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Meat theft: Playing a high steaks game

Meat thieves are costing you a bundle.

At many a store these days, rib-eyes, T-bones, roast and other meats are flying out the door. But not in customers’ carts. Rather, shoplifters are making off with proteins by the pound. Some blame high prices, others lax policing and increasingly brazen, organized thieves. No matter the reason, meat theft is likely costing you thousands.

Can technology help? In theory, yes. But in practice, many anti-theft devices don’t always deter thieves. “Technology has not yet come up with an affordable solution for retailers,” says Florent Gravel, president of the Association des détaillants en alimentation du Quebec, the province’s food retailers association. In Quebec, stores are losing 1% of annual sales to shoplifters, or about $600 million annually, and it’s climbing.

A big problem with anti-theft devices: return on investment, says Jim Bexis, owner of Sun Valley Market, in Scarborough, Ont. Bexis installed gates that shut when cash lanes are closed. Still, he and his football player son find themselves having to corner thieves. “If you don’t stand your ground, they walk all over you,” he says. “That’s the ugly part of the job.”

The go-to technology to stymie meat thieves has traditionally been electronic article surveillance tags, also called EAS or smart tags, embedded in labels. The tags set off an alarm if not deactivated at the cash. “It’s not foolproof but it works,” says Bruno Menard, who operates five IGAs in Montreal. He uses the tags on items priced more than $20, mostly meats, seafood and fine cheese.

One problem with such tags is they have to be applied by staff, a time-consuming task at a busy meat counter moving 2,000 items a day. Another solution: tiny disposable tags hidden underneath meat on the Styrofoam tray or embedded in soaker pads that the butcher puts between the meat and the tray. Each tag costs roughly 3.5 to 12 cents, but the price doesn’t result in sufficient savings to justify the system’s overall $15,000 to $20,000 investment, Gravel says.

Some stores have turned to dummy tags. These tags won’t set off an alarm, nor will they deter pro thieves. But they can stop impulse shoplifting. And the tags cost significantly less than the real thing.

Another alternative: anti-theft tags integrated into price stickers from Sync Technology, in Victoria. “It’s an adhesive and within is an RF circuit,” says Sync’s Nolan Wheeler. Every time a piece of cheese, meat or deli product is weighed and has a price sticker slapped on, that label includes an RF device that can trigger an alarm when stolen. The system can also send a warning to the store manager’s phone or tablet within one second, says Wheeler. The manager could perhaps then follow the thief to take down his licence plate number.

David Sullivan, owner of an IGA in downtown Vancouver, installed a Sync labelling system two years ago. “We noticed a substantial improvement in our meat department,” he says. Still, adds Sullivan, his store has experienced an increase in shrink in other departments, which he attributes to experienced thieves now avoiding meat but looking for other items to steal and sell, such as high-end olive oil. “So it’s a mid-level deterrent for professional thieves, a high-level deterrent for the casual thief,” he says.

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