WINNIPEG -- Manitobans have been voicing their ideas to prevent shoplifting, in response to growing frustration over brazen and sometimes violent thefts and robberies at Manitoba Liquor Marts.

Thieves are walking into stores, loading up bags of products and walking right out without paying. For safety reasons employees and security guards have been told not to physically intervene, but a new team of loss prevention officers and police have the power to make arrests on site.

The issue has been affecting retailers in other sectors, such as grocery stores and clothing stores. Experts have said thefts from Liquor Marts seem to have struck a nerve with the public because of the brazenness of the act, the location of some of the thefts in neighbourhoods where street or petty crime isn’t as common and because alcohol is sold by a Crown corporation.

There is no shortage of ideas to curb crime. Suggestions that have come forward include moving Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries back to the old Consumers Distributing model of service where customers browse a catalogue and fill out a form to select the products they want to buy, with an employee fetching their orders from a secured area. Others have suggested liquor should be sold the same way as recreational cannabis — where after walking in to the first door of a store you have to show photo identification before you can proceed through the second entrance. Cannabis products are also kept in a secured area under lock and key.

Other ideas have included controlled entrances and exits and putting more police officers in liquor stores.

Andrea Kowal, director of corporate and public affairs for Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries, said the Crown corporation has explored all options, including the old style of liquor sales.

“If you think that we haven’t thought about locking the stores, only letting certain people in, going to a Consumers Distributing’d be crazy to think we haven’t looked at every option,” said Kowal. “One of the risks we have is we have to keep our staff and our customers safe and what’s happening with some of these solutions is it’s just shifting the risk away from our store and our product — that’s right now what we’re trying to keep it at, they’re stealing product.

“As soon as customers intervene or staff intervene we have humans at risk, we have people at risk. We can’t let that happen. If we close our doors maybe they’re going to start robbing people in the parking lots.”

The Consumers Distributing model may stop thieves from easily grabbing product off store shelves, but comes with other challenges.

John Graham, director of government relations for the Retail Council of Canada, said that model would erode the brick and mortar shopping experience for customers and would likely result in job losses for employees.

“The reality is the Consumers Distributing model isn’t going to fly in today’s consumer’s expectation of how to shop retail,” said Graham. “They’re either looking for a brick and mortar in-store experience where they can connect with different products or they’re looking to buy online.”

Graham said in the case of liquor stores, there are too many diverse product options to keep behind lock and key. 

Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries implemented a comprehensive strategy last spring to prevent thefts. The strategy included measures such as requiring customers to show photo ID upon entry, banning large bags and backpacks in certain stores and putting bottle locks on certain products. A team of loss prevention officers, who can use a citizen’s power of arrest to stop shoplifters, has been implemented and the Crown corporation has also expanded the use of special duty constables from the Winnipeg Police Service. 

Kowal said the strategy has helped but with limited success: the theft rate is as high as it’s ever been. Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries said there are hundreds of theft incidents each week, and Winnipeg police said officers get 10 to 20 reports a day of thefts or robberies at liquor stores.

Liquor Marts are also equipped with state of the art surveillance systems.

“Nothing seems to be working. We have police officers in some of our stores and they’re robbing us while police officers — an armed officer with a gun and a taser — is standing there,” said Kowal. “So I’m not sure what is supposed to fix this.”

Both Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries and Winnipeg police have pointed to arrests made each week in Liquor Mart thefts as a consequence to people’s actions.

Katharina Maier, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg, said dealing with retail theft is a complex issue that won’t be solved through implementing more surveillance and security measures.

“An easy solution would be to say, ‘Okay we need more surveillance, maybe we need to distribute liquor to customers rather than allowing customers to walk around a store,’” said Maier. “Crime’s extremely complex. Simply putting surveillance in place such as more security personnel or more police or making it harder for people to purchase liquor — these kind of surveillance strategies — don’t always deter people from engaging in criminal activity. Perhaps what they do is temporarily limit an issue but then we may see other types of crime pop up.

“It doesn’t really solve the underlying issues of why people may engage in crime in the first place which are very complex and often rooted in structural issues and disadvantage.”