Crime is a fact of life, whether you’re an OD or a DO, a PhD or an MD. However, not all doctors run retail operations in addition to providing clinical care to their patients. This unique combination of skills and services that optometrists must balance can make them more vulnerable to certain types of crime.
Robert Steinmetz, OD ’03, knows this all too well. In 2005, he opened up a jewel of a space in Chicago’s emerging South Loop neighborhood. SoLo Eye Care was a cold start boutique practice housed in a well-known landmark building. The space was first home to the Ford Motor Company outside of Detroit on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, which came to be known as “Motor Row.”
The young Dr. Steinmetz took enormous pride in crafting a retail environment that honored the unique aspects of the structure’s existing architecture and neighborhood. He hoped to provide his patients with a high-end shopping experience matched with excellent customer service and well-trained medical eye care. What could possibly go wrong?
Within weeks of opening the practice, SoLo Eye Care was hit by two smash-and-grab thefts within a 24-hour period. Both occurred in broad daylight in a well-populated area during the morning rush hour, which also happened to be the change of shift for local police officers. Both were captured on camera.
Because the practice was housed in a landmark building, and he wanted to maintain the integrity of the architecture, Dr. Steinmetz had initially left his large plate glass storefront windows uncovered in off hours. It seems the contents of his practice, though, including plasma televisions and high-end frames, were too tempting for local thieves.
During the weeks it took to install retractable shutters (which prevented the practice from winning an architectural award because they altered the facade of the building), Dr. Steinmetz got creative in his attempts to protect his inventory from further theft. “We had no money then,” says Dr. Steinmetz. “I was sleeping on the couch with a baseball bat for a few nights until we could get other security in place.”
That “other security” included renting the overnight services of a couple of trained watch dogs (not very retail-friendly, as it turns out), and engaging the services of Gilbert. This 6’4” 400-pound security guard enjoyed eating a late-night snack of rotisserie chicken at the front desk, but was significantly cheaper (and cleaner) than the two watch dogs.
While two back-to-back heists are extreme and not at all common to the vast majority of OD practices, theft, in a variety of forms, is fairly regular. Eric Baas, OD ’06, thinks it is simply, “the cost of doing business. Let’s not make it a bigger problem than it really is. Shoplifting occurs in stores from Wal-Mart to Barney’s and no one is immune to it, but it should never be an obstacle to starting a business.”
Dr. Baas regularly consults his iCare Advisors, LLC clients on crime prevention. “Criminals want it to be simple, and if it’s not simple, they’re not going to do it.” As with any business, there are cost-effective means that can help protect OD practices from retail theft. Technology has improved surveillance cameras significantly within the last decade, making them cheaper, more reliable, and straightforward to install, with digital images that are easier to store and access.
Another strategy is using good old-fashioned common sense, which dictates that ODs be aware of age-old schemes that occur during normal business hours. These include criminals who work in teams- either in pairs with one individual distracting staff while the other stashes frames in pockets, or in small groups that enter together to cause a quick period of mayhem before leaving with as much product as they can carry.
During off hours, Casey Hogan, OD ’97, owner of Advanced Eye Care Professionals, has utilized improvements in technology to her advantage. She has installed motion sensor cameras outside and inside her busy practice to both deter and document crime. “Everything is able to be accessed remotely these days. I can use my phone or iPad to immediately see what is happening at my practice when I am away, or get an alert in the middle of the night.” This is helpful in assessing whether or not local law enforcement needs to be contacted.
Another strategy that Dr. Hogan has employed to good effect is a nightly and methodical inventory check. Theft, she says, is often a “silent crime,” meaning if you’re not paying attention to your inventory, you won’t even know it is missing. Each day at close of business, staff remove and account for the product, keeping it safely stored and locked away, making it inaccessible to those looking for an easy score of frames they can later sell on eBay.
It is important for ODs to note, though, that theft is not always an outside job. Both employee-on-employee crime and employee grift are situations which must be addressed. Just ask James Cutler, UMSL ’97, a regular employer of ICO alumni. He once had a contact lens technician who profited off a scheme that involved hand-delivering contact lenses to patients’ homes. She offered a significant discount “authorized by Dr. Cutler,” she would say, if they agreed to pay in cash.
The scheme was not uncovered until one of those patients came into the office with a question related to the contacts he had paid cash for- cash that, it turns out, had gone directly into the pocket of the employee. The transaction had never been logged with the practice’s software system, bypassing the notice and attention of other employees.
Utilizing the same security systems that prevent theft from outsiders is an important tool in preventing theft from within the practice. Employees must know and understand that the surveillance systems used in OD offices are there both to protect them and to ensure their honest transactions with patients and with one another.
Dr. Steinmetz has found the use of cameras in public spaces is key to protecting the safety of both his employees and his inventory. “Employees know they are being watched and why. With unemployment costs on the rise, the use of cameras can save you money on unemployment claims by recording evidence that a terminated employee deserved to be fired.” He is also quick to point out that the cameras should only be utilized in retail or employee-only areas, and never in patient evaluation areas, which would be a breach of HIPAA laws.
While ODs may be unique in the medical field for needing to operate in both clinical and retail spheres simultaneously, they can rely on one another to unite and prevent crime. In Dr. Baas’s experience, “All optometrists come together on theft. Information is shared, email blasts are sent with still photos of perpetrators, we work to both prevent and discourage crime. It’s empowering what we can do just on our own.”