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Annual shoplifting losses top $250,000 for Cambridge grocer

Police say inflation and the rising cost of living are driving more people to shoplift, putting Cambridge businesses and their staff at risk
food basics
The rise in shoplifting is causing at least one Cambridge business to lose over $250,000 a year.

Shoplifting has soared in Cambridge amid high living costs and inflation with some stores reporting losses of upwards of $250,000 annually. 

All across Canada, stores are dealing with an unprecedented rise in theft affecting business and putting staff at risk. Some retailers in high crime areas are able to afford security out of necessity, but others are left up to their own devices. 

Bill Blazs is the manager of Food Basics at 95 Water St. N and has been in the grocery world for over 44 years. Having worked prior in Hamilton and now in Cambridge, he has seen it all over the course of his tenured career. 

“I’m used to working in a higher crime area, downtown Hamilton and now in downtown Galt, so I’m used to seeing things like theft. It’s a part of the job,” Blazs said. “Because of where we are, we see a lot of the same people come in here that have stolen before, so we really have to keep our eyes out.” 

Blazs and his staff are familiar with the regulars who are high risks for shoplifting, because they have been caught multiple times.

Over the past year, they have noticed a new crowd of people coming in and this is making it difficult to spot those at risk of stealing. 

“You can usually pick out who is a higher risk to steal. We don’t want to profile anyone, but you sorta get an eye for it after a while,” he said. “Because of the homeless shelter across the street and some that hang out by the river we’ve gotten to know a lot of them, but recently we are seeing new faces and it’s harder to suss them out.” 

The Food Basics will lose upwards of $250,000 a year to theft, he said, a number that for anyone outside of the food industry likely seems outrageous but for Blazs it's something to "not even bat an eye" at. 

One of the most valuable tools they can use to combat the problem is communication.

Blazs said just talking to them and offering them help, if they can, might make them think twice about stealing. 

“It doesn’t always work, but these are people at the end of the day. If you can let them know you're there and remind them the food bank is down the road, they might put back whatever they grabbed.” 

In some cases, the criminals are organized and their tools sophisticated.

In Guelph on Monday, police arrested a couple from Toronto for shoplifting after officers discovered a bag which had been specially modified so the stolen items would not set off the store’s security scanners.

According to WRPS police chief Mark Crowell, inflation, the rising costs of food and living expenses are key factors pushing more people to shoplift.

And although many in retail consider shoplifting losses as part of the cost of doing business, Crowell stresses the need to report these crimes to help police accurately paint the picture of what local businesses are going through. 

“We are working with businesses and pushing them to ensure they are protected with whatever technology they can to combat some of that,” Crowell said. “Even if it is a lower end theft and they think we can’t find the person, it’s important so we can see the data and try to get ahead of the curve.” 

In 2022 police logged 747 reports of shoplifting in Cambridge, while in 2021 and 2020, there were only 590 reports respectively. 

"We want to take a gentle approach to this situation and understand why these people are shoplifting and putting themselves at risk to steal food or whatever it may be," added Crowell. 

Michelle Wasylyshen, spokesperson for the Retail Council of Canada (RCC), says shoplifting is up across the board in Canada; in just about every category from clothes, food and footwear, theft is on the rise. 

The RCC recommends businesses keep extra inventory off the floor and hire security guards when possible.

It's a luxury the Water Street Food Basics can afford, but for other stores, it’s just not in the budget. 

The FreshCo on Hespeler Road is unable to hire security, because the store doesn't have it in their budget. The recent uptick in theft is pushing them farther from that security net and leaving it up to the workers to stop potential shoplifters, according to a manager who asked to remain anonymous for fear of recrimination. 

“There is a lot of extra work and training that our staff have to go through in order to deal with it, it’s getting pretty bad,” said the manager. “We are a budget retailer so we aren’t making that much anyways and the theft certainly isn’t helping.” 

The manager understands why people are having to steal and sympathizes with them, but wishes this wasn’t the case. 

“I’ve lived in Cambridge my whole life and I have never seen it like this,” she said.

Stores around Cambridge are having to put their workers on the frontline to stop theft, and for some at Blazs’ store it can be too much. 

“Some of my workers are nervous about talking or calling out people shoplifting. I understand. Some are just working part-time, it’s not fair to put themselves in a potentially dangerous position,” he added. 

Even though theft is built into the price of a lot of products, the rise in theft is stretching some of these businesses thin. 

“Products have costs associated with them like energy costs, theft costs, but it can only go so far. If we’re losing hundreds of thousands in stolen products every year, I don’t care what business you’re in, it ain’t good,” Blazs said. 

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Joe McGinty

About the Author: Joe McGinty

Joe McGinty is a multimedia journalist who covers local news in the Cambridge area. He is a graduate of Conestoga College and began his career as a freelance journalist at CambridgeToday before joining full time.
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