Crime Is Moving from Street to Store. Here’s What Retailers Need to Do.

The NYPD hosted a conference of the Metro Retail Crime Alliance in April, bringing together academics, law enforcement, and loss prevention representatives from several major retailers. Addressing press outside the meeting, Dermot Shea, NYPD chief of detectives, said organized retail crime now comprises an increasing percentage of the city’s crime. “You’ve heard me talk before about the shootings and violence in the city but that’s not the entire picture of crime in New York City,” he said. “A segment of crime that we have seen growing in recent years, is property crime, and it is now making up about 45 percent of the overall index crime in New York City. This is not a small problem,” he said.

Many major cities in the United States have made gains against violence occurring on city streets, but violence occurring inside retail stores—often the consequence of brazen and aggressive professional thieves—is getting worse. “More and more, these criminals are coming in and menacing employees, pushing and shoving customers, shouting at everyone to get down on the floor, and those kinds of things,” said Bob Moraca, vice president for loss prevention at the National Retail Federation. “We haven’t seen this type of violence in a long time.”

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Violence arising from conflicts with disgruntled customers also is growing, according to data and anecdotal reports from LP practitioners. Finally, the risk from store robberies is consistent—and it may even be growing. One recent examination of public media sources suggests that retail robbery and burglary grew by more than 8 percent in the first half of 2017 compared to a year earlier.

What Should Retailers Do?

Any effort to prevent store personnel from acts of violence—whether the source is aggressive boosters, angry customers, or robberies—requires robust data collection of incidents. Detailed data allows retail organizations to conduct trend analyses of threats and incidents. By combining what is known generally about threats with facility-specific data, retail organizations can better assess whether their first line of defense is environmental, such as better lighting; administrative, such as more staff; or behavioral, such as de-escalation training.

An effort to reduce store violence should analyze area crime statistics and organizational security incident reports to identify criminal activity by hour of the day, day of the week, and month of the year, suggested one security consultant we spoke with. He said it’s important to examine if the risk changes as a result of seasonal factors, such as holidays, prom nights, or nearby sporting events, as well as analyzing “criminal target data,” such as times when inventories are full.

Robbery-Related Violence

The risk is ever present, but it’s nonetheless important for retail businesses to frequently test their assumptions about the likelihood of being a victim of robbery. For example, a report on the quick-serve food industry concluded that it has started to fall behind other industries with respect to robbery prevention. To catch-up, the report calls on these establishments to extend training to workers, including how to recognize potential warning signs of a robbery.

It’s also important to reassess the potential consequences of robbery. Data show the average armed robber is becoming younger, which raises the likelihood that a robbery will include bodily harm to victims, as younger perpetrators tend to be more violent than older ones.

Because most retail robberies actually involve relatively small monetary losses, it’s possible for retailers to lose sight of their significance, say some crime prevention analysts. But unlike other crimes that may have a greater impact on a retailer’s bottom line, robbery puts store employees in physical danger, and this fact alone should prompt retail companies to move robbery prevention ahead of other security priorities.

After an exhaustive review of hundreds of studies of crime at commercial establishments, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) concluded that robbery prevention is ultimately in a retailer’s own hands-not society’s. NIJ’s research indicates that crime prevention at the establishment level has a bigger impact on crime levels than do macro changes, such as increases in penalties or less tangible increases in risks, such as quicker police response, increased police presence, or greater numbers of arrests and convictions. There are numerous security strategies retailers should consider as they search for solutions that fit a particular retail operation. These include measures that increase the effort necessary to commit robbery, increase a robber’s risk of apprehension, and reduce his or her reward. But while stores policies and security measures are critical, retail organizations can’t forget the importance of training store staff, say experts.

About one-third of robbers injure victims during a robbery attempt. In a survey of robbers about the likelihood of their using violence in such a crime, most crooks said the reason people get hurt in robberies is because “they resist,” “try to be a hero,” or “make sudden moves.”

A survey of victims confirms what the robbers told researchers. Analysis by the Department of Justice (DOJ) of workplace violence crime data found that three out of five incidents of workplace violence involve victims who resist their offenders. In fact, although companies typically direct employees not to engage intruders, such as in a robbery attempt, employees are nearly as likely to resist an attack at work as an attack outside of work. In 18 percent of cases the DOJ studied, unarmed employees went so far as to threaten or attack a perpetrator.

The second most common reason for hurting victims, robbers admitted, is that they are nervous or high on drugs. Again, DOJ analysis confirms the point. While in many acts of workplace violence it was unknown if the offender were under the influence (36 percent), offenders were perceived to be on drugs or alcohol in 25 percent of cases.

In light of data showing that employees are prone to fight back during robbery attempts and often face an individual high on drugs or alcohol, retail companies may want to examine whether employee training gives them sufficient instruction and tools to respond appropriately. Stressing to staff the importance of not resisting during a robbery attempt and to remain calm may help prevent a robbery from resulting in injury to staff.

Research out of the California Injury Prevention Research Center at the UCLA School of Public Health identified three primary errors and omissions that retail businesses make that put staff at risk from robbery-related violence. They are:

  • A tendency to embrace a single aspect of prevention while ignoring others—for example, purchasing a surveillance camera system but not improving cash-handling procedures.
  • A failure to understand what exposures their particular type of business faces and instead responding on the basis of media reports of violent incidents that don’t apply to their risk profile.
  • A failure to use violent events as a catalyst to implement violent prevention programs.

A Targeted Program Helps

Research shows that retail violence prevention programs are effective at reducing robberies and the associated risk of harm to store personnel, including a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. As part of the study, researchers gave 314 high-risk retail businesses in Los Angeles individualized security consultations, printed materials, training brochures, and a video on keeping employees safe from robbery-related workplace violence. Follow-up visits and a review of crime data showed that—although crime rates generally increased for all businesses from the pre- to post-intervention periods-businesses with high compliance to the program experienced a significant decrease in overall violent crime and robbery.

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