A Conversation With Industry Leaders

ORC Investigations is Second Nature for Nelson Harrah

As a young boy, Nelson Harrah had aspirations of working with and studying insects. The study of entomology fascinated him before the lure of law enforcement became his calling. Now years later, with significant ORC investigation experience, Nelson Harrah is one of the best ORC detectives in the field and as Director of Organized Retail Crime at Gap, he still enjoys his line of work so much, that he finds it hard to tune out thieves during his off time at the mall.

His long career in loss prevention began while working at a juvenile hall. Nelson would hear stories from his fellow colleagues who had worked in loss prevention and was tempted to explore the possibilities. “Many men and women who had worked in retail loss prevention would tell stories of working undercover and catching shoplifters, and I found that to be fascinating,” Nelson says.

His first loss prevention position was with The Emporium, a department store chain. He later worked at Ross Stores, Phar-mor, a pharmaceutical chain, followed by Lens Crafters. It was after his recruitment by The Gap, about thirteen years ago, that Nelson became part of an ORC taskforce, one of the very few at the time, and has learned many things through trial and error.

“I have definitely seen an evolution among thieves who have much more sophisticated techniques; they’re professional shoplifters. The way they study stores, the way they communicate, the way they evade police, they are just phenomenal,” Nelson says. “I used to watch these thieves, and years ago, they would spend two to three hours in the mall. Today we see a professional boosting team at the mall for roughly 15 to 20 minutes and that’s it. They’ve learned there are people like my team out there patrolling and they will get caught.”

Although loss prevention has its fun aspects like undercover work and catching thieves, there are roadblocks LP detectives must find a way through. “The transitory nature of thieves is never ending. We have a budget; thieves don’t seem to,” Nelson says. “It’s always a challenge trying to apprehend thieves in a jurisdiction with not enough resources. At times we have to follow them and alert law enforcement in another jurisdiction of their location to make the arrest.”

With the back to school season quickly approaching, thieves are out trying to cash in on our Fall clothing. “Within hours of back to school items hitting the shelves, we usually see a huge increase in shoplifting,” says Nelson. “As LP professionals we have to be prepared and know our merchandise, when it’s out in stores and what promotions we’re implementing. It’s about being one step ahead of thieves.”

There are times when Nelson is at the mall “off duty” but can’t help looking for potential thieves and booster teams. “I cannot tell you how many times I’ve left my meal while eating in the mall food court to follow a suspect,” says Nelson. “It’s gotten so bad I have to eat outside the mall away from a clear view. I’ll also be at Disneyland watching people steal from the gift shop. It’s just part of my nature and I sometimes think a curse”.

His passion for loss prevention stems from his disgust of thieves. However, as much as he loves his line of work, he still enjoys spending his leisure time exploring the outdoors and finding beauty in nature. Born and raised in Northern California, in South Lake Tahoe, Nelson enjoys hiking and barbequing. He has previously lived in Phoenix, Dallas TX and Charlotte NC but always finds his way back home to South Lake Tahoe.

Raised by a single parent, his father, Nelson sees him as a motivator in life and understands the value of hard work and determination. Although his family is small in size, which includes an added family member, his pet shih tzu Ava, time with friends and family is extremely important to Nelson.

“For Christmas it’s very much tradition for me to go and spend time with my best friends who live in Austin. We always spend the night on the River Walk in San Antonio when the Christmas lights are over the river walk. It’s beautiful,” Nelson says.

It also helps to be in San Antonio since Nelson’s favorite cuisine is Mexican food, especially menudo, a traditional Mexican soup made from tripe and chili which Nelson says is one of San Antonio’s specialties.

At the end of the day, Nelson spends much of his time in Lake Tahoe, where coincidentally, his favorite movie, The Bodyguard was filmed. When he’s not out hiking, he avidly collects Marvel Comic Books and says he will never again make the mistake of selling his precious collection. Just like he has spent time rebuilding his comic book collection, Nelson has spent years building great partnerships in the loss prevention community and continues to build a fruitful career. There is no doubt that many more great things await this determined and keen professional.