Teaching Sales Staff To Respond Effectively To EAS Alarms

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Most readers are familiar with electronic article surveillance (EAS) systems and their utilisation as a fundamental loss prevention (LP) tool. A recent article stated that approximately 80 percent of American retailers utilise some EAS tools, but only 44 percent of LP professionals describe it as effectively executed. This article focuses on addressing one of the biggest downfalls when utilising EAS systems – the lack of appropriate response when an EAS system activates at one of the store’s entry/exit points.

EAS systems play a pivotal role in LP efforts, providing various benefits and opportunities if their deployment is well thought out and appropriately utilised. They help identify merchandise as belonging to a particular store, they allow items of high value to be displayed in a way so customers can touch and feel them, they deter would-be thieves, they make thieves go to greater effort to steal items, they alert staff to the possibility of a theft taking place and help to identify store property quickly during a search. EAS systems also increase LP awareness amongst staff through training in EAS policy and procedures and through the management of EAS tags.

The Lack of Response to an Activation

Of the four functions of security, EAS systems help deter potential thieves, play a key role in their detection, may also play a role in delaying them; however, they do not automatically initiate a human response. For EAS systems to be highly effective, stores must ensure that staff members respond to activations as they occur.

When a person purchases something from a store, it is often handled in some way by the checkout assistant to ensure that the item will not activate the security systems upon the person’s exit. (Hard tags are removed with a strong magnetic detacher and soft tags are passed over an electronic deactivator.) But these systems are nonetheless frequently activated and, more often than not, the casual observer will note that no response is initiated to the activation. People walk through the EAS towers, loud beeping commences, and the person who seemingly has the cause of the activation on his person either keeps walking, or stops and waits for someone to approach him and, when no one does, either leaves or looks confused and returns to the store seeking assistance.

Staff Training is Essential

Typically, a lack of response to alarm activation is due to poor or no staff training and also a lack of ownership by staff members. For this gap to be effectively addressed, the organisation must have a strategy which is expressed as an EAS policy that is supported by clear procedures. For those procedures to become truly valuable, they must have management support and be backed up by staff training.

Staff need to be trained on how to work with EAS equipment and how to handle EAS activations with a customer service focus. It takes no longer than one or two hours and can be included within many other training programs, but should be conducted by LP staff or business supervisors/managers. If a retailer fails to carry out training on this important aspect of LP, serious impacts may result, such as:

  • EAS alarms not being responded to, reducing the effectiveness of EAS as an LP tool
  • mishandling of a response to EAS activations, exposing the company to litigation from customers
  • employer negligence in their duty of care by exposing staff members to the threat of confrontations and violence

What to Include in EAS Training

Topics to include in EAS training include:

  • An explanation of why and how EAS systems play a pivotal role in the organisation’s LP efforts – this relates to the EAS policy. If conducted properly, this will build a sense of ownership and responsibility within staff members.
  • An explanation of what the organisation expects of the staff members in managing the use of EAS systems, including what to tag, how to tag, and when and how to remove or deactivate EAS tags. This relates to the EAS procedures.
  • How to effectively and safely respond to an EAS activation – with the aim of providing staff with the skills and confidence to handle this potentially confrontational task successfully. The use of role plays here is highly effective.
  • The legal rights of customers and the store, including bag checks, refusing persons to re-enter stores (ban letters) and the mechanics of an apprehension.

The Number One Rule

One of the key outcomes of the training is to ensure that staff feel confident that they know what to do when responding to an EAS alarm activation. The number one rule to remember when approaching someone is to take a customer service approach of attempting to help the customer identify what caused the activation. Staff are not trying to catch shoplifters and they are not policing their stores. They are providing customer service!

Staff members have to be aware that activations can be caused by a large number of items, such as library books, mobile phones, DVDs, products from other stores, as well as countless other items. Tags may also have been left on accidentally by staff members during a genuine purchase. A customer service approach will resolve most of these issues in a mutually satisfactory manner.

Training Scenarios

In a perfect scenario, when responding to an EAS alarm activation a staff member would approach the situation having been trained and with clear expectations from management regarding store policy. Taking a customer service approach, a properly trained staff member will use the ‘right’ tone of voice and ask the ‘right’ questions to help to reassure the customer that he is NOT under accusation. In trying to find out what set the alarm off, the staff member should ask to see a receipt for goods purchased, and to see inside any bags to help identify the source of the activation. The customer can be requested to move items around in his bag if needed so that all contents can be observed without actually touching the bags. It may be necessary to have the customer walk through the EAS towers again with any suspected item (causing the activation). Staff must remember that the customer is not under accusation unless previous circumstances indicate otherwise. Customer service is the key here in dealing with a potentially uncomfortable situation. Any found items that have not been paid for can either be purchased or retrieved – with an accurate record of the event recorded on the bag check log.

Not all situations go as perfectly as that. One of these responses could turn quite ugly very quickly, especially if untrained staff members are left to deal with potentially dangerous situations, and training must address these scenarios.

Handling Confrontation

There are a number of things that the customer may claim when being questioned about the possession of an item that has not been paid for. He may claim that he entered the store with it, he cannot find the receipt, or claim he bought it from another store. In these cases, when it cannot be proven that the item came from the store, it is best to get as much detail as possible from the customer without accusing them and to try and verify the details or refer the situation to a supervisor or manager. Sometimes a customer may just walk away from the staff member. In this case, the only requirement of the staff member is to note as much information as possible about the incident and to report it. Most retailers will instruct staff members never to apprehend potential shoplifters unless specifically trained for this due to the serious legal consequences of a false arrest.

When a confrontation does take place, it can lead to verbal abuse or even physical violence; therefore, it is important to remember that staff safety is paramount. Violent confrontations must be avoided at all cost or dealt with by properly trained LP officers. It is not uncommon for shoplifters to carry weapons (knives, syringes and so on) so staff need to be aware of and be prepared for this. It is also not uncommon for shoplifters to overreact to a confrontation with a staff member by becoming loud and animated. They utilise this as a form of distraction, drawing attention from other customers and claiming innocence.

There are three ways of dealing with a difficult situation/confrontation. Firstly, if the customer raises his voice or begins shouting, the staff member should attempt to reassure the customer that he is trying to help and try to diffuse the situation. Secondly, the staff member should attempt to get support from another staff member, manager, or LP officer, whilst keeping an eye on the customer. Thirdly, if the confrontation becomes too aggressive and there is a threat or a risk of violence, then the staff member can simply walk away, thus removing himself from the potentially dangerous confrontation. The primary thought in any such confrontation, as mentioned previously, is that safety must come first. Staff must be trained to recognise and be aware of the warning signs of a confrontation, at which time they are to seek assistance or remove themselves from the situation. After any such reported incident, management should debrief the staff member to offer advice and support.

Conclusion

Responding to EAS systems is a key element of their success. Properly trained staff will maintain or increase the systems’ effectiveness and will be in a stronger position to handle the potentially difficult situations that may arise.

Prior to becoming general manager of the IT services company Vision|3 (formerly B Technologies) Daniel Pinter enjoyed a successful career as a private security consultant with extensive security industry experience in management roles across a number of sectors, including retail loss prevention, university security and risk management.

Callan Lynes is a client services manager with Business Risks International. His experience includes successfully operating his own private security firm and management in the retail and university sectors.

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