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Is violent theft on the rise at c-stores across Canada?

Clerks and managers share their harrowing experiences, while security and police talk prevention.
portrait of saleswoman with arms up at the supermarket in a robbery with gun

In her 16 years working in convenience and gas retail, Danielle had never been robbed on the job. That changed in June.

She had just opened Hespeler Convenience in Cambridge, Ont., where she works as a cashier, at about 7 a.m. on a Wednesday morning when a man came in sporting a hooded jacket and a mask and sunglasses. “The mask mandate had lifted, but a lot of customers were still wearing them,” says Danielle, who asked that her last name not be used. “It was normal for people to look like that.”

He approached the counter, requesting a package of cigarettes. When she asked him to pull down his mask to help verify if he was of age, he leapt over the counter and pulled out a sharp six-inch knife.

Danielle, who was five months pregnant, backed herself into the corner, recalling self-defence training to never get behind or below an assailant.

“The knife looked really scary,” she says. “All I could think about was that I needed to keep him at a distance and protect my unborn child.”

He demanded she open the safe, and when she told him that she didn’t know the combination code, he turned his attention to the cash till. He emptied it of about $175, and then fled when a customer walked in. “It all happened in about 45 seconds,” she recalls. “But it felt like hours.”  

Police released photos to the media of the suspect from security video footage. However, no charges were ever filed in the case.

While grateful to come home to her kids physically unharmed, Danielle began having panic attacks in the days and weeks that followed.

“Every shift, I would have a moment of being really scared,” she says. “I would have a panic attack when I saw somebody that had his build, thinking it might be him.”

Danielle is just one of many c-store employees with a similarly harrowing story. Evidence indicates that store robberies are happening more often across the country. 

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In Manitoba, “it is returning to pre-pandemic levels,” says Cpl. Julie Courchaine, a media relations officer with the RCMP. Crime across the board had dropped in 2020 when the pandemic broke, and only had a small lift in 2021.

Many robberies this year have also turned violent. One c-store owner in Winnipeg was left with life-altering injuries after he  confronted a couple that had been stealing from his store and was beaten. Headlines like this are becoming commonplace. 

Bill Dickson, acting manager of media relations for the OPP – which has jurisdiction over robberies in Ontario – says that they have no “analytics that would support or disprove any perception of an increase.”

However, requests from the OPP looking for the public’s help in c-store robbery cases, including recently in Hamilton, Georgina and Oshawa, seem to be mounting.

C-store managers in Ontario also tell Convenience Store News Canada that theft is on the rise.

“Theft continues to be a challenge and has increased,” says Gerry Bes, general manager at Little Short Stop Stores, a locally owned chain of 30 c-stores in Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge, Guelph and surrounding area. “We had a security meeting with 80 team members to review our security measures, and there was a cigarette snatch and grab in one of our locations just one hour before the meeting.”

The meeting was led by the chain’s district manager Robbie Mulder, who adds: “It seems like every day there is a theft event at one of our locations.”

In addition to using recording devices to deter robberies, Little Short Stop encourages staff to greet everyone who comes in and ask if they need assistance if browsing.

“When they do that, other customers in the store tend to look over, and that deters the theft from taking place,” says Mulder, because now there are multiple witnesses of their description.

Rather than asking staff to confront a thief, Little Short Stop tells them to let it happen, in the interest of protecting then from an encounter that could become violent.

The financial impact can be minimal, but only when such cases are infrequent. “We have insurance but we’re not going to put in a claim for $25 of stolen product, because our deductible would be more than the claim,” says Mulder.

However, that figure becomes a lot harder to absorb when you start multiplying it by numerous thefts a week. The occurrences also shake-up staff, leading to turnover, which is also costly for businesses.

“They’re safe, they’re physically OK after an incident has happened, but sometimes mentally they’re not – they just keeping thinking about what could have happened, and don’t come back,” explains Mulder. “And that is the most devastating thing for us.”

The chain offers counselling service for staff.

Lax security policies

Sean Sportun, VP, national accounts and community engagement at security firm GardaWorld, says some of the big chains could be doing a better job of protecting their employees, and in turn, their revenues.

“They have become lax in their security policies and procedures,” says Sportun. “When the economy tightens, that is the first area where companies pull back. That is because security is seen as an expense centre, even though it protects revenue.”

“And so, I think there needs to be a reset of the duty of care that operators take, because if you leave your store environment open to being a target, such as with poor lighting outside, it will be targeted,” he says.

Some chains may hire a security company that patrols several stores within close proximity, creating a presence that deters perpetrators. Many stores and chains also provide free coffee to law enforcement, so that police become a frequent presence.

He says there is also some simple deterrents any c-store can do, such as keeping windows free from being plastered with advertisements. “The majority of that window needs to be open so people can see in,” advises Sportun.

He categorizes robbers into two groups: those acting alone or with a few friends, looking to make off with some cash or cigarettes. The other is organized retail crime, in which robbers are looking to make off with significant amounts of tobacco for sale on the black market.

As chair of Toronto Crime Stoppers, Sportun is leading a national campaign aimed at curbing organized theft of tobacco.  “See it. Say it. Stop it,” reads the tagline.

After the robbery at Hespeler Convenience, owner Nick Kelly made a number of changes, including repositioning a panic button for easier accessibility to staff, putting a large chair behind the counter that could be used to distance an employee from a robber who jumps behind the counter, and asking for locals/regulars to serve as a sort of neighbourhood watch.

While Danielle applauds support from her boss, she knows a lot of workers in the industry who aren’t properly trained on how to react and best protect themselves in the event of a robbery.

“You’re told to just give them what they want, but there’s a lot more training that needs to be done on this and a lot more aftercare, because it is very scary,” she says. 


police car flashing lights
police car flashing lights

An armed robbery is in motion. What to do – and not do 

Bill Dickson, a spokesperson with the OPP, says staff should “stay calm, do exactly as you are asked and accommodate the demands.”

He recommends telling “the robber every move you plan to make before you do it,” noting “the robber may be more frightened than you are,”

Police authorities also say not to activate an alarm or try to alert the authorities with a panic button or phone call until the robber has left and you have locked all entrances.

“As soon as they leave, the first thing you should do is lock the door so they don’t come back,” says Cpl. Julie Courchaine with the Manitoba RCMP. “Because we had a case recently, where the robber left and then decided, ‘I am going to go back because that was easy and do it again.’”

Also, she says that prevents other customers from coming in and contaminating the crime scene for evidence-gathering, like for fingerprints.

Staff have typically also been told to get out from behind the cash register when a robbery begins, thinking this puts them in a safer position.

However, a paper in the September issue of the scientific journal, PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), finds staff are put at greater risk when they go “off-script” by leaving the register. 

READ: Convenience-store robberies a common form of workplace violence: Study

“We find converging evidence across multiple studies that, when this shared expectation is met [of staff being behind the register] during robberies, employees are significantly less likely to be injured,” it reads.

In cases where staff left the register, robberies took longer; were more likely to have additional robbers come into the store to assist; robbers went behind the register; and employees exhibited physical resistance.

The paper – co-authored by Katherine DeCelles, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management – is based on a three-year longitudinal study of security camera footage from hundreds of c-store robberies.

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The Convenience U CARWACS Show: March 7-8, 2023

Every day the news is filled with stories about violence and theft at c-store and gas stations across Canada. What can companies and operators do to improve the safety of staff and customers, while preventing losses that hurt the bottom line? On Day 2 of the Conference, security expert Sean Sportun, vice-president, national accounts and community engagement, GardaWorld, will examine these issues, dig into larger trends and provide solutions to help operators boost safety and increase security, resulting in higher sales.

Register for the Conference and Trade Show!
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