GS1 Canada, a leader in developing and promoting the adoption of electronic supply chain best practices, such as bar codes.
Bouchard notably works closely with Ottawa police, and makes sure charges are laid against all shoplifters, including young school-age offenders.
“Even if that are not charged, at least it’s recorded,” said Bouchard. “Knowing they will be charged takes the temptation away for most people, and helps to nip things in the bud.”