Robberies and threats of violence against customers in and around stores is a concern for retailers. Paul Lang was caring for a friend’s apartment in Beverly Hills, California, recently when he heard screaming on the street below. From the third-floor window, he watched as a man struggled with a woman and eventually ripped away several of her shopping bags, including one from Chanel. As Lang recounted what he’d seen to police a few minutes later, he said the officer told him, “It happens a lot.” Apparently, thieves following shoppers from the famed Rodeo Drive to rob them as they walked down neighboring streets had become a common occurrence. Gesturing toward the woman—unhurt but disheveled—he added, “I don’t think she’ll be back here shopping anytime soon.”
The city has taken notice. In light of rising crime in the area, which included a much-publicized incident in March when a man dining outdoors at an Italian restaurant had a gun placed to his head and a $500,000 watch ripped off his wrist, the city announced that it was hiring twelve armed security guards “for the foreseeable future” to protect and patrol the city’s tony shopping district. Fearful that the city’s reputation as a shopping destination was being tarnished, the security move was an investment in its financial future. “I want the world to know that Beverly Hills is a very safe community,” insisted Beverly Hills Police Chief Dominick Rivetti.
With many factors already acting as a drag on in-store purchases, brick‑and‑mortar retailers can ill afford to have threats of violence and robbery keep customers away. Nor do they need employees wondering if they’re safe at work, especially with the job market tightening.
As more consumers become accustomed to making online purchases, which they can do comfortably from home or other safe spaces, there is now little incentive to brave a feeling of bodily unease to purchase products, noted Read Hayes, PhD, CPP, director of the Loss Prevention Research Council (LPRC). “Intimidation and threats of violence can be a killer to a retail company’s business. It’s a looming issue for retailers.”
Armed with options, consumers are likely to become increasingly sensitive and reactive to feelings of vulnerability during in-person shopping, making a store’s physical environment a make‑or-break issue in the battle against online alternatives. The in-store experience determines if a retailer will entice shoppers in or not; it’s not because the selection is better.
For several years, industry thought leaders like Hayes have been pushing retailers to expand their view of store security to include the area outside as it directly impacts a consumer’s choice to visit a store. If shoppers don’t feel safe coming and going, it doesn’t matter how secure the store itself is. Safety and sales are fully enmeshed.
“Although difficult to prove, there is a strong correlation between the safeness of a store and its productivity as measured by sales,” explained Eric White, executive vice president at Brosnan Risk Consultants and former asset protection director at The Home Depot. “A lot of it is common sense, but you can see it clearly by looking at the flip side, at the impact on stores when they’re unsafe or if there are purse snatchings, drug activity, or just people hanging around. People aren’t going to go to the store if it’s unsafe in the parking lot; and then the mirror to that is, if it is safe, then they will shop there and buy more. There is a substantial ROI.”
It still matters. Online sales are booming, but retailers are still trying to make this in-store thing work. As of April, US retailers opened more than 3,000 stores while closing 2,500, according to data from Coresight Research drawn in part by retail real estate opportunities. In a survey by Glossy and Modern Retail, 34 percent of brands and retailers say they will increase physical retail spending over the next year with just 20 percent saying they will decrease investment.
Additionally, several chains that have previously leaned on mall operators for the safety of its shoppers’ experiences are now venturing out on their own. Gap, for example, aims to have 80 percent of its stores outside of malls by 2023, a model that Macy’s, Bath & Body Works, and Sephora are also trending toward. These and other retailers will need to deliver safe shopping environments to a public already conditioned to feel vulnerable during the in-store experience because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The LPRC started a violent crime working group several years ago, and it quickly became the second‑largest working group of the seven it has. Their research work includes breaking down member-submitted videotape like football coaches to understand patterns and placing that alongside empirical data to better understand the environmental and establishment characteristics that are—and are not—associated with threats of violence and robberies.
“One thing I would say that we’ve learned is the extent that feeling intimidated drives a customer’s relationship to a retailer,” Dr. Hayes said. “Fear of crime is a large problem for retailers.”
But how do you know if you’re doing enough? Getting what you pay for? Meeting public expectations? Aligned with current threats of violence? If protection is making any difference at all?
Taking Stock of Threats of Violence
Interviews with loss prevention leaders reveal that a store risk model remains a popular approach to implementing and targeting safety and security tools. Shrink, area crime data, store audits, and organized retail crime activity are all measures retail stores commonly use to identify where threats of violence interventions are most needed.
When dealing with a store where security clearly needs to be stepped up, retailers need to make appropriate treatments based on what threats of violence exist and what countermeasures are already present. “If you then find the after-dark foot count is up, that is a good indicator that the treatment is having a positive impact, with more people translating into more sales,” explained White. He said after‑dark foot traffic is a particularly good metric because it more directly correlates to shoppers’ sense of safety than daytime shopper volume.
Footfall doesn’t always translate into sales, but it is a good top-line indicator of how customers feel about a store’s safety from threats of violence, agreed Hedgie Bartol, LPQ, LPC, retail segment development manager at Axis Communications. It’s also a good problem indicator. “If you have a drop in foot traffic, that is a good reason to conduct a triggered audit for that store,” he said.
“Another way to know if you’re creating a safer store is if you see your basket size go up,” said White. Shoppers may not be deterred from picking up a prescription after work for their child, but if the store has a chaotic presentation, or if people are hanging around the parking area, they are unlikely to linger and shop. “So when you see basket size creep up, you’re seeing the perception of store safety improving.”
Not every shopper has the same idea about what is and is not safe, however. Communities tend to differ in their perception of an “unsafe shopping environment.” So targeting security measures is likely to yield a quicker payback for a retailer’s total security investment. “You should have a baseline philosophy that drives your operations from a store safety perspective, which will depend on who you are. But moving on from there, countermeasures should be about the specific location,” said White.
There is crime data to be collected, of course, but understanding a store’s customer base is also important: What do they think are the risks? What level of security must they see to feel safe from threats of violence? For that, White said retailers that communicate effectively with their employees are well-positioned: “You can get a good sense of your customer base from your employees who work in the stores, so if you do a good job understanding your workers, then you’ll know the tolerance of area shoppers.”
The marketing department is another critical source of intelligence. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, or run a specific LP survey,” explained White. “The marketing department knows the customers. It’s how they run their displays and promotions, so you can connect with the marketing group to better understand the safety needs of the store.”
Rather than being a one‑way street, White says LP departments typically have data that marketing finds useful, so there can be a mutually beneficial exchange of information that includes marketing teams exploring shoppers’ attitudes toward existing store security as part of their routine work. “It doesn’t have to be presented as an LP program. It can be just one or two questions asked in normal marketing surveys conducted for insight, such as whether shoppers would rather shop when it’s busy or if they shop at night,” White said.
Marketers and LP teams can also share store technology. Camera analytics can produce heat maps and conduct dwell-time analysis to give marketers insight into customer preferences, and LP can utilize the same system to learn if groups have started loitering in the store parking lot after dark or if employees are meeting hourly targets for marshalling shopping carts. And the use case can go even further, beyond marketing and security to address safety issues, by revealing heavily trafficked parts of a store that require additional cleaning under pandemic protocols or if unattended boxes are blocking fire exits. Such applications remain rare in retail, but they are developing and fit neatly with LP’s directive to do more with less, according to Bartol who said, “Once you know what the tools you have can do, you can apply the solutions.”
Demonstrating a positive return for security training or store hardening is a lagging metric, so typically you’ve already done the hard work of securing top management’s buy-in, explained the global security director for a national quick-serve food chain. But collecting data to show the continued need for a program and assessing its performance is a persistent priority for him—critical for identifying gaps or trends that may require additional training or an adjustment to security, he said. Speed and agility, in both data collection and security deliverables, has become central to the value of a retail security program, he suggested.
Case in point: since the creation of pandemic‑inspired mask policies, the restaurant chain has been measuring instances related to complaints, altercations, and threats of violence. The chain still requires employees and customers to wear masks while inside their restaurants, regardless of whether the state mandates them or not, and has been doing so since May 2020. “We measure reported instances when customers complain about our employees or other customers not wearing a mask properly or not wearing a mask at all,” he explained. “We also collect data if an altercation ensues related to masks.” The chain collects the data through various sources, including social media, a customer 800-number, its business conduct hotline, and its claims center. “We measure it daily and report to leadership monthly or in real‑time if the incident warrants it, like by creating a brand exposure [issue].”
By swiftly implementing the new data collection effort, the chain secured rapid visibility into the issue, monitored when and where problems were occurring, and understood how to best target employee education to get the most from its efforts to reduce employee exposure to threats of violence and improve customers’ sense of safety.
This agility in developing security-risk measures is an important element of a security-data collection program, additive to intelligence from more routine store audits and security-risk assessments that identify fixed risks. For example, White noted that if a store is located near a new public transportation hub, it is “an environmental factor that will be with you for long time.”
A Los Angeles example is instructive of how trends in crime data must also be quickly reflected in store‑security measures. Brazen daylight robberies involving guns are up sharply in Los Angeles, as well as in select other metro areas in the country. Compared to a single robbery shooting during the first two months of 2020, Los Angeles saw eighteen in 2021, a “disturbing trend” according to Los Angeles Police Department Assistant Chief Beatrice Girmala.
While many have occurred on streets, shootings during robberies have included marijuana businesses, a music studio, gas stations, and other retail businesses, Girmala said. With the risk of gun violence and robberies on the upswing, local experts warned that it needed to be matched by retailers’ security programs. The measures they suggested aren’t novel—tell local law enforcement what assistance they you need, ensure cash-handling and security protocols are being followed, ensure store security technology is fully operational—but they show how the true value of a retailer’s protection program is whether good practices are being followed at stores that need them, when they need them. https://losspreventionmedia.com/a-perspective-on-crime-and-loss-in-the-age-of-covid-19/
Carefully crafted protection policies are only worthwhile if frontline workers in stores follow them. Targeted monitoring of store activity in areas hit with crime, which technology now makes it possible to do remotely, can inform LP teams whether or not the store procedures workers are using are those specified in its directives.
Collecting Input on Threats of Violence
Customer feedback may be an incomplete barometer of store safety, but it is often a good indicator of whether a retailer’s efforts to weave safety into store operations are on the right track. Though anecdotal, customer reports can provide valuable intelligence, alerting corporate teams to potential problems or offering proof of the value of store safety programs.
AEO Inc., for example, recently received the kind of validation LP teams dream about. Feedback arrived following an active-shooter incident in November 2020 at the Mayfair Mall in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, which forced several mall patrons to shelter inside the back storage room of an Aerie Offline store. One man who took refuge there with his daughter wrote to praise the actions of store employees.
The letter expressed gratitude for how staff efficiently directed customers to its back storage room, quickly locked and barricaded the door, successfully calmed a customer who was having a panic attack, and communicated with their corporate security team and mall security to stay abreast of developments. It also noted how backroom monitors of store security cameras provided security and peace of mind, informing them of the SWAT team’s arrival and when they could safety evacuate.
“During the four hours of shelter-in-place in the storage room, your staff made the best of a very stressful situation in a less than ideal environment … was very professional, calm, and courteous to ensure our safety while trying to make us as comfortable as possible,” wrote the family in their letter to AEO. “Thank you and the Aerie Offline staff for their procedures and handling of a terrible situation.”
Scott McBride, chief global asset protection officer for AEO Inc., said the company’s global security operations center (GSOC) takes in 67,000 reports annually from its 1,050 stores worldwide, and public feedback on how incidents are handled can act as the “canary in the coal mine.” A communication flow that allows feedback to “bubble up” into appropriate channels can be a source of useful intelligence, especially as strategies, associate training, and procedures to ensure the safety of customers are often unknown to customers until threats of violence occurs and teams have an opportunity to safeguard them. “We have received tremendous, positive feedback from many customers in the form of social media posts and direct email messages that reinforce that our procedures make everyone feel extremely safe in tough situations,” he said.
As at many retailers, value measures don’t drive efforts to improve store safety at AEO; they do it because it’s the right thing to do. But feedback shared with store teams can be a strong motivator and is an important part of a continuous improvement program. “We built a program around a 360-feedback loop,” said McBride, adding that communication with stores around safety issues can lead to important safety improvements for which the value may not become evident until a crisis event happens.
For example, several years prior to the Mayfair Mall incident, to facilitate shelter‑in‑place procedures, AEO made an investment to supply all its stores with a $200 door bar for barricading safe rooms and with training on using it. That critical investment came after reviews of employee feedback, after-action reports, and conversations with store managers, noted McBride.
Technology is making it easier than ever to gather public feedback. Many retailers are using real-time information platforms to monitor social media posts to improve crisis response and facilitate timely and informed decisions about issues with financial ramifications, such as protests, natural disasters, and active‑shooter events. These social media monitoring tools can also be used to provide more routine insight to in-store conditions, explained Ryan Mason, corporate investigator at Big Lots, at a recent NRF Protect conference.
The company tracks public postings in which their store’s name is mentioned, something that can provide a regular source of feedback on store safety and threats of violence. For example, in one post, a Big Lots customer took a picture of a calcified sprinkler head and posted it on Instagram. It triggered an alert to the asset protection team, which was able to track down the store’s location through the user’s account and then notify the operations team of the safety issue, which was able to quickly correct it.
Bang for Your Buck
By leveraging its members’ substantial store counts, the LPRC can experimentally examine the impact from implementing different security measures, something that large chain stores can also do to make informed decisions about security countermeasures most likely to make a difference. For example, numbers from test stores will suggest whether making changes in parking lot lighting, adding human or mobile unit patrols, or increasing the frequency of store associates collecting carts has a measurable impact on number of threats of violence incidents or shopper traffic.
Among the lessons learned, where evidence has followed logic, is that value can be had from quality, sufficient lighting, especially for reducing vehicle break‑ins that destroy customer relationships with retailers; minimizing shadows, especially important to female shoppers; and keeping shrubs and vegetation trimmed to prevent a fear response among shoppers of being ambushed. Tests are now being done to see whether lighting strobes on surveillance cameras, which mimic police lights, might be used effectively as a deterrent of threats of violence, and some retail chains are evaluating if providing designated parking spaces for police vehicles might enhance the perception that an area is under surveillance even when officers aren’t using them.
Coming soon is LPRC research using a virtual reality platform, which will permit testing site features that can’t safely or easily be conducted in the real world, like measuring how the perception of safety might vary with different size and angle of parking spaces under variable lighting conditions. “We can adjust settings. Let’s make it darker, and see what that looks like,” explained Hayes. “That’s something you can only do on a virtual platform.”
Retailers with less scale don’t have a capability to run tests and seem to pay a heavy price for it, including a disproportionately high number of retail robberies, burglaries, and other threats of violence. Studies on crime and small retail organizations have found multiple reasons why, despite the risk of substantial loss and even business closure, they often neglect safety measures: believing that meeting safety requirements imposed by municipal regulations and ordinances are sufficient to protect them; a lack of publicity around the economic consequences of crime on small retailers; failing to investigate collective solutions to security threats; and a mistaken belief that security is hostage to the type of business they operate and their location, meaning there is not much they can do to mitigate their risk of threats of violence.
Ultimately, the best answer to which security measures these retailers should implement could be “whatever you can,” according to White. “In terms of which measure you choose, the decision you make in selecting one over another—is it enhanced lighting or a security guard—my response is you’re probably all correct,” he said.
However, the industry has learned in recent years that the “more visible a security treatment is, the more likely it is to have an effect, and the more people understand the intent of the measure, the more it will have an effect,” said White. That goes for measures to both make “green shoppers” feel more at ease and make “red shoppers” more uncomfortable, he added.
Too much security is a complicating factor that LP leaders must weigh, possibly giving some shoppers a negative impression of an environment. “The obvious example is if you’re doing something that is preventing shopping instead of preventing loss,” said White. Retailers should ensure that their store’s visible security is aligned with its surroundings. “If I’m at Louis Vuitton on Rodeo Drive and my store’s security is exceptionally out of line with other stores, in a place where shoppers are likely to be going door to door, that can create a mismatch that could be problematic.”
It’s helpful that simple operational improvements often make an outsize impact on shoppers’ sense of their surroundings. “I think it’s important that when you have a store that is clean, neat, and full—everything that an operator wants to see—then you’re going to have a safer store,” said White. “Because crime thrives in chaos. If shelves are messy, then crime will be worse, and you’re going to have more theft. That’s been scientifically proven. If the impression is that you don’t care about it, then they won’t care about it. I do think all of that matters.”
As suggested by the opening anecdote, joining with other retailers and public-private security partnerships represents another opportunity for stores to enhance safety from threats of violence to lift sales. Business watch programs and business improvement districts are hardly new concepts, but they’ve not yet reached their potential, according to White. “The idea has not fully matured yet,” he said. “During the pandemic, everything shut down, but as we wiggle our way out of it and move into ‘retail-tainment,’ you’re going to see those collaborative efforts reinvigorated.”
He continued, “It can be either landlord-driven or simply stores banding together, but it’s valuable to say, ‘Let’s tamp down perceived risks of threats of violence and crime in a two-block radius to lift all boats.’ I think we’ll see a resurgence in that.”
James Pastor, PhD, JD, CPP, saw it coming. A security consultant and author of an excellent and prescient analysis, The Privatization of Police in America, Pastor foresaw police disappearing from street corners and becoming less responsive to alarms. Long ago, he predicted growth in arrangements like the one Beverley Hills is embarking on today, of more security technology in the public domain and of a trend toward more private resources for public safety.
If private policing of public spaces grows—and it’s easy to think it may in an era when many communities are rethinking police response to calls-for-service and chants of defunding persist—security leaders will need to act as effective liaisons between the business community and law enforcement. “Security leaders need to call their chambers of commerce, work to form coalitions, and say, ‘Here are our problems; these are our concerns,’” Pastor said when making his prediction.
It’s a job best done by security leaders. “Security directors need to be the movers and shakers in any new policing arrangement because they have the respect of both business groups and law enforcement as subject-matter experts.” If security directors don’t stay on top of the trend, then administrators, who don’t have the respect of law enforcement or knowledge of security, will make decisions on how to complement police or fill the void created by their absence. “But if the right policing arrangement takes place, security leaders will get to interact more directly with police, expand their perimeter, and increase their influence,” Pastor added. Administrators are necessary to work out contracts and extract whatever tax benefits may be available for putting funds toward collective security initiatives, but strategic issues should be left to LP leaders.
The model can give retailers greater influence over the provision of security services in the public domain and foster a cohesive business district that can improve the business climate, but it only provides benefit if retail security representatives are on the front lines to shape it, improve it, and make sure their unique interests are part of the consideration. Potential benefits include:
- Expanding a store’s security perimeter beyond the building’s four corners and farther away from the assets they’re trying to protect.
- Greater influence over how surrounding areas are policed.
- Improvement in the general safety of areas around stores or facilities.
- Economies of scale. When several retailers pool resources to support patrols and security services, they can do so more cost-effectively than as a single entity.
Private security’s expansion into public spaces has its roots in the business improvement districts, and some experts foresee them growing in popularity. But do they work? They certainly have the potential to benefit retail businesses—but do they in actuality?
Yes and no, according to a study of business watch programs by the Australian Institute of Criminology. The conclusion: a retailer may realize a security benefit from participating in a local business watch or joint security program, but it hinges on the program’s design and administration. Retailers can waste staff time coordinating security efforts when programs have design flaws, the study warned.
Based on close examination of programs that failed to yield lower area crime rates, the following questions can help a store assess whether a joint security program is worth participation:
- Are the program’s elements fully explained and clearly road mapped?
- Is it adequately promoted to area businesses and sufficiently advertised to engender enthusiasm among participants?
- Is it sufficiently publicized to the public, and is it highly visible?
- Does the program’s plan outline clear objectives and strategies for achieving them?
LP professionals are experts in data collection and analysis. On finding patterns, identifying problematic trends, implementing solutions, and calculating improvement. But not every priority lends itself as easily to calculations as theft and shrink.
Recruitment and retention of employees is an example. Retail organizations are unlikely to know of job seekers who chose not to apply because they felt a job might put them at risk of threats of violence. Nor are they likely to find out if fear of crime was a reason why a good employee chose to leave. In this way, a lack of security investment can have a damaging yet invisible cyclical effect. Stores that suffer employment churn because of a negative perception of safety from threats of violence do not get as many job applicants for job openings. This shortage results in having fewer applicants to choose from and may result in hiring dishonest and less‑diligent employees. This contributes to even more loss and a worsening environment down the road.
It’s often said that the problem in retail today isn’t a lack of data but too much. Still, some aspects of store safety don’t easily lend themselves to data collection but are nonetheless worth trying to understand and track over time to both gauge improvement and understand payback. Safety training programs, for example, are easier to pay for when an organization appreciates what it gets in return.
Retailers should strive to move beyond anecdotal or inconsistent measures to creatively capture the business benefits of store security and safety. An incident of store violence, either between employees or from an outside source, has clear direct costs but less obvious “soft” costs, such as increased absenteeism and lower morale and productivity. It may cause someone to quit, which requires hiring temps, paying overtime to remaining workers, and incurring the substantial expense of hiring a replacement. It may cause employees with institutional knowledge to quit or retire early. How do you attach a cost to these factors? Who decides what to include, what to ignore, and what the price tag is? Is there a consensus on how to do it and what to include?
Similarly, while security investments often boost sales, they don’t always create collateral benefits automatically. Often, they create the opportunity for a business benefit either through a new capability, a new process, or a different business condition, which can then be used to create a collateral benefit, according to a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. To actualize collateral security benefits, LP executives first must specifically identify what they are and articulate a plan for connecting the security investment to the collateral benefit.
A security investment to reduce the risk of cargo theft provides a simple illustration of this idea. By doing so, a store reduces supply chain uncertainty, which permits it to reduce its stock on hand to lower operating costs and reduce its amount of contract stock space, among other benefits. But if a retailer were to take no action based on its lower risk, then it wouldn’t fully capitalize on the collateral benefits of its security investment. LP teams should similarly identify the opportunities for business benefit from store safety improvements and offer a roadmap to their organization for how it can take advantage of them.
The industry seems to be getting it. “There is a transition going on,” according to the LPRC’s Read Hayes. “They don’t just want to run off and do something because a consultant said they should. They don’t just want to do stuff; they want it to make an impact.” He sees it reflected in the growing interest in LPRC’s research and in a greater desire for evidence and understanding about how safety measures, consumers, and bad guys interact.
Recently, a representative from a major retailer asked Hayes if there was “something, anything,” that would have dissuaded the murderer who recently shot his way into a Colorado grocery store from the parking lot. In an individual case, that is “unknown and unknowable,” said Hayes, but to make the shopping journey safer from threats of violence, there is evidence on what works, metrics for stores to measure, feedback to collect, and more experiments to do and hypotheses to test. Importantly, there is recognition among retailers that the journey starts before a customer enters a store and that the public’s perception of safety from threats of violence is as relevant to their decision to shop as the products that a store carries.