Retailers face 'darkest time in Winnipeg history' as theft rates surge, security firm CEO says
Shoplifting rates in downtown Winnipeg among worst in entire country, according to Retail Council of Canada
Demand for security officers in Winnipeg has skyrocketed as retailers struggle with a surging shoplifting problem, driven largely by thefts from liquor stores, says the head of a local security company.
"We have an issue. We have a serious problem," said Ron D'Errico, founder and CEO of Impact Security Group, which has more than 1,500 security officers in Winnipeg.
He says in the past year, his company has seen a 68 per cent jump in requests for those officers at places like pharmacies, grocery stores, clothing stores and liquor outlets.
"It tells me we're in trouble," D'Errico said. "And the reality is that it's not going away. It's here and the only way to combat this is a larger police presence. We have to meet it head on."
The problem has some businesses making changes, like Maxim Muffler and Auto on Portage Avenue, which has moved most of its product off the sales floor.
"The less you leave out in the public, the less likelihood that you'll have something taken," said owner Marco Palumbo.
Meanwhile, the operations manager at Northway Pharmacy on Broadway says the business has experienced almost no shoplifting since it locked all its products behind glass eight years ago.
"On a daily basis, you would have a problem — something as little as stealing cough syrup to even just stealing our newspapers in the back," said Oumad Khalik.
Now, with products locked in cases, "unless you were to smash [the glass] here and grab it and run out the door, there's no way you're going to be able to really steal anything here."
In an attempt to dissuade thieves, security officers have become more visible and almost permanent in stores.
Five years ago there would be undercover agents working furtively and sporadically in a circuit that covered several stores, D'Errico said.
"Now it's normal to see a security guard patrolling the store in full uniform or even greeting people at the front door."
That's the direction taken by Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries. Since 2018, the provincial Crown corporation has placed loss-prevention officers in stores during peak times, sometimes even checking customers' IDs at the front door.
However, the problem has not gone away.
City Liquor Marts are being robbed a total of 10 to 20 times a day, Const. Jay Murray of the Winnipeg Police Service said at a news conference on Monday.
D'Errico said shoplifters have become more brazen and organized, with groups of people going into stores. They either grab things in a frenzied blast — as has been the case at Liquor Marts — or do it more calmly, spreading out so loss prevention officers can't keep track of them all.
Then they walk out en masse so it becomes impossible to identify which one has the stolen goods, he said.
They have also become more violent, D'Errico said.
His security guards have faced threats from people armed with knives, they've been pepper sprayed, and one shoplifter even pulled a fire extinguisher off the wall and sprayed it in the guard's face.
"This is the darkest time in Winnipeg history for any type of security activity in the province," D'Errico said.
His company also has seen a demand for service in parking lots due to an "all-time high" of smash-and-grabs from parked vehicles, he said.
Theft has become so common for retailers in the city that Maxim Muffler's Palumbo said he wasn't surprised when his shop was broken into in August.
"Unfortunately, there are other businesses in my surrounding area that were broken into, so it was just a matter of time," he said.
Palumbo said the break-in came with added stress because of the insurance issues he had to deal with.
"It's extremely frustrating," he said. "There's a lot of things in the background that people don't realize that you have to deal with: beefing up security, beefing up your systems and procedures to avoid us being a target."
At Northway Pharmacy, the security measures seem to be working to deter theft — but Khalik said they might also be keeping customers away, and he hopes locking products away in glass cases doesn't have to be a permanent solution.
"It's hard to say. For us, someone might look at it as a bit of an eyesore," he said. "I would love to be able to just take these [glass doors] right off and just have more open shelving."
Winnipeg Police Service data shows a drastic spike in shoplifting. Here are the number of incidents for shoplifting under $5,000:
- 2017: 2,784.
- 2018: 5,001
That's in increase of nearly 80 per cent.
In a 12-month stretch from August 2018 until July 2019, there were 6,943 incidents reported to police. In the same span from August 2017 to July 2018, the number was 3,819.
That's an increase of almost 82 per cent.
John Graham, who is with the Prairie region for the Retail Council of Canada, said Winnipeg's theft reputation is well-known and deters businesses from setting up, particularly in the downtown area.
For the most part, shoplifting rates nationally equate to an average of 1.44 per cent of a retailer's total product. Downtown Winnipeg's rate is triple that — around four or five per cent, he said.
"It's alarming numbers that have got the attention of national and regional retailers."
Companies only have so much money to invest in new stores and when they consider where to locate, a city's theft rate and the level of risk to employees are weighed heavily.
"There is a tendency in Winnipeg to look at the suburban areas rather than downtown, which is inconsistent with all of the effort going on to rebuild a vibrant downtown Winnipeg," Graham said.
The amount of theft incurred at a store in downtown Winnipeg ranks among the top five compared to any other store in the entire country, he said.
"So when you look at the data of how much product is walking out the door at any given store across Canada, and comparing them to each other, Winnipeg downtown is right up there," Graham said, putting it on part with Edmonton and Vancouver's East Hastings.
With files from Eleanor Coopsammy