As COVID-19 ushered in new customers and IGCs were up against issues like thinning plant inventory and staffing shortages, overall security checks or drills may have fallen by the wayside. As garden centers settle into the fall months, it’s the perfect time to rethink security strategies and make new room for improvements.
BY THE NUMBERS
According to the National Retail Federation’s 2021 Retail Security Survey, 69.4% of respondents reported that the pandemic “resulted in an increase in overall risk to their organizations.” The report also highlighted the fact that criminals had more opportunity to swipe products due to multichannel sales, such as buying online or in-store pick-up.
Per the report, 18% of respondents said they experienced a “slight or significant reduction in threats over the past year,” likely due to decreased foot traffic from COVID-19 safety measures. The report also stated that employee theft was the largest area of reduction, and nearly 30% of respondents also reported that shoplifting was also a reduced threat.
While these numbers might seem good news, retailers should have their guard up: According to the report, 38.9% of those surveyed experienced the most significant increase in fraud from multichannel sales, compared to just 18.8% in 2020 — almost double. The NRF report also discovered that 53% of retailers are allocating additional technology resources to safeguard their operations.
While crime is relatively low in the industry, it can — and does — happen.
PLANT AND PRODUCT THEFT
- Theft usually occurs after hours.
- Theft happens on a large scale, and usually thieves are prepared with trucks, other vehicles or and have access to an easy escape route.
- Big-ticket items like shrubs, statuary items or large containers are usually targeted by thieves.
Shoplifting and plant theft seldom happen during operating hours, says Tom Richey, claims manager at Hortica, a brand of Sentry Insurance.
“As far as shoplifting products in a store, we don’t see a lot of that, claims-wise. We see a lot of theft from products in stores after hours,” he says.
Jay Mitchell, manager at Mitchell’s Nursery & Greenhouse in King, North Carolina, can attest to this, as his family’s business experienced theft and repeated attempts that started in the spring of 2016. One particular customer came by twice a year, usually during the busier times, such as the nursery’s spring open house. Sometimes the man showed up with his family members, but he usually showed up alone.
According to Mitchell, the man bought a bag of dirt or hanging basket at most, but he lingered around the store for two or three hours.
“He asked a lot of questions about what we were growing and how things were going,” Mitchell recalls. “His dad used to have a greenhouse.”
On the night after the open house, police spotted two men on the side of the road by the nursery’s irrigation pond who claimed their van had broken down. Police arrested one of the men, as there had been a previous warrant out for his arrest. The other went on his way, and all of this occurred unbeknownst to Mitchell.
The morning after that incident, Mitchell discovered that nearly $1,200 worth of geraniums were missing. He found some of them scattered in a gully near the woods behind the nursery, and amongst them found a wax-coated box that linked the name of the man’s business on it — a giveaway as to who was behind the theft. Mitchell also found a homemade stretcher device used to transport plants.
He estimates the stretcher required two people to maneuver it, and says it could probably hold about 80 6.5-inch geraniums at a time, along with four hanging baskets. He also says the thieves likely entered the nursery through the woods from the road that led to the building, as it was an easy access point.
Mitchell thinks that because the path through the woods was so rocky, one of the men fell and sustained injuries, and couldn’t continue on, leading to the discovery of plants in the woods.
“We called the sheriff’s department and they said, ‘Well, that’s odd. We just arrested him the night before over at your pond.’”
However, they couldn’t prove or disprove that the suspect had stolen from the nursery because the man claimed that he and his family had bought the plants the week before. At the time, Mitchell’s Nursery & Greenhouse provided customers with handwritten receipts and didn’t have a POS system to track purchases.
“We could not deny that they had bought anything from us, but the bulk of it was gone. They had a box truck with a company name on the side of it, so the detective was pretty sure that they were going out and peddling our stuff (and possibly plants from other nurseries) to hardware stores and other businesses out of their box truck, acting like they grew it,” Mitchell says.
While petty plant or product theft can occur in broad daylight with lower or moderately priced items, Richey says they don’t often receive claims for smaller items from their insured. Instead, it happens on a larger scale.
“What we see shoplifted are your big-ticket items and equipment, after-hours. This is where people are loading them up on vehicles. Things like shrubs, larger containers or statuary items are the things that are being stolen from garden centers. Most of it is probably left out in the open, and unless they’re well secured, they can be taken pretty quickly,” Richey says.
- Install video or dummy cameras, security signage, motion sensor alarms, padlocks or extra lighting.
- Open up the front of the store so you can easily monitor who enters in and out.
To prevent loss and theft, Zach Bruce, safety services manager at Hortica, says it’s essential to have a plan in place for when such incidents occur. For example, if theft occurs, garden centers should first file a police report.
“They should let law enforcement know the issues they’re having and see if they’re able to drive by on a more regular basis. Generally, if they go down and they steal something one night and they easily get away with that, then there’s a good chance that they’re likely going to go back and try it again,” Bruce says.
Garden centers should install motion-sensor security lighting and video cameras in-store and outdoor, Bruce says. For video cameras, attention is critical: think quality image and broad coverage. Dummy cameras or security signage are always good to have to dissuade any potential thieves as well.
Many security cameras have multiple options when setting up, and businesses can either outsource monitoring/installation or do everything in-house. Whatever the company decides, it should get as much coverage as possible, and should focus on any entryway points into the store, Bruce says.
He also recommends securing any parking lot gates with a heavy-duty lock, which is another easy way to stop potential thieves in their tracks.
“The other thing that we’ve typically recommended is to open up the front and try to make it so that people can’t easily be undercover. You want to easily monitor who enters the property,” Bruce says.
After the theft incident, Mitchell installed alarms on the greenhouse doors and trip-motion laser beam sensors. The company also installed video cameras in the main greenhouse and the nursery’s parking lot.
“There’s not a good way to lock up a greenhouse because people could just slice through the plastic. The greenhouse and growing areas are on 5-6 acres, so it would’ve been really expensive to put a security fence up. Video surveillance and the alarms system seemed to be the cheapest route to go,” Mitchell says.
Mitchell notes that the man’s family came back to the store during opening hours three times since the primary incident, and he made it clear that none of them were welcome and had to leave. However, Mitchell says shortly after, the prowlers came back one night — likely attempting to steal poinsettias in the greenhouse. He thinks it was the same family involved in the initial theft.
“I don’t think they realized that we had put alarms in the greenhouse because after they got in the greenhouse, the alarm went off and they left,” Mitchell says.
Unfortunately, their heads were down, and they were wearing hats so that the police couldn’t make an arrest, but the alarm was enough to scare them off before they could swipe anything. While combing through security footage, Mitchell discovered that the men had visited prior during business hours, and he could tell they were scoping out camera locations.
“Looking back, they probably had been doing it for three to five years because they would come in on our open houses or the Saturday before Mother’s Day — our busiest days — just wandering around. And it’s just so chaotic that when you come in those next mornings, you don’t notice when there’s plants missing,” he says.
Mitchell realized the two men had picked six geraniums off of different benches little by little throughout the greenhouse to avoid arousing suspicion. And because the nursery grows nearly 12,000 geraniums, the thieves could quickly get away with stealing a couple hundred of them, Mitchell says.
The men were never formally charged due to lack of concrete evidence, but the garden center hasn’t had any issues since installing those security measures.
THE NEXT WAVE OF CRIME
One of the most significant emerging threats to businesses right now is cybercrime, and even garden centers can become a target for hackers. Stolen information is a substantial loss for their insured, Richey says — and the losses are larger than what they’re losing in stolen plants.
“The biggest thing that we’re seeing is that people are keeping information they don’t need to be keeping, they need to discard old or outdated information so there aren’t more ways for these crimes to take place,” Richey says.
Stolen information can result in the loss of millions of dollars, so it’s crucial to discard outdated information securely.
Many businesses reuse simple passwords or lack follow-through on virus software updates. As a result, Richey says they aren’t aware of the issue until it’s too late and experience $3-4 million ransomware losses. Protecting account information is vital because cybercriminals can hack into payment systems and grab names, addresses and credit cards. A common issue Richey sees is cybercriminals posing as known vendors submitting a “notice” for past-due payments and letting the business know they can pay via credit card.
“These crimes happen more than you would believe, so there’s got to be a protection policy in place with every company, every organization. You’ve got to be able to manage and educate your employees on how to recognize and prevent cyberattacks,” Richey says.