Directing retail security at ASDA: interview with Claire Rushton.
Tim Compston, features editor at SecurityNewsDesk, talks to Claire Rushton, senior director – operational security – at supermarket giant Asda about the opportunities and challenges of a career in retail security.
Today, with her recent appointment to a senior director role based out of Asda’s headquarters in Leeds, Claire Rushton is responsible for overseeing the operational security around retail, distribution, and the company’s Home Offices. This wide ranging remit includes: dealing with ‘out of the ordinary incidents’, intelligence gathering to flag up the latest criminal trends, and, significantly, sharing best practice and applying strategies and technologies to facilitate effective loss prevention Asda-wide.
Catching-up with Claire for this interview, one of the first things I wanted to uncover was what influenced her decision to follow a career path into security and, crucially, how she has ended up, years later, scaling the heights of retail security with Asda, one of the UK’s foremost retailers.
Our conversation soon turns to her early childhood days where, Claire reckons, she displayed a strong passion for investigation and crime fighting, albeit of the superhero kind: “Looking back it might sound ridiculous now but when I was a kid I always wanted to be a superhero. We had Wonder Woman, Superman, and Batman back then and I loved watching anything to do with them. So my interest in crime and security kind of stems from that. This [security role] is probably the next best thing, especially when it dawned on me that I wasn’t going to develop superpowers!”
In terms of the knowledge that she has been able to bring to bear on her work at Asda, Claire studied for a psychology and sociology degree which saw her specialising in criminology. This offered an invaluable insight into the workings of the criminal mind. A post-university stint in the police force also delivered a good grounding for Claire in the investigative techniques that would reap rewards later in her retail career.
Breaking down the barriers
According to Claire, her first big break into the retail security world came after spotting an advertisement in the Police Review for a loss prevention investigator at Safeway: “I think that they [Safeway] took a bit of a chance on me at the start because I was sort of a mid-20s female which was pretty much breaking the mould. It was a very male dominated area at the time,” she recalls.
From her success as a loss prevention investigator at Safeway it was on to M&S, followed by Sainsbury’s, before finally joining Asda six years ago. Asked whether her starting position at Asda was comparable to the role she has now, Claire replies that the big difference between the two – outside of seniority – was the fact that it was out in the field: “This was for a division which was down south. I then moved north for a head of security role – four years ago – before finally taking on my senior director post earlier this year.”
Considering whether those tasked with high level operational retail security roles, like her own, tend to have a good level of field-based experience, Claire reveals that it is still a bit of a mixed picture: “From my point-of-view I think that it is really important to have been out there on the ground, to appreciate how the guys there operate, because without our stores we have no business.”
While what drives the behaviour of criminals may not have altered markedly in her time in retail, Claire is keen to flag up the fact that, by contrast, the technology available to address loss prevention threats has advanced tremendously: “I think that is where you see the significant changes to the whole operation. It is about how you make decisions on when to invest and what to invest in and when to stand back and listen and engage with others. It is a real balance, you can’t invest in everything, especially early on.” Even with this prodigious rate of technological change, Claire reflects, that the ‘three key staples of any LP [Loss Prevention] toolbox’ are still very much the in-store security guards, your CCTV cameras, and the tagging of valuable items.
Drilling down to the way the operational security at Asda has advanced under Claire’s watch, she explains that a project has been underway for several years to roll-out a centralised state-of-the-art ‘comms room’: “Essentially this is a central hub for our CCTV and alarms.” Visually Claire says that the ‘comms room’ doesn’t look particularly exciting: “When you think of a control room you think of loads of CCTV images up on screens which isn’t the case for us.” What does standout, she reveals, is the application of ‘black screen’ technology: “This works off a series of alerts for incidents. This also connects to our intelligence centre which has gone ‘live’ over the last few weeks which is based on using reactive data mining and predictive MI [Management Information] to be able to identify vital crime trends.”
Claire adds that the configuration of the ‘comms room’ is a really good fit given the scale of Asda’s operations – with 600 stores at the last count – and people’s limited attention spans: “To actually have a conventional control room that could watch ‘live’ images, and deal with things, you are talking about a massive investment in terms of the room, size of screens, and number of people to operate that.” Pressed on where the threshold is set for the type of incidents which the ‘comms room’ typically has to handle, Claire explains that it is the ‘unusual activities’: “Obviously we have security colleagues in our stores that operate on the day-to-day stuff.”
According to Claire one of the key aspects that her team focuses on is what she refers to as ‘target hardening’: “It is risk versus reward,” she says. One case Claire is keen to share relates to a spate of self-scan tills being broken into: “We got together with a manufacturer and designed a new [digital] lock to be fitted to the units which strengthened that weak point.” The outcome of this action, Claire reports, was that self-scan break-ins pretty much stopped overnight: “We actually had a couple of arrests from this as well.”
At the heart of effective retail security, for Claire, is achieving the right balance between being proactive and reactive: “We have been on this journey at Asda for about four years now and I think that we are really starting to swing the pendulum towards the proactive as opposed to the reactive side of things.”
An investigative mind
Rounding off our discussion, on the subject of what advice she might have for anyone looking to follow in her footsteps – and be successful in retail security – Claire concludes that it pays to want to continually investigate things and to, ultimately, be a ‘little bit nosy’.