As a master loss prevention trainer, Kati Braak of Gap Inc. doesn’t need much convincing that “hands-off” apprehension policies make the most sense when confronting retail thieves.
Hands-off apprehension vs. the traditional physical stops of shoplifters elicits strident debate among retail executives. Chains like Gap Inc. — whose 3,059 company-operated and 186 franchise stores support some of the world’s most recognized brands, including Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy — believe they are taking an enlightened approach to LP that reduces potential corporate liability and exposure while protecting the safety of employees and customers.
Braak, a district loss prevention manager for Banana Republic who provides training throughout Gap Inc., can relate to hands-off policies on a very personal level. As a young, undercover store detective, she was bitten while escorting a female shoplifting suspect back to the store.
“She resisted and bit me,” Braak recalls. “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have any type of tools to say, ‘Okay, this is how I am going to disengage.’
“All I knew is that it hurt really badly and I wanted my arm out of her mouth,” she says, “so I ripped my arm out as fast and as hard as I could and ended up doing a lot of damage.”
In addition to stitches, the injury required 18 months of shots and treatment. “It was awful,” Braak says.
Hands-off means disengaging safely from physical confrontations with suspects while still retrieving the company’s pilfered merchandise. It doesn’t mean being soft on store theft, Braak says.
“We still made over 10,000 apprehensions last year,” she says. “There’s a [misconception] that when you stop somebody you have to grab them and everybody’s going to fight and you need to drag them back into the store.”
The key to a hands-off approach — control — is fundamentally the same as with a physical apprehension. Gap agents follow protocols for establishing a physical and verbal “command presence” that includes maintaining safety distances with the suspect, making eye contact and positioning the body in proper stances. Verbal presence includes voice control, making clear explanations and small talk and showing empathy as needed.
Verbal cues are often enough to diffuse a potentially difficult situation by calming suspects so they will not resort to “fight or flight,” Braak says.
“You can then use your verbal cues that this just isn’t worth it,” she says. “Our goal is to safely get the merchandise back, bring the suspect back into the store, process them as quickly as possible and then go about our day, all the while protecting the company and its assets.
“What we are not going to be doing is engaging physically with suspects purposely,” Braak says. “If there is physical contact, our hands-off policy focuses on teaching [employees] how to disengage safely so that nobody gets hurt.”
Braak, who worked in LP for Target, Sears and Kohl’s before joining Gap Inc. in 2008, delivered a presentation on hands-off apprehensions to the 2011 NRF Loss Prevention Conference & Expo earlier this summer.
Besides instruction in safely disengaging with suspects, Braak says Gap’s training emphasizes the development of a consistent methodology for hands-off policies and building confidence among loss prevention agents.
Training encompasses not only new agents, but also annual refreshers for seasoned personnel. Trends change quickly in the apparel industry, and the aim is to keep agents up-to-date on the latest methods.
While primarily targeting the safety of agents, store personnel, customers and the public, a hands-off policy is designed to limit the company’s liability, as well. Braak notes these potential costs, above and beyond the legal bills:
• Compensatory Damages: Covers actual injury or economic losses to injured parties in incidents.
• General Damages: Covers legal determinations for such elements as pain and suffering and can include compensation for defamation cases.
• Punitive Damages: Awards that are over and above special and general damages to punish a losing party’s willful or malicious conduct.
• Negative Publicity: Damage to a retailer’s reputation.
Braak says a hands-off apprehension policy must operate with flexibility to be successful. While safely disengaging with suspects is the central objective, each confrontation with a store thief is distinct, she says. For instance, grabbing and pushing is distinctly different than a more physical threat such as choking.
“That’s life or death,” Braak says. “In that case, we teach them how to actually disengage from the choke to save their life.”
Gap Inc. teaches a broad range of disengagement techniques “and we don’t put parameters around it,” she says. “We’re not going to set tight guidelines [on what must be done] because each [incident] really is different.”