A display of Virginia-made liquors at a Richmond ABC store. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
A closed Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority store in Portsmouth with a history of “high level theft” will reopen this year with its products behind bulletproof glass as part of a broader push to reduce retail theft at state stores approved by the authority’s board Friday.
The new efforts don’t include measures to address internal theft by ABC employees — which happened at seven stores over the last year — and authority officials indicate there are limited technical tools in place to catch such instances.
Despite earlier statements by ABC that it intended to phase out all remaining counter service stores, CEO Travis Hill told the board the authority’s real estate committee recommended converting Portsmouth’s Store 361 into that operating model to minimize losses incurred from theft and address employee safety concerns.
ABC spokesperson Pat Kane told the Mercury the store had more losses than any other ABC outpost, with over $185,000 in fiscal year 2023. Kane also said the store was closed April 10 for remodeling work to address theft but has remained closed to the public due to a fatal shooting that occurred outside the next day but was unrelated to ABC.
Retail theft is “not a trend that’s just limited to Virginia ABC — we’re seeing [it] across the country in numerous retailers,” Hill said. “We are in fact being targeted because of the product that we have and its accessibility — the ability to pick it up and move it around.”
The move comes despite ABC officials’ repeated insistence that the authority would discontinue the model and transition its three remaining counter stores to regular, self-service stores as part of a modernization effort.
Chief Digital and Branding Officer Vida Williams initially told the Mercury last December that counter stores were on the way out.
Williams, along with Chief Retail Operations Officer Mark Dunham, reiterated to the Mercury this March that the conversion plan was moving forward — despite an internal email from ABC Director of Real Estate and Facilities Management Susan Johnson saying she didn’t “have a plan for converting counter stores to self-service.”
“Guess who’s director of communications and chief of communications? Me. She’s the chief of retail, so her message does not trump my message,” Williams told the Mercury in March. “Susan saying yes or no is immaterial to the fact that it is happening.”
Williams continued, “These are things that are happening, so you can wait and see if we’re right or you can wait and see if we’re blowing smoke.”
When the Mercury asked Williams why she previously insisted that counter stores would be phased out when the board’s approval indicates otherwise, she reiterated Hill’s comments that a nationwide increase in retail theft is why “the option for a counter store was put back on the table as a deterrent.”
Kane said converting Store 361 into a counter store will cost approximately $85,000 and is expected to take two months to complete.
Hill did not confirm to the board whether other stores will be converted to counter service, but said it will be a “conversation.”
“I’d say that reopening 361 as a counter store doesn’t mean that we’re going to stop examining stores for renovation or modernization,” Hill said. “We’re going to continue to adapt our approaches as circumstances demand it.”
ABC Director of Retail Operations Jennifer Burke told the board the authority is implementing several other measures to address external theft from stores, including employee training, coordination with local police departments and adjusting store layouts. Those measures, Burke told the board, aren’t intended to address internal theft from employees.
According to a May 31 ABC press release, a case of internal theft this February led the authority to launch an investigation into vulnerabilities in its point-of-sale system. That investigation found “a total of seven stores experienced theft through the identified system and process vulnerability over the last 12 months.”
“As a result of this investigation, Virginia ABC has enhanced tracking and reporting of all POS Transactions,” stated the release.
However, on Friday Burke said that while ABC previously had a software system that used data analytics to help detect abnormal transactions, it is not currently being used as the authority works to replace it.
“In the meantime, I think it relies on our knowledge and our retail history,” said Burke. “We know what to look for, but it’s certainly easier when the tool is there finding it for us.”
Neither Burke nor Dunham were able to provide a clear timeline for when an internal theft tool would be up and running again when asked by board member Bob Sledd.
“It seems like that should be a pretty high priority,” said Sledd.
Kane said ABC monitors the potential for internal theft in numerous ways. Employees are encouraged to speak up about unusual or suspicious behavior, which a retail manager can investigate by reviewing videos and sales records. ABC is also prioritizing store audits, Kane said, as well as improving the authority’s inventory tracking to find discrepancies that prompt further review.
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