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Preventing Retail Violence Across the Five Zones of Influence

Americans should be shocked and horrified by retail violence when they see headlines like “Chicago weekend shootings news: 31 shot, 8 fatally in weekend violence” or “Thirty injured, four killed in mass shootings over the weekend.” Unfortunately, after decades of declining violent crime, headlines like these have become routine. These headlines are not just some overblown moral panic about violent crime. The best available evidence reported by the Council on Criminal Justice indicates that homicide, aggravated assaults, gun assaults, robberies, and domestic violence all increased, on average, in cities throughout the US in 2021.

Unfortunately, the retail industry has not been immune to the rise in violence. According to the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) National Retail Security Survey (NRSS), “guest- on- associate violence” has become a greater priority among a greater number of retailers than any other crime over the past five years. Moreover, when loss prevention executives were asked about their priorities for 2022, retail violence was the most commonly cited offense.

Some of this increase is due to the violence associated with organized retail crime (ORC). In fact, according to the NRSS, 81.2 percent of retailers reported that aggression and violence associated with ORC has increased when compared to one year ago. According to the Association of Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialists, much of the ORC-related violence is likely due to less sophisticated and local organized retail offenders. However, there are other factors that are contributing to increasing violence.

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In our discussions with retail members of the Loss Prevention Research Council (LPRC), we repeatedly hear about guests and workers who are “on edge.” Issues that might have led to mild dissatisfaction in the past are now turning into shouting, threats, and violence. There are many potential explanations for this, including poor economic conditions, the broad erosion of consequences for crime, and the way in which COVID-19 precautions disrupted social interactions and the maintenance of social norms. One bright spot is that retail violence associated with COVID-19 precautions such as masking and social distancing seems to be subsiding as we emerge from the pandemic.

All this violence has many consequences for employees, guests, and communities. Obviously, there is physical harm, but violence is also associated with emotional, psychological, social, financial, and emotional harms. In fact, fear is one of the most common and pernicious forms of harm associated with retail violence.

Recently, the LPRC partnered with LP Magazine and the Loss Prevention Foundation to conduct our “ORC Across the States” survey. We found that 72.6 percent of the 177 practitioners surveyed reported that fear of crime is a major or moderate problem among store-level associates in the areas they serve. Furthermore, 48.7 percent of the survey respondents believed that fear of crime was contributing to staffing and turnover issues at the store level in the areas they served.

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There is no bright side to any of this but there is good news—retail violence can be prevented or averted by using strategies, solutions, and technologies throughout the LPRC’s Five Zones of Influence. In fact, any comprehensive violence prevention strategy should include strategies and solutions throughout all five zones. Many of the solutions and strategies need to be researched to determine which approaches have the greatest impact on violence, other retail crimes, and retail losses in general.

LPRC 5 Zones of Influence on retail violence
Zones of Influence in situational crime prevention in which interventions can be done to deter bad actors (red color) and encourage safe behaviors by good actors (blue color), leveraging collected information and built environment adaptions.

The Zones of Influence

The “Zones of Influence” typology is designed to help retailers think about preventing crime, reducing losses, and protecting assets throughout time and space. More specifically, it helps retailers identify opportunities to intervene in the processes that lead to crime. Within the LPRC, we refer to the processes that lead to crime as the “journey to crime.” Because individuals move through time and space, there are things that retailers can do before retail crimes (proactive strategies), during crime (disruptive and de- escalation strategies), and after crime (reactive strategies). Since crime often recurs at various times and places, it is important for violence prevention programs to incorporate all of these elements.

Nevertheless, the term “Zones of Influence” is somewhat self-explanatory—retailers have influence over what happens in each of these zones. That is, retailers have an opportunity to prevent crime and losses:

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  • In the broader community and cyber domain (Zone 5),
  • In the parking lot or store curtilage (Zone 4),
  • At the store entry and in the overall store interior (Zone 3),
  • In the proximate area where the crime occurs (Zone 2), and
  • At the specific location of the crime within a store (Zone 1).

Offenders can victimize retail employees, guests, and companies in any of the five zones of influence, however, each of the zones are nested within other zones. This is important because it means that, for example, for a crime to occur in or at Zone, 1 an offender must pass through Zones 5 through 2. Furthermore, it also implies that, if an offender successfully commits a crime in Zone 1, then it suggests that retailers likely missed opportunities to control crime in Zones 2 through 5.

As mentioned previously, crimes can occur in any of the five zones. However, the nature of each of the zones shapes both the nature of crime that is likely to occur within that zone as well as the opportunities to control crime in each of the zones of influence. Although some strategies can be used across the different zones, there are also many important differences. For example, strategies to deter crime at a specific location within a store (Zone 1) are different from strategies that help retailers establish an impression of control in the parking lot (Zone 4).

This article is not intended to be an exhaustive review of violent crime prevention throughout the zones of influence, rather it is intended to highlight many of the opportunities for prevention within the five zones. More importantly, it is to show that a comprehensive violence prevention strategy must include strategies to affect behavior in every zone of influence. The remainder of this article focuses on strategic opportunities in each of the zones, beginning with Zone 1.

Zone 1: Specific Location of Crime Target or Asset

Zone 1 is the specific location where the target of a crime (person or asset) is located. For example, it could be the precise shelf-location of a product that a thief intends to steal or the specific place where a target of assault is located. There are many things that retailers can do to manipulate the situation in Zone 1, and many of these things are suggested by the principles of situational crime prevention (SCP), which is based on the idea that individuals are rational and will commit crime when the likely benefits exceed the likely costs and consequences of committing a crime. There are five general principles of SCP, including:

  1. Increasing the effort required to commit crime
  2. Increasing the risks associated with committing crime
  3. Reducing the rewards associated with committing crime
  4. Reducing provocations that promote crime
  5. Removing excuses for crime

Increase the Risks Associated with Committing Crime. To the extent that offenders are rational, they want to minimize the risk of negative consequences. For example, armed robbers often wear masks in an attempt to reduce the risk that they will be identified, which, in turn, reduces the likelihood that they will be prosecuted and punished. Therefore, if offenders believe they can effectively conceal their identity, then they will be more likely to commit crime. Alternatively, if retailers can increase the risks associated with committing crime such as increasing the risk of being identified, they can presumably prevent crime.

Cameras offer many opportunities to increase risk because they provide evidence that can be used during investigations and prosecutions. For example, using body-worn cameras (BWCs) on frontline staff is one promising strategy—if individuals know that their interactions are being recorded, then they may be more careful about what they say and do. Importantly, research on BWCs among law enforcement officers suggests that such cameras may influence the behavior of both the wearer and the individual with whom they are interacting.

On one hand, the wearer knows that their actions (and possibly statements) are being recorded, so they may be more cognizant of what they say and do because they can be held accountable for their words and actions. Similarly, the person with whom the wearer is interacting may also be more mindful of their behavior because they are being recorded. More research needs to be conducted in the context of retail to determine the effectiveness of this approach. Furthermore, this research will need to ensure that any benefits outweigh any potential negative consequences in a retail setting.

Reducing Benefits Associated with Retail Violence. Many loss prevention practitioners are familiar with strategies and solutions that reduce the benefits of theft. For example, dye packs, dye tags, some bottle cap solutions, and anti-theft labels all operate according to the principle of benefit denial. Destroyed products and products with destroyed packaging are more difficult to use or resell. Therefore, by reducing the benefits of crime, we can also reduce crime itself.

Whether we like it or not, violence has risks as well as benefits. For example, violence may be a last resort for dispute resolution when all other attempts have been unsuccessful. Therefore, techniques that avert escalation by resolving a dispute or de-escalate a confrontation are incredibly important to any comprehensive violence prevention strategy. We will discuss de-escalation later in this article; nevertheless, when disputes are resolved by non-violent means, there is no need to resort to violence, unless violence will benefit the offender(s) in other ways.

Even if a dispute seems to be resolved, some individuals may turn to violence to achieve some other end, such as making a point, sending a message to the victim or others, “getting even,” or becoming infamous. Some news outlets refuse to report the names of mass shooters or discuss the specifics of their ideological motives to deny the offender the benefit they seek such as becoming infamous or spreading their viewpoints. In other words, this is a benefit-denial strategy for reducing mass shootings. Although this is outside the control of LP teams, retailers could deny assailants the benefit of infamy by refusing to sell magazines and other publications that report assailants’ identities or by refusing to advertise with media outlets that publish the names and motivations of mass shooters.

While mass shootings are too common, they are still much less frequent than other forms of violence. For example, violence is an instrumental part of crimes like robbery, which are much more common. In these cases, reducing or obscuring the benefits of committing robbery can reduce the incidence of violence. Using time-delayed safes (and making would-be offenders aware of them) can reduce violence by reducing the benefits of robbery. Similarly, regular cash deposits and pickups that limit the amount of available cash can also reduce violence by reducing robbery.

Increasing the Effort Required to Commit Retail Violence. Another strategy for reducing violence is to make it physically impossible or more difficult for individuals to commit various acts of violence. For example, installing bullet-proof glass between convenience store cashiers and guests makes it difficult for individuals to rob the store with a firearm. Similarly, simply putting an arm’s length distance between cashiers and guests makes it more difficult for individuals to successfully land a punch. This is also the reason de-escalation programs and law enforcement suggest that individuals should put some space between themselves and an agitated subject.

Limiting accessibility to weapons and other objects that can be used to attack employees also increases the effort to commit violence. Therefore, some retailers limit open- or concealed-carry within their stores in order to limit firearms within their store locations. However, additional research needs to be conducted on the relationship between open-carry or concealed-carry policies and incidence of violence, especially in the context of retail. The presence of firearms can facilitate the commission of crime and firearm-related accidents are only possible when firearms are available. However, the presence of firearms can also potentially deter crime. It is theoretically plausible that the combination of limiting firearms among guests while employing armed guards could reduce gun violence in stores.

Reducing Provocations for Retail Violence. There is more to preventing crime than simply influencing opportunities for crime or the allure of a situation. There are also temptations and provocations that might increase the likelihood of violence in a specific situation. Therefore, it is important for retailers to take measures to reduce the likelihood that individuals will be provoked to commit crime, especially acts of violence.

Consider the following scenario. A contractor purchases a power tool at a home improvement retailer to complete a very important and time-sensitive job. The next day, while they are using the tool, it breaks before they can complete the project. They visit the store to return it, however, they must wait because there is only one person who can approve the return and that person is unavailable. In this situation, the customer may already be irritated, and this may be exacerbated if their return to the jobsite is delayed. This frustration can be averted if retailers adopt hassle-free returns and ensure that either (1) authorized employees or managers remain nearby to address these situations or (2) employees working at returns desk do not need authorization for returns.

Many retailers offer their frontline staff de-escalation training to either avoid escalating incidents in the first place or de-escalating incidents that have already escalated. Unfortunately, most of the existing research on these practices has been conducted in the contexts of healthcare and law enforcement. More research needs to examine effective de-escalation in the unique context of retail. With that said, the Crisis Prevention Institute’s top ten de-escalation tips include the following:

  1. Being empathetic and nonjudgmental,
  2. Respecting personal space,
  3. Using nonthreatening nonverbal communication,
  4. Avoiding overreaction,
  5. Focusing on and addressing feelings,
  6. Ignore challenging questions,
  7. Clearly establishing limits and choices for resolution,
  8. Being wise regarding what you are or are not willing to negotiate,
  9. Giving others a moment to reflect on the situation if need be, and
  10.  Allowing time for individuals to make decisions.

All these techniques may be used to navigate and de-escalate volatile interactions, but as mentioned, these techniques are not specific to retail and much more research is needed to identify effective de-escalation tactics in retail settings.

Removing or Reducing Excuses for Retail Violence. The final principle of situational crime prevention is removing or reducing excuses for crime. Many offenders will rationalize or excuse their actions in order to reduce the moral culpability they feel for their actions. For example, an individual might blame their life of crime on their inability to find legitimate employment, or they might excuse their behavior because they believe retailers are allegedly “insured” against losses.

Offenders may use similar excuses to excuse the violence they commit. For example, individuals who commit violence while intoxicated may blame their actions on their drug or alcohol use. Obviously, many of these types of crimes can be avoided by prohibiting intoxication among employees and guests. Clearly, controlling intoxication among guests can be difficult except in the most extreme cases.

Similarly, if an employee directs an offensive comment toward a coworker, and the coworker retaliates with violence, they may blame their violent response on the initial offensive comment. Retailers can minimize the type of retaliatory violence described above by prohibiting offensive comments in the workplace via policies and promoting a culture of respect.

Zone 2: Proximate Location of Crime Target or Asset

Many of the strategies discussed for Zone 1 also apply to Zone 2. However, there are other considerations. For example, there are many strategies that apply to the general area in which violence may take place. Two key examples include public-view monitors and CCTV cameras—both increase the risk of criminal consequences in larger areas. Like the example of body-worn cameras, if individuals believe their behaviors are being monitored, they may be less likely to engage in violence.

However, there are other steps retailers can take to prevent violence using Zone 2 strategies such as taking measures to reduce frustrations. For example, in-aisle “call for help” buttons may make it easier for individuals to receive assistance. Similarly, stationing employees in or around department counters may also make it easier for guests to find assistance and make a purchase. Both strategies can potentially reduce frustration and avert an escalated incident.

Retail friction can sometimes be a source of frustration as well as other negative emotions. Recently, the LPRC conducted research on a self-service locking case that enables guests to exchange their personally identifiable information for access to locked merchandise. We surveyed 790 individuals, and they reported that locking cases were frustrating, embarrassing, and unfair. Retailers should avoid generating these types of emotions and experiences if they want to reduce violence. Therefore, solutions that reduce retail friction may help retailers reduce frustration and avert escalated situations.

Zone 3: Store Entry and Overall Interior

There are many strategies retailers can use to improve and accelerate threat awarenessat the store entrance and interior that can help minimize the amount of harm associated with violent incidents.

For example, we have already discussed the important role that camera systems can play in preventing violence. However, these systems also offer other benefits, especially if they can be used with modern video analytics. For example, if retailers have a reason to believe that a disgruntled former employee may return to a store to harm others, they will want to know when they are on the premises. Clearly, they will want to alert authorities and store personnel as well as take all other necessary precautions.

Retailers can alert their employees of a threat when they are on the premises using a variety of technologies. Unfortunately, retailers must first detect that the threat is on the premises. If retailers have feature or facial matching software, they can enroll the subject in the system and receive an alert whenever cameras detect that individual on the premises. Modern facial matching is highly accurate and can potentially provide retailers earlier awareness, which gives retailers more time to respond to incidents and take the proper precautions. This is just one example, but this software could also be used to alert retailers that known violent or aggressive individuals are on store premises.

These technologies and many others can be used in both Zones 3 and 4 (the parking lot and store curtilage) to improve threat awareness, including those that detect various digital, audible, and visual signatures. For example, gunshot detection systems are available for both the interior and exterior of stores, while several other technologies can detect when electronic devices associated with known offenders enter the premises. Finally, AI-based weapons detection video analytics can detect firearms, knives, and other potential weapons. All these technologies can be used both inside and outside of store locations.

CPTED and Data-Driven Decisions. Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) also has implications for crime prevention both inside and outside of stores. As the name suggests, CPTED practices attempt to prevent crimes, including violence, by changing the physical environment. As mentioned previously, this can include things such as installing bullet-proof glass between cashiers and guests at convenience stores.

When we think holistically about violence prevention via environmental design, some of the principles of situational crime prevention apply. One of the most concerning things about violence is that some retailers only maintain records about incidents that escalate to full-blown violence and do not maintain records about non-violent incidents such as shouting matches between customers. In order for retailers to address issues that generate violence inside a store, it is important to be aware of near-miss or close-call incidents, especially since violence is less frequent than crimes like theft. By collecting near-miss incidents, retailers will have at least some data to make strategic decisions about violence prevention.

Imagine if we collected data about guest-on-guest violent incidents and near-misses throughout stores and found that many of them were occurring in queues, before guests had even reached the point of sale. This might indicate the retailer needs to address queue management and layout, especially if additional analysis suggests that violence is occurring because individuals are becoming frustrated while waiting in lines. Unfortunately, unless retailers are collecting the data, they may not become aware of these problems or their causes.

Many of the strategies discussed in previous sections can inform Zone 3 strategies. However, regardless of the strategy a retailer adopts, they must consider the potential negative consequences of the strategy. For example, we recently worked with student teams at the University of Florida to develop strategies and solutions that would prevent active assailant incidents or reduce the harm associated with these incidents. One of the teams suggested that retailers might obscure shooters’ lines of sight by staggering aisles and shelves within the store. However, this would affect the lines of sight for both guests and the assailant alike, which could result in greater harm. In short, there are always possible negative effects, and retailers should be ultra-critical and hyper-vigilant when reviewing any solution for such high-risk incidents.

Zone 4: Parking Lot, Parking Lot Entrance, and Store Curtilage

The retail parking lot, automobile entrance, and store curtilage have become increasingly important as many retailers have established or expanded their buy-online, pickup-at-curbside (BOPAC) and third-party delivery services. Zone 4 is also important because it is the retailers’ first line of defense against in-store retail violence.

Just as first impressions are important when meeting new people, Zone 4 is where retailers get the opportunity to make their “first impression” of control. Zone 4 is also where retailers have the opportunity to gather information about who and what, such as weapons, are entering the premises. Also, parking lots are the site of much violence, and these incidents must be managed and prevented.

Managing guests’ “impression of control” is a core concept in loss prevention. Unfortunately, this concept is often used as a buzzword without any context or explanation. We tend to manage first impressions because these impressions influence others’ perceptions of us, which, in turn, affect all our subsequent interactions. Similarly, retailers must manage first impressions of control because these shape guests’ subsequent behaviors and interactions on the premises.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, an impression is “an idea, feeling, or opinion about something or someone, especially one formed without conscious thought or on the basis of little evidence.” The impression of control is guests’ impression that a location’s managers are in control of what happens at that place. In fact, managing guests’ impression of control is the key mechanism at the heart of the “broken windows theory,” which suggests that we can prevent crime by addressing less serious forms of crime, social or physical disorder, and other signs of incivilities. This is because signs of incivilities create the impression that the people responsible for managing or controlling what happens in a place do not, in fact, have control of what happens in that place. Alternatively, when places are orderly, clean, and absent of crime and disorder, it can create the impression that things are under control.

Retailers can begin to establish a baseline impression of control by reducing signs of physical disorder, such as removing trash and graffiti as well as fixing broken lights, fixtures, and other assets. Some of these are relatively easy to accomplish. For example, retailers can minimize the amount of trash outside their locations by making trash cans available and regularly emptying them. Alternatively, they can hire contractors to cover graffiti and make necessary repairs.

However, retailers must also manage social disorder including loitering, solicitation, drug us,e and prostitution, which can be a bit more difficult, especially in jurisdictions where they receive little or no support from law enforcement. Some retailers have implemented solutions that play sounds that make the location unappealing to those who might want to congregate in the area. Other retailers have adopted surveillance towers or mobile surveillance units in their parking lots. Not only can this promote an impression of control, but it also increases the risks associated with crime by providing evidence that can be used to investigate and prosecute crime. These types of highly visible deterrents are important because, as mentioned previously, the parking lot is a common site of violent crime and disputes.

Zone 5: Beyond the Parking Lot

Finally, Zone 5 is everything beyond the parking lot. One of the most obvious Zone 5 strategies for retail violence prevention is to not operate stores in areas where employees and guests are at greater risk of victimization. Unfortunately, we will never be able to avoid our way out of violent crime because retail stores and facilities are, by their nature, places to which individuals travel and crime patterns change over time. Therefore, it is helpful for retailers to understand the risk landscape around their locations, including factors that might contribute to greater victimization in and around their stores and other facilities. Once they are aware of these risks, they can begin managing those risks.

General Risk and Threat Awareness. There are many tools that can be used to increase a retailers’ awareness of existing and potential threats and risks within a community. For example, solutions from companies such as CAP Index and Esri can help retailers understand the geographic distribution of the risk of violence around their stores, using variables that are known to be related to increased risk of violent crime such as demographic and socio-economic data, indicators of social disorganization, crime data, the location of crime generators and attractors (bars or transportation hubs), and the location of sources of crime control (police stations).

However, there are other resources that can promote threat awareness. For example, there are numerous solution providers that offer web-scraping services that can help retailers identify when individuals are making threats or aggressive statements about a particular brand, location, or employee online. Furthermore, several retailers report that they became aware of violent and potentially violent incidents in their stores because individuals posted about an incident on social media as it was happening.

Other services can incorporate information about events happening in real time with information about the geographic distribution of risk. These services take the information that is found on social media and maps the origins of those posts and combine this information with real- time crime incidents as they are reported in each geographic area.

Supporting Community Crime Prevention Efforts. Retailers can also support existing community crime prevention efforts by supporting law enforcements’ efforts to control crime. However, retailers and law enforcement agencies will both need to be proactive in finding opportunities to collaborate on violent crime. To the extent that law enforcement agencies can get violent offenders off the streets, violent crime should be reduced. In fact, since serious offenders tend to engage in a wider range of offenses, removing known offenders from the streets for other crimes should also help reduce violent crime.

Unfortunately, incarceration and deterrence will only get us so far. There are also opportunities to reduce retail violence by supporting community and developmental prevention programs and practices. There are many risk and protective factors that affect the likelihood that an individual will engage in crime. Risk factors are factors that increase the likelihood that an individual will engage in crime, such as being the child of antisocial parents, poor parental supervision, impulsivity, associating with delinquent or criminal peers, or residing in a high-crime neighborhood. Protective factors are factors that reduce the likelihood that an individual will engage in crime, such as high intelligence, religiosity, and bonds to conventional activities and individuals.

Programs and practices that reduce individual, family, and community risk factors and enhance protective factors for crime tend to reduce crime and other antisocial behaviors. Therefore, to the extent that retailers can influence risk and protective factors among the individuals and communities they serve, they should be able to reduce crime. Many retailers already do this via their support for various charities and programs that likely affect crime. A brief review of the charitable activities of Walmart, Target, Dollar General, Macy’s, Foot Locker, Lowe’s, and Home Depot reveals that they contribute billions of dollars to combat crime and substance use, promote healthy youth development and job training, and reduce illiteracy and homelessness. Theoretically speaking, all these efforts could have positive effects on crime and other outcomes throughout communities.

However, when retailers support community and developmental programs, they should focus their resources on programs and practices that are supported by rigorous research. Fortunately, there are resources that summarize the effects of different programs, such as Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development, which is the gold standard for evaluating “what works” in youth prevention programs and is a great resource to help retailers learn about effective community and developmental prevention programs.

If retailers would like to review crime prevention programs and practices that affect adults’ behavior specifically, practitioners can review the programs and practices listed on the National Institute of Justice’s Crime Solutions website. While this site uses a less rigorous set of criteria to review programs and practices, it is still a very helpful resource.

More Work Needs to Be Done

As mentioned at the outset, this article is not intended to be a comprehensive review of retail violence prevention and harm mitigation strategies. For example, we haven’t discussed how remote-view capabilities can enable retailers to manage their response to a violent incident in real-time, as well as many other important strategies. Rather, the aim here is to highlight the fact that a comprehensive retail violence prevention strategy will target aiming points throughout all the zones of influence. There is still a lot more work that must be done to understand which strategies are most effective in retail settings. For more information or to join the research into better understanding the zones of influence, contact the author or consider joining the LPRC.

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