It’s no secret that brick-and-mortar stores are feeling the pressure from online shopping—seemingly every week another retailer is announcing major store closures. Consumers’ turn to e-commerce can be attributed to any number of factors: it’s quick, convenient, and has no long lines to wait in or crowds of people to sift through.
It’s also possible that, in some cases, customers simply feel safer avoiding stores altogether. Fear of crime is just one piece of the puzzle, but one that shouldn’t be ignored. Mark Warr, criminologist and Professor Emeritus at The University of Texas at Austin, said it best: “Consumers’ fear of retail crime can lead to a wide range of avoidance behaviors, including reduced shopping activity, limited nighttime shopping, shortened shopping visits, switching to competitors, or turning to alternative shopping formats, including the internet or catalogs.”
After all, in a world where anything can be purchased online (with free two-day shipping nonetheless), customers need compelling reasons to continue shopping in-store. If they feel unsafe, even if those feelings are unreasonable or unwarranted, they will be less likely to return.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. By focusing on some key environmental changes, retailers can help reduce the fear of crime felt by their customers and keep them coming back for more.
What Is Fear of Crime?
First, it’s important that we understand what fear of crime is and what it is not. While its definition has long been debated in the criminological literature, it is generally considered to be “an emotional response to the real or perceived threat of crime.”
It would be logical to assume that people in high-crime areas are also those most afraid of crime victimization. However, this isn’t always the case. Individual characteristics, demographics, and backgrounds all play a vital role in shaping fear of crime. Researchers have identified two key factors influencing fear: perceived risk and perceived consequences.
Perceived risk is amongst the strongest predictors of fear. The idea is simple—people who think that they are at a high risk of crime are more likely to be afraid of it. As we will explore later, however, perceived risk and actual risk don’t always align in a way that we would expect. The perceived consequences of crime also influence fear of crime. Serious offenses such as sexual assault, robbery, or homicide obviously have devastating consequences—the more serious these consequences, the more fearful people tend to be.
It’s important, however, to consider the interaction between risk and severity. Crimes are not equally likely—considerable variation exists across different types of victimizations. Offenses that are both serious and likely to occur tend to evoke the most fear. For example, while homicide is obviously devastating, people generally have a low risk of being murdered. Burglaries, on the other hand, are both severe and more likely to occur. As a result, people tend to report being more afraid of being burglarized than murdered.
How Do People React to Fear?
Fear of crime is often accompanied by a variety of physical, psychological, and behavioral consequences. Reactions are often comparable to those commonly associated with the “fight or flight” mechanism as shown in the “Fear of Crime Consequences” table.
In general, retailers are likely to feel the strongest impact of fear through behavioral responses. These responses are commonly divided into two measurement constructs. Protective behaviors are those in which the individual takes some form or action for their own protection. Examples include:
- Carrying a weapon
- Carrying mace
- Taking self-defense classes
- Installing security devices such as cameras, door bolts, additional lighting, and so forth
It’s easy to see how these protective behaviors can have a significant impact on retailers, especially when customers react by carrying weapons. Keeping everything else constant, where there are more guns, there are more accidental deaths. Furthermore, amid mass shootings across the United States and increasing public pressure, many retailers have begun requesting that customers stop openly carrying weapons. For some, this may make their shopping experience feel more comfortable. For others, leaving their weapons may make them feel vulnerable to attack.
Avoidance behaviors tend to be more passive. Here, individuals tend to react to their fear by restricting what they do or where they go, such as:
- Avoiding certain stores, chains, or locations
- Shortening their shopping trips
- Going out only with others or during certain times
- Turning to online shopping to avoid shopping in-store
Perception of crime is one of the most important factors that leads customers away from shopping centers. Research has shown that women, who tend to be the primary household shoppers, are more likely to engage in these avoidance-type behaviors than men. This can lead to any number of negative consequences for retailers. Customers may choose to avoid certain stores or locations, they may shorten their shopping trips, or they may turn to online-based shopping to avoid physical stores altogether.
Understanding and Diagnosing Fear
The Loss Prevention Research Council operates through a framework referred to as “Precision LP,” defined as using evidence-based actions while accounting for specific differences between environments. Different stores and locations naturally face different issues. The use of a problem-oriented approach helps to identify and target those specific issues, which ultimately streamlines the solution process, saving retailers precious time and money.
Community surveys, focus groups, and customer intercepts are useful tools for understanding consumer fear of crime concerns. Data should be collected before an intervention to better understand specific customer concerns. After some action is taken, data should be collected a second time to assess how well that solution is working. Communication is key as these concerns are addressed. People will not become less fearful until they know that their concerns are being adequately addressed, and maintaining an open dialogue can help build trust over time.
Drawing on problem-oriented policing, the SARA method can also be a useful tool for systematically diagnosing and assessing fear of crime concerns:
- Scanning (step 1). Determine whether fear of crime is a problem, and identify which populations are most impacted.
- Analysis (step 2). Understand the causes of fear.
- Response (step 3). Responses to fear of crime should be tailored and targeted toward those specific fear of crime issues.
- Assessment (step 4). Once responses are implemented, determine if they are working to reduce fear.
Who Is Most Afraid of Crime?
It is important that retailers also understand which populations are most afraid of crime in order to effectively tailor the responses to it. Fear is subjective. Some feel more vulnerable to attack than others, risk factors are seen differently, and reactions to fear will vary. However, research also reveals broad patterns that can help us better understand those populations most afraid of becoming the victim of a criminal offense.
Gender and Fear
First, gender is considered to be the strongest predictor of fear of crime. Women consistently report being more afraid of crime than men, despite men being significantly more likely to be victimized. A number of theories have been developed by scholars in an attempt to explain this “gender-fear paradox.”
Age and Fear
The relationship between age and fear is not as well developed; however, as research measures continue to improve, the trends become clearer. Early fear of crime research originally found that the elderly are more afraid of crime. Scholars pointed to vulnerability and health concerns as the primary explanations. Specifically, it was argued that older individuals may feel more vulnerable, powerless to ward off potential attacks, or unable to recover due to declining health.
As measures have improved over the years, evidence is revealing that younger individuals may actually be more afraid, although fear of crime in the youth is much less understood. Scholars theorize that vulnerability again plays a key role, where younger people, especially adolescents, may feel smaller and weaker and therefore unable to defend themselves against an offender. Parental attachment and supervision have also been linked to fear, where those who are closely supervised (such as the case of “helicopter parenting”) tend to feel more afraid of crime.
Race and Fear
Historically, minorities tend to be more afraid of crime than white people. Scholars most often attribute these differences to social vulnerability. African Americans are more likely to be the victims of crime, offenders of crime, and to live in areas where crime occurs. Their true risk of crime tends to be higher; therefore, it makes sense that they tend to be more fearful. Language and cultural barriers may also contribute to the fear felt by immigrant populations.
Gender, age, race, and a multitude of other microlevel characteristics interact to affect fear of crime levels. However, understanding these patterns and trends is vital to implementing meaningful and effective change.
What Makes Some Places Feel Unsafe?
If given another option, people tend to avoid areas where they think there is more crime. It has been theorized that certain incivilities tend to serve as a cue to danger. Social incivilities include the real or perceived presence of homelessness, prostitution, drug users, gangs, or other vagrant populations. Physical incivilities are characteristics that signal disorder in that area, such as bars on windows, graffiti, trash or litter, or abandoned or rundown buildings.
In a 2008 study entitled Fear of Crime on Shopping Intentions: An Examination, researchers sought to qualitatively and quantitatively explore the impact of fear of crime on consumer shopping behaviors. In the qualitative examination, nine individuals from a neighboring community were recruited and asked to participate on a focus group designed to identify the factors impacting their fear of crime in a nearby shopping district. The participants identified the following causes:
- Perceived crime
- Selling or use of drugs
- Street vendors
- Vacant building
- Improper street lighting
- Lack of cleanliness
- Presence of loitering
Next, 143 community residents were asked to complete a survey to determine the quantitative strength of which factors impact fear of crime. Three were significantly linked to fear in statistical analysis: cleanliness, sufficient lighting, and vagrancy.
Human psychology also plays a large role in the types of environments that make individuals feel safe. Prospect-refuge theory, for example, posits that people tend to feel safer where they have the capacity to observe (prospect) without being seen (refuge). However, places with higher prospect and refuge are also areas where criminals can hide and wait for potential victims.
In a study testing this model on a college campus, results indicated that fear of crime was highest in areas were there is more refuge for potential offenders and lower prospect for escape. Thus, factors such as overgrown or excessive landscaping, visual barriers (such as walls or shrubs), poor lighting, or confining areas may increase overall fear.
Reducing Crime through Environmental Design
As explored throughout this article, the factors that affect fear of crime are varied. Many of these factors cannot be easily changed, such as individual characteristics, neighborhood crime rates, or store location. However, many simple solutions can help reduce consumer fear.
Crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) is a widely used approach for reducing crime by manipulating the physical environment. Many of the factors influencing fear of crime can be addressed through the use of CPTED.
The parking lot is a retailer’s first line of defense and oftentimes where consumers make the decision about whether to shop at that location. Perhaps the easiest way to make it feel more welcoming is by installing sufficient lighting and ensuring that customers have a clear line of sight to the store. Overgrown trees or bushes should be trimmed, and physical barriers blocking their view (such as high walls or excessive signage on window-fronts) should be removed.
Cleanliness has also been linked with feelings of fear, where areas marked by more physical disorder tend to inspire more fear of crime. Trash bins should be provided to reduce litter in and around the store, and employees should regularly maintain store upkeep. Graffiti-resistant paint can also be used on stores where vandalism is a problem.
Changes can also be made internally to make customers feel safer in-store. Maintaining adequate staffing at all hours may reduce fear of crime, as evidence shows that having others in proximity may alleviate fear. People tend to feel safer in familiar environments; therefore, maintaining consistent branding and store layouts across different locations may also help customers feel more at ease.
Controlling vagrancy in or around the store is comparatively more challenging. Zero-tolerance policies, along with corresponding signage, should be in place against loitering, panhandling, keeping personal items in carts, and so forth. For those stores that maintain ownership of the parking lot, security can also be used as a way to both deter crime and increase the surveillance over legitimate customers.
Precision LP means recognizing factors that draw undesirable populations into or around the store. For example, automatic water shutoffs may be useful in situations where homeless individuals are using them to bathe. Charging stations should be monitored or removed if offenders are using them to charge their phones while shoplifting in the store. Recognizing factors drawing vagrancy to the store location is key to implementing meaningful change.
Environmental changes can also help manage vagrancy. For example, hostile architecture has been used in cities to discourage loitering. Examples include designing benches with open slats, arm rests, or individual bucket seats to discourage lounging or sleeping. Installation of motion-activated lighting can also serve as a deterrent for loitering. Removing potential shelter, such as awnings, overhangs, or tree canopies can also discourage improper use.
The Bottom Line
Fear of crime is complicated, but realistic options are available to retailers to make their customers feel safer shopping in-store. Using the Precision LP framework, we recommend that local teams talk with shoppers and conduct visual audits to better understand those store characteristics impacting the fear of crime. Using this information, solutions should always be tailored to the causes. Precision LP not only increases the chances of making meaningful change, but also can save retailers the time and money of implementing unrelated solutions.
Fear of crime may have many customers running scared. However, there are evidence-based solutions to make them feel more secure. Most people are still shopping in-store, and it’s up to us to ensure that they have a safe, comfortable, and worthwhile experience to keep them coming back.