For as long as J.R. Pandy can remember, he’s been involved with the day-to-day operations of Pandy’s Garden Center in Elyria, Ohio, a business his parents founded around 1961.
“I think I was born here,” Pandy says of the grower/retailer he’s worked at since he was 12 years old.
Unfortunately, Pandy can also scarcely remember a time his family business wasn’t victimized by burglars, thieves, arsonists and other intruders and criminals. He says the garden center has been broken into and stolen from so many times throughout the years that the individual incidents tend to run together.
“I can’t even fathom to count that many times,” Pandy says. “It’s just an old hat — ‘Hey, we’ve been broken into, oh, great.’”
One of the most costly and recent burglaries at Pandy’s Garden Center came in May of 2015, when thieves entered the store grounds at night and made off with tools, trees, bulbs and other green goods. The thieves even took the store’s van, which was hotwired and driven off the premises.
“They shopped our store and knew exactly where everything was, and used our trailers and carts,” Pandy says. “It was, I want to say close to $15,000 [worth of stolen goods] that they had taken when all was said and done.”
By his estimate, Pandy’s business has lost roughly $30,000 worth of inventory to various thefts over the past two years. Security at Pandy’s Garden Center continues to evolve to meet the threats, but it seems like the criminals rise to the challenge each time. With its perimeter of barbed wire fencing, Pandy jokingly likens his store to the fictionalized prison camp depicted on the TV classic “Hogan’s Heroes.”
“I feel like I’m Colonel Klink with Stalag 13 here,” Pandy says with a chuckle. “It’s just bad. I’ve got barbed wire, I’ve got thousands of feet of fencing around. For every time we think we’ve got them beat, they just go one more.”
Pandy’s Garden Center is far from the only small business to suffer break-ins and inventory shrinkage — it’s more common than one might think for plant materials and outdoor décor to be targeted by thieves. In Indianapolis, Cantrell’s Lawn & Garden Center has also seen its share of break-ins.
Co-owner Kathy Cantrell says her family-run store was subjected to five burglary incidents over the summer of 2016.
“We had so much stolen it’s not funny,” Cantrell says. “Plant products, equipment, you name it.”
Each incident, all of which were caught on Cantrell’s security cameras, involved intruders driving a vehicle up to the locked gate of Cantrell’s and hopping the fence. The burglars would then toss their stolen goods over the fence, load them up and drive off. The thieves took a variety of plant goods, including bulbs that Cantrell would have sold in later seasons, preventing her from recouping the losses.
Fortunately for most retailers, exterior break-ins are an extremely rare occurrence, with shoplifting and employee theft being more common concerns.
Bobby Lewis is vice president of Meadows Farms Nurseries and Landscape, a retailer with 20 locations around the greater Washington, D.C. area (Meadows Farms was #5 on Garden Center’s 2016 Top 100 IGCs list). Though break-ins are rare at his stores, occurring roughly once or twice a year, Lewis says common targets often include expensive plant goods.
“There will be some high-dollar plants [missing], whether that’s Japanese Maple or Alberta Spruce,” Lewis says.
Independent garden center expert and consultant Sid Raisch says that shoplifted items tend to be easily concealable and have broad appeal.
“Shoplifters don’t typically steal what they don’t want for themselves, or what they can’t easily sell for money,” Raisch says. “If it is easy to sell on eBay and difficult to protect from being shoplifted, it is fair game.”
Although Pandy believes most of the burglars coming to his store seem to be after cash, they also haven’t been picky about stealing trees, landscaping material and assorted equipment used by Pandy’s Garden Center staff.
“I think they’re all basically looking for cash. Our registers have been busted into. We keep the drawers open so that they don’t bust up our registers anymore,” Pandy says. “Tools, radios – I think we had 30-some radios, we had all those taken not once but twice. The last guy that had broke in, he went down to taking every penny out of the cash drawers, because we might leave rolls of pennies, dimes, nickels, quarters – he dumped everything out and took every penny.”
Sensitive documents weren’t safe from the intruders either. Pandy says that during one incident, a burglar rifled through file cabinets and managed to abscond with a smaller safe.
“Being in business this many years, we must have 20 four-door filing cabinets up in our offices. [One thief] went through basically every one and it was just a nightmare to go through and see,” Pandy says. “We had two safes located upstairs. You could see him coming down the stairs and grabbing some tools, going up there and took the one small safe and rolled it down our stairs. The steps were all broken up, because they’re wooden steps. It was just surreal.”
A silver lining of this particular break-in was a blood sample left behind by the intruder, who had accidentally cut himself on the safe. Pandy says local police couldn’t match the DNA, but will have it on file and will be able to prosecute in case the same criminal is processed for another offense.
Identifying and prosecuting the perpetrators at Cantrell’s Lawn & Garden has proven difficult as well, Cantrell adds.
“We saw the person on-camera but it wasn’t good enough surveillance to be able to do anything, and when they pull in, you can’t see the front [license plate] on the cars, because Indiana doesn’t [require] license plates on the front of cars,” she says.
Know the basics
As damaging and traumatizing as exterior break-ins can be for a business, they are only part of the wide range of shrinkage threats a company can face. Experts in the loss prevention and corporate security industries work tirelessly to address and prevent these myriad threats to profitability.
Russ Lauria is president and CEO of ITC Security Consultants, a security firm based near Toronto and founded in 2006. With a background in law enforcement and risk management, Lauria and his company work with a variety of corporate and government clients, educating them on foundational strategies like the “rings of security” concept, which emphasizes having multiple systems in place to proactively address potential theft attempts. Lauria says simply installing a few cameras isn’t nearly enough.
“Much to everyone’s surprise, cameras don’t deter crime. They record an event after it happens. What you really need is the basic principal called ‘rings of security,’” Lauria says. “In other words, it’s not one thing in particular that will prevent a crime from occurring. It’s your lighting, your signage, your fencing, locks, hardware and alarm systems. It’s all those rings of protection and layers that add up to a proper security program.”
There are many ways for business owners to secure their facilities, but Lauria says one system that is the most fundamental and the best starting place for nearly any type of building is lighting. In most cases, intruders will think twice if a building seems occupied, Lauria says.
“Lighting is huge, because the one thing criminals do not like is to be seen. Whether it’s your house or whether it’s your retail environment, outside lighting is critical,” Lauria says. “You combine that with fencing and signage that shows people where their boundaries are, and then you have a proper functioning alarm system and that’s all part of the rings of security. If I had to pick one [system], I would say lighting.”
Of course, when security systems fail and business owners are victimized, a natural next step is to notify the authorities. Lauria says that while having an official police response can be useful for a business owner’s records, there is no guarantee that suspects will be arrested or stolen goods will be returned. He says a police response is best when it comes during the incident, not after.
“If you’re calling the police just to get a report number to give your insurance company, that’s usually all they can do, but timing is the most critical thing,” Lauria says. “If you have a break-in, you want the police to come to your facility and you want them to be able to get a hold of the key holder right away. If the alarm company calls the key holder and the key holder is asleep or doesn’t answer the phone, nothing happens. If you have an alarm system, the people you want showing up are the police.”
Step up security
After suffering so many intrusions, Pandy has learned some hard lessons and plans to continue making improvements to the security at his store, including magnetic contacts on all doors, motion-sensing beams and cellular backups on the alarm system — letting the alarm call out to a cell phone in case the store’s landlines are cut.
“Seems like every time we’ve been broken into, we’ve upped our game,” Pandy says. “We’re looking into more surveillance now, running some Ethernet cord or a Cat 5 cable, because you can go huge distances and not lose a good feed to the digital recorder. You look in real time through the internet. We’re getting the final pricing together and we’re probably going to go with something like that next.”
An early change made at Pandy’s Garden Center was the practice of counting and depositing money at the end of each day. By emptying all registers and taking each day’s cash to the bank, there is one less thing for burglars to go after. Lewis says this is also a common practice at Meadows Farms stores.
“I think a big thing is to leave the drawers open because [burglars] can damage the system more just by thinking there’s money in there and trying to pry it open,” Lewis says.
For some, preventing theft can be as simple as creating awareness and letting criminals know that their activities are being noticed. Cantrell says that when Indianapolis news stations began spreading word of the break-ins at Cantrell’s Lawn & Garden Center, the incidents slowed to a stop.
“After the news media got a hold of it and put it on their TV stations, everything stopped,” Cantrell says. “They actually took my footage off my camera and ran it on their television stations.”
Pandy also says increasing involvement and cooperation with neighboring businesses could be a way to keep abreast of security issues in the community.
“We have spoken with a couple of the other businesses about hiring our own security guard who would drive around and just make sure things are up to snuff,” Pandy says. “Strength in numbers, I guess.”
Not every thief strikes from outside a store’s walls. Discouraging shoplifters and hiring honest, trustworthy employees is huge concern for retailers. Shoplifting remains the largest cause of inventory shrinkage among retailers, according to the National Retail Federation’s annual National Retail Security Survey.
Loss prevention professionals or private security guards are occasionally employed by larger retailers to curb in-store theft and shoplifting, but many IGCs lack the budgets to hire this kind of dedicated security. Lauria says that with the right training and awareness, they shouldn’t need to.
By training employees to pay attention to incoming customers and by arranging store interiors to increase sight lines, retailers can keep better track of potential shoplifters and curb their shrinkage rates.
“If you go into a store and you see shelves that are stacked ten feet in the air, you’ve created barriers where people can’t see what you’re doing from one aisle to the other,” Lauria says. “If you have your checkout desk at the back of the store, you can’t see people walking past you.”
As difficult as it may be, retailers also have to consider that some staff members may not always act in the best interest of the business. Although NRF surveys show that employee theft rates are dropping, it’s still an issue that can be avoided with the right hiring practices and operational policies.
Raisch says employee theft is undoubtedly a major concern for retailers that should be addressed early.
“Employees do steal,” Raisch says. “It is very important to hit this hard and correct the problem when it is found in order to send a message to others. Always prosecute.”
To cut down on shrinkage due to employee activity, Lewis says Meadows Farms stores have strict money-handling procedures in place, for when registers are emptied into a store safe.
“I think we do a really good job of watching our money, mainly our cashiers, our procedures and policies,” Lewis says. “We have a lot of checks and balances on our money-handling, more so than our product.”
Lauria says that thorough backgrounds checks for new hires is paramount to running a tight ship.
“That’s the biggest problem I’ve seen; people are hiring staff, and they know nothing about them,” Lauria says. “Whether it be money handling or product inventory, you have to have policies in place to help prevent that theft.”
Crime is a sad fact of life for nearly any part of the country, but depending on the environment they find themselves in, some independent garden center retailers are victimized far more often than others. After-hours break-ins are certainly out of the ordinary for Meadows Farms, Lewis says.
“I guess we’re kind of fortunate in the sense of having 20 locations and if you get something like that going on, unless it’s going on everywhere, it will stand out,” he says.
On the other hand, the seemingly endless break-ins have taken a toll on the Pandy’s Garden Center team. Although the store’s customer base is understanding and supportive, the mood at the retailer has become slightly more jaded over time.
“Of course, everyone is shocked,” Pandy says. “I think we’re getting hardened; it’s just like, ‘Okay, great. Now what did they take?’ It always leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Time heals all wounds, but if you keep getting cut and cut and cut, it’s brutal.”
Still, the 55-year-old garden center soldiers on, trying everything it can to recover from the losses and keep up and running. Whether a retailer is concerned about interior or exterior theft, it pays to be vigilant, proactive and methodical. Most of all, it pays to learn from each incident and never stop looking for solutions. Independent garden centers contend with a lot of challenges — burglary shouldn’t be one of them.