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‘I don’t know what to do,’ Richmond business owner frustrated with shoplifting

There have been 260 retail theft incidents reported in Richmond so far this year
Cindy Zhang, owner of New Empire Supermarket in Richmond, said she encounters shoplifting regularly in the store.

A Richmond supermarket owner said she is frustrated with regular theft from her store and feels there are no efficient measures to stop it.

Cindy Zhang and her husband opened New Empire Supermarket on No. 3 Road in 2017 and it has become popular among locals. However, the store is often also visited by shoplifters.

“They come in and fill the shopping basket with expensive groceries, such as high-quality beef and fish packs, and run out of the door when they see a chance,” said Zhang. 

She said some of her stolen goods have been spotted for sale in the underground market.

“We lose a couple hundred (dollars) of goods in one basket and every month, products that are worth thousands of dollars are stolen from our supermarket.”

Zhang said some thieves have clever tactics, such as hiding more valuable products at the bottom of their shopping bags and only paying for the cheaper items on the top.

Others are more aggressive, running away with the goods even after being caught by staff.

She has tried different measures to curb shoplifting, including having only one exit in the store, installing surveillance cameras and following those who were caught stealing before. But these measures have not deterred shoplifters.

“Some even said to me, ‘because you are following me, I can’t steal your stuff.’ They have no fear,” said Zhang.

"I don't know what to do."

Feeling a lack of police support

Zhang believes one of the reasons shoplifters show no fear and keep coming back is that there appears to be minimal consequences when they get caught.

“We have called the police so many times, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference,” said Zhang.

She has called police a few times when someone was caught at the scene or found stealing on the security camera.

But when police arrived, the person was often let go on the spot or soon thereafter, and she said she was told by the police there wasn't enough evidence.

A few days or months later, Zhang would see the shoplifter in her store once again trying to shoplift.

“I don’t understand why thieves are not being punished. I think it has sent them a very wrong message that there is no consequence for stealing stuff and it even encourages them to keep doing so,” said Zhang.

“I’m a hard-working taxpayer who works 13 hours a day, but I feel that my rights are not protected. We now doubt if we should still bother to call the police when it happens.”

Zhang said she has considered hiring security guards but has to take into account the cost-effectiveness of a small supermarket like hers with a low profit margin.

“I’m not the only one. I know many other small business owners who face the same challenge and frustration over shoplifting as I do.”

There have been 260 retail theft incidents reported in Richmond since the beginning of 2024, according to Richmond RCMP.

Always report crime and follow through it: RCMP and councillor

Richmond RCMP said retail theft is a large-scale problem in the city and it hurts retailers of all sizes. Businesses should continue to report them and follow through with the cases so they can eventually hold criminals accountable.

Dennis Hwang, spokesperson for the Richmond RCMP, said the incidents Zhang has reported are still open and under investigation.

“If the police make an arrest on someone for shoplifting, for example, for the case to be investigated and ultimately wind up in the courts, a number of things must be satisfied,” said Hwang.

He said since the police did not witness the crime, they relied on evidence from other sources including the staff member who witnessed it, possible video surveillance footage, a loss prevention officer, a third-party witness and others.

Many retailers have video security which is helpful, but video quality varies and if the suspect cannot be identified on the video due to technical issues, then police “are at a potential impasse,” he added.

“[Some] retailers …contact the police, but do not follow through. This drives up the retail theft statistics for police but does not assist in keeping those responsible from recommitting the crime,” said Hwang.

“In order to bring the matter to court, the staff member must provide a detailed account and become a witness in court... In many cases, the retailer simply wishes the return of their merchandise without any further formal action. This is problematic because the criminal is not held to account.”

Richmond city councillor Andy Hobbs, a retired Vancouver police superintendent with more than 35 years of service, encourages shop owners to report an incident to police whenever they encounter shoplifters.

“Even though I totally understand their frustration…you have to keep calling the police and give the police every opportunity to get the evidence they need to make an arrest. Even if they happen to get away that day, eventually the police will catch them,” said Hobbs.

“The more evidence, the more calls, the more likely it is that the police are going to catch somebody. But business owners have to be part of that solution and they can't let the frustration deter them from reporting things to the police.”

Hwang said there are retailers that have banned chronic shoplifters from their stores and they “have the right to refuse business to someone.”

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