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Cluttered Aisles May Lift Sales, But Definitely Cause Injuries, Lawsuits, and Shrink

Shoplifters crave clutter. Unkempt displays, obstructed sight lines, and narrow aisles are all invitations to steal. Interviews by researchers at the University of Florida with shoplifters show thieves decide quickly whether a store may make a good target, and the stores that discourage them are ones that are clean, orderly, well-maintained, and logically laid out so that associates have views of the aisles. By and large, more inviting targets are those with overstocked shelves, clutter in the aisles, and other evidence of disorder. Essentially, shoplifters are more likely to pick stores where there is a certain level of chaos or clutter than stores where the environment seems under control.

Class-Action Lawsuit

While the theft link is well-known, there are additional reasons why LP might want to keep an eye on housekeeping issues. Case in point: a brand-new class action lawsuit against the owner of T.J. Maxx and Marshalls. The retailer is accused of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by denying wheelchair-restricted consumers full and equal access to Marshalls stores due to crowded aisles.

“Plaintiff has been denied full and equal access to Defendant’s stores as a result of accessibility barriers existing in interior paths of travel. These access barriers include but are not limited to: merchandise, merchandise displays, stocking carts, boxes, and/or other items, positioned so that they impermissibly block or narrow the aisle pathways. These conditions violate the ADA and deny Plaintiff’s equal access to the goods and services offered at Defendant’s stores,” according to the lawsuit (Migyanko v. TJX Companies, Inc. d/b/a/ Marshalls, Case #2:19-cv-00493, U.S. District Court of Pennsylvania).

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The suit further claims that the retailer is blocking aisles on purpose to lift sales. “Upon information and belief, this practice is intentional, and driven by a calculated judgment that impeding interior paths of travel increases sales revenue and profits,” the suit reads, citing news accounts about the practice in the New York Times and Time magazine. “Although this practice may increase profits, it does so at the expense of basic civil rights guaranteed to people with disabilities by the ADA because it results in unlawful access barriers,” says the suit.

The Impact on Security

As time goes by, boxes often pile up and pieces of equipment may find “storage” space in the corner of a stockroom. However, creeping clutter impacts security, noted a security director for a major league baseball team at a recent security conference. “When you can’t determine if something is out of place, it’s harder to determine what poses a risk,” he said, noting that they’ve reduced problems since strictly imposing a “clean house” policy so that security staff can more easily identify suspicious items.

There are other reasons why LP might want to advocate for the importance of making housekeeping issues a priority:

  • When a big OSHA judgement is handed down, “poor housekeeping” is often cited. In a $6.5 million fine against a company that experienced a boiler explosion, for example, poor housekeeping was cited in the investigation report that prompted the monster settlement.
  • Crimes in parking areas that result in lawsuits often allege that companies failed to maintain housekeeping that is consistent with the appearance of a safe and secure location.
  • Studies show that trash removal, regular repainting, and all similar “housekeeping” items reduces inappropriate behavior and many types of crime, including vandalism, violent assault, and robbery.
  • Cluttered stores can be a deadly problem in an emergency evacuation, such as in the case of an active shooter.

Employee and Customer Safety

Statistical evidence specifically correlating housekeeping to worker injuries is slim—but it makes sense. “Trip and fall” is the second leading cause of injuries in a retail environment and it’s certain that poor housekeeping is at the root of many such injuries. As noted last month, trip and falls continue to plague the industry, increasing 11 percent last year.

Good housekeeping provides a positive indicator of management’s commitment to safety and helps reduce waste—and reducing waste often eliminates hazards. Conversely, poor housekeeping poses many problems from a safety standpoint.

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  • An unorganized supply area can create tripping hazards and impede egress.
    • Poorly stacked items are a risk to fall and injure workers.
  • Unclean work surfaces can pose risks, such as debris left on a work surface that can result in cuts.
  • Unclean bathrooms can become a sanitation hazard.
  • Decaying food can become a breeding ground for flies.
  • Puddles of water or excessive humidity can cause allergic reactions in workers, breed bacteria, and create other air quality problems.
  • Clutter can create a fire hazard and impeded fire-fighting efforts.
  • Poor housekeeping has shown to contribute to worker stress and job dissatisfaction.

Suggested Solutions

An idea promoted by one conference attendee is to use store video surveillance systems to keep a closer accounting of housekeeping compliance in stores, by creating an alert when aisles or exits are blocked for extended periods of time. Another possibility is to judge housekeeping strictly in store security audits and to coordinate with maintenance or environmental services to create a housekeeping plan that promotes security. Finally, conference panel members said they’ve personally had success by promoting the following ideas:

  • Take photos around your facilities which illustrate examples of “good” housekeeping and “poor” housekeeping. By doing so, staff will understand what you mean by the difference.
  • Solicit managers to set an example by straightening misplaced items or picking up trash wherever they see it.
  • Map work process to determine what is necessary and eliminate waste. Waste in work processes creates unnecessary hazards.
  • Determine where items belong, label them, and ensure they are always in—or returned—to their place. It helps employees focus, which can reduce accidents.
  • Ensure clean work areas and equipment is cleaned frequently. With a clean work area, degradation to equipment is spotted more easily, and equipment is fixed before problems or accidents arise.
  • Make your facilities “visually instructive” by placing information available at the “point of use.” Post instructions for operation, production, and maintenance procedures at the location where the information is needed to save workers valuable time.

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