Tools and Training Help LP Teams Punch Back Against Violence

Imagine, if you can, the country’s polarized politics spilling over into a store aisle and a retail associate trying to calm a shouting match between two customers. Or try to picture a criminal gang storming a mobile phone store, throwing customers and personnel out of the way as they grab handfuls of merchandise. It’s probably not hard. Videos like these abound. They are exactly the types of incidents that attract thousands of eyeballs on YouTube, make indelible additions to a retailer’s record, and are one more reason for retailers to punch back at seemingly more aggressive behavior in retail environments.

For the safety of employees and customers, to maintain environments conducive to attracting shoppers, to recruit and retain workers, and to safeguard hard-fought-for reputations, more retailers are taking stock of their ability to prevent and respond to store violence. For example, in a newly released survey by ASIS International and Everbridge, retail respondents, by a wide margin, identified violence and active-shooter situations as the top two threats facing their organizations—over natural disasters, cyber crime, and supply chain issues. Also, compared to two years ago, 47 percent of retail security decision-makers said they’re now more concerned about employee safety, and 67 percent think company leaders are more worried about worker safety too.

Larry Hartman

Thanks to social media, there are yottabytes of anecdotal evidence to suggest that incidents of aggression in retail stores are increasing, exactly the kind of behavior that can spark a physical altercation if not effectively handled. The risk is probably sensationalized but also very real, according to Larry Hartman, director of risk management, loss prevention, and safety at Goodwill Industries of Central Florida and a former LP executive at Burlington Stores, Home Depot, and Kmart. He said historical threats persist—such as violence associated with organized retail crime (ORC) and robbery. “But these days it also takes less to put people off, to rub someone the wrong way,” said Hartman. “It’s a more sensitive environment now, and if something happens, you certainly see and hear about it more in the media today.”

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Surveys by the National Retail Federation (NRF) reflect a consensus among retailers that in-store violence has grown, and it’s an issue that retailers need to confront, suggested Robert Moraca, NRF’s vice president for loss prevention. “We’ve always told our people to not resist, so no one gets injured, but how does that fit today’s more violent ORC criminals? There is a level of violence that we’ve never really seen before, and it’s not just active shooter and active assailant, but just more aggression in general,” he said.

It appears to be a global phenomenon. According to new data from the British Retail Consortium, the Association of Convenience Stores, and UK’s Union of Shop, Distributive, and Allied Workers (USDAW), violence and workplace abuse leveled against retail store staff is up dramatically. Over the last ten years, for example, USDAW has found a consistent level of exposure, with between 50 to 60 percent of workers reporting an incident of verbal abuse in the last twelve months, and 30 to 35 percent reporting an incident of a threat of physical violence. The group’s latest survey, however, saw a spike in those numbers, to 66 percent and 42 percent, respectively.

Among the wider security industry, workplace violence has become an increasingly hot topic—perhaps more than it should be, suggested Lynn Mattice, managing director at Mattice and Associates, a security consulting firm, in his presentation at the ISC West security conference in April. Mattice bemoaned the constant drumbeat about workplace violence to which security directors are currently exposed, but he said it’s warranted for LP executives. “Everybody is an expert, everybody says you need training, but it’s such a small part of what security departments need to do,” said Mattice. “Yes, there may be a small increase in events, but the probability is still quite remote—except in the retail industry. In the retail industry it is quite high.”

Read Hayes

The specter of violence has always been a concern for retailers, but there has been an increase in recent years in those that recognize it as a strategic business issue, according to Read Hayes, PhD, director of the seventy-member Loss Prevention Research Council (LPRC). The issue of violent crime has now been the subject of four LPRC summits, which bring together law enforcement, LP leaders, and solution partners, and its working group targeting the issue has become the second-largest working group in the LPRC, with a focus on four critical issues: parking lots and other areas like restrooms where people often feel uneasy; armed robbery; shoplifting turning violent; and active-killer type scenarios. “It was a bit of a battle to get some retailers to see violence as a strategic issue, but now more have come around to it,” he said.

To enable business success, Hayes said retailers need to focus on (a) the shoplifter because a customer needs to be able to find the product he or she came in to buy; (b) the experience because friction from long checkout lines and the like dampens sales; and (c) safety and security because from the time a customer enters a store’s parking lot, he or she needs to feel safe for the sale to take place. “People want to work in safe places and shop in safe places, so not only is there a life safety issue and a moral imperative to protect workers and customers, but also there is a strategic tie in.” And it’s an increasingly important one. With online shopping a persistent option, there is rarely a reason for customers to shop in a location where they feel uncomfortable.

“Intimidation can be a killer to a retail company’s business because now you can get back in your car and order. It’s a looming issue for retailers,” said Hayes. From LPRC interviews with shoppers, Hayes said they’ve learned that intimidation extends far beyond harrowing scenarios, such as a van in the parking lot full of masked men poised to commit a robbery. Intimidation comes in many forms. “There is intimidation from dark places or the lack of sales people. Just a general sense of feeling vulnerable keeps people away and shortens how long they shop,” Hayes said. “We’ve also learned about the negative impact from things like people asking customers for gas money, or trying to sell them something, or loitering in the area, or just people who are not doing the normal things—they’re all types of intimidation to a customer.”

Since customers also don’t want to shop in a fortress or see draconian security, how should LP leaders be looking at the problem? Hayes said LPRC research points to the importance of examining the entire retail environment and considering how it might be changed so that “red guys” feel less safe and “green guys” feel safer. “One thing we’ve found is the importance of day versus night. You might have a parking lot that has beautiful trees that are inviting during the day, but which can be hiding places at night, so bad guys feel safe and customers don’t,” Hayes explained. “It’s not an argument against lush vegetation, but it is a call to look at how environmental issues play during different times, weather, seasons, and so on.”

Larry Hartman said he’s observed retailers responding to the new risk environment in a variety of ways, including with policy approaches, such as more frequent reviews and revisions of shoplifting policies and store opening and closing procedures, and with deterrence, including staffing levels and positioning uniformed guards or LP staff at entrances. But leading LP units are also examining the conflict management skills of its general staff and asset protection personnel. Employees are the most likely victims of in-store violence, but they also may be the best chance to prevent it. “The better prepared employees are, the more likely they are to avoid a problem and the calmer they will be during the unfolding of the event,” Hartman explained. Because if it is true, as most believe, that everyone’s default today is a little bit closer to the boiling point, then the ability of staff to lower temperatures has become more important than ever.

People

We spoke with Rob Holm on a big day. One and a half years in the making—after assessing training options, selecting vendors, testing, and tweaking the curriculum—McDonald’s was rolling out its e-learning workplace violence prevention training program to its restaurants. “We’re excited about it,” said Holm, the company’s director of global security. “We identified it as an opportunity and as the right thing to do for employees, to provide information they need for those exposures that unfortunately do exist.”

The company is starting with its restaurant managers, who in the next ninety days will be completing in their stores an online training program created by a third-party vendor shaped to fit the chain’s challenges, align with its policies, and resonate with its managers.

Rob Holm

The course consists of seven modules, which require about fifteen minutes each to complete, on topics from armed robbery to active-shooter scenarios to managing aggressive behavior. After each module, restaurant managers must pass a competency test before moving to the next lesson. Learners will complete surveys so that the company can continue to refine and improve the training program. Soon, the seven learning modules will be condensed into a shorter, more focused one-module training course for all restaurant crew members to undergo. “We want to help problem situations from escalating, and if something has already escalated, then our managers will be in a position to de-escalate things,” said Holm.

One typical challenge for quick-serve restaurants is the issue of homeless individuals that cause problems or loiter inside restaurants. Confronting and managing those issues humanely but effectively requires an understanding of both verbal and nonverbal messaging, explained Holm. “People need to be aware of the specific things they should say and also what not to say, and how body language can help a situation or make it worse,” said Holm. “The goal, really, comes down to building awareness for situations that they may get exposed to that can put their safety at risk.”

Although not specifically driven by a rise in incidents, McDonald’s training program is, in part, a response to a general increase in threat levels in society. “In the last several years, societal, demographic, and political issues have increased risks in our industry,” said Holm. “It is absolutely a big priority of ours to ensure that our restaurants are safe and secure for customers and safe work environments for our employees.”

Tara Nutley

Macy’s is another leading retailer that has recently focused on managing conflict, especially the potential for violence during suspect apprehensions. In fall 2018, it started to send asset protection staff in select markets through conflict management training. By the end of 2019, the goal is to have all AP colleagues trained, according to Tara Nutley, Macy’s director of asset protection, training, and communication. “Selecting the right facilitators to deliver the class was important,” said Nutley. “We had several AP executives from all regions participate in the ‘Train the Trainer,’ which helped us put together an aggressive training plan for 2019.”

Like McDonald’s, Macy’s initiative was sparked less by a specific rise in problems and more by a generalized recognition of today’s threat environment. “Although the number of shoplifting incidents remained consistent, the threat level increased,” said Nutley. “We decided to find a training program that was geared toward non-escalation and de-escalation strategies. We want our AP team to have the skills in order to safely manage an incident while being confident to disengage if the threat level makes that appropriate.”

To better manage shoplifting incidents and assist customers, Macy’s AP staff is developing a range of skills during training, including using the universal greeting, managing conflict, identifying conflict triggers, and positioning bodies. Although it’s too early to gauge specific benefits, there are upstream indicators that training will yield better results. “The AP team has positively reacted to the training program and expressed that they have more confidence when managing difficult situations,” said Nutley.

One key to the successful development of the program, said Nutley, was a strong commitment to the training program by its vendor and all AP associates. Holm similarly cited the importance of stakeholder support to its successful rollout. Holm said they first tested its training program for restaurant managers on their supervisors. “They got it in advance, so they were more than just aware of it, and so they would support it as well, and we made a few improvements as a result of their feedback,” said Holm. “It has to be a cross-functional effort. You need to make sure you’re partnering with everyone you need to in order to move the ball across the goal line.”

Top executive support is clearly critical as well, especially since the natural result of training managers about handling violent incidents is a spike in reported incidents. “The expectation is that once you heighten awareness and have more consistency in who to report an incident to and how to report it, that the incident rate is likely to spike and then gradually plateau,” said Holm. “If we don’t spike, I would worry that we didn’t do a very good job.”

Although active-shooter events are extremely rare, they too need to be part of the conversation between LP leaders and top management, said Hartman. “We’re simply too exposed from a risk perspective to not have an open dialogue about worst-case scenarios.”

For a retailer that is just starting to formally address violence in stores, a “crawl, walk, run approach” is going to be necessary, according to Todd McGhee, an active-shooter and anti-terrorism trainer at Protecting the Homeland Innovations. In addition to training, a robust

Todd McGhee

program must include incident analysis; a mass communication plan, including a platform for relaying critical information via text or email to sets of designated stakeholders; emergency response planning, including people tracking, reunification protocols, and leadership redundancy; internal and external coordination and planning, potentially including law enforcement, other retailers, and property managers and landlords; and all the way up to drills and exercises.

Training is a vital part of that planning effort, said McGhee. He suggests it should be as interactive as possible. “Ideally, get to them in their environments and out of their seats,” he said. For employees most likely to encounter potential violence, he said four hours of instruction is probably appropriate. He acknowledges that cost is always a concern but that he’s participated in full-day training courses that were free to retail stores through a cooperative effort among property managers, consultants, and local authorities having jurisdiction. “That kind of coordination can be an effective way to share the financial burden,” he said.

Retailers run significant risk if they fail to extend training to store personnel, warned McGhee. “In the case of a real incident, there are going to be lawsuits. They’ll be looking at what your policies are, how current they are, and what training and education you have,” he said. “Policies are important, but you need to show the flow of information to the entire workforce. There is liability if you have policies but don’t exercise them through training.”

The topic takes on additional importance in the wake of a recent Seventh Circuit court decision. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had brought a case against Costco Wholesale on behalf of a Costco employee who alleged she was harassed for over a year by a Costco customer. Late last year, the appeals court upheld the verdict against Costco for allowing a hostile work environment, including a $250,000 award to the plaintiff (EEOC v. Costco Wholesale Corp., Nos. 17-2432 & 17-2454, 7th Cir., Sept. 10, 2018). The lesson? Customer-facing businesses must be aware that customer harassment can, in some circumstances, give rise to a claim of a hostile work environment, noted a client brief about the case by law firm Nixon Peabody.

Scott McBride

Finally, experts note that training aimed at enhancing employee safety, in order to maintain vitality and align with risk, can’t be static. For example, American Eagle has long been a leader in providing travel safety instruction and information to employees, with hundreds of AE employees logging 2,500 international trips annually, according to Scott McBride, vice president of global LP, safety, and security. If the security team feels it is lacking information about a specific region, as well as on a random and periodic basis, AE security staff will debrief employees returning from trips to better inform their future instruction. “We will ask about what they saw, if they experienced any issues. In about one out of every twenty-five trips, we will do a debrief,” said McBride.

Skills

Ben Scaglione

Workplace violence prevention training was a significant theme at the ISC West security conference in April. One warning issued during several education presentations was to recognize that managing an angry customer requires specific skills and techniques. It is, perhaps, an ability that seems should come naturally. But, for most people, it doesn’t. “People don’t know how to talk to people, and it’s not just a matter of telling people to listen. There are specific techniques to it and tools you need to give them,” advised Ben Scaglione, senior consultant at DVS Security Solutions. “And statistics are starting to show that if people knew better how to communicate with others, the amount of workplace violence would substantially decrease.”

The risk rises the farther one goes down on the organizational chart, suggested McGhee. “On one hand, you may have a long-time store manager who is very invested in the success and growth of the company and will be focused on responding to be people in a very professional manner. On the other hand, you may have a minimum wage employee who feels no investment, and so when faced with a problem person, they can quickly become irate themselves and quickly become part of the problem,” said McGhee.

A new study by researchers at Eastern Connecticut State University shows that workplace shootings increasingly have these types of disputes at their genesis, as opposed to robberies. Analyzing 1,533 workplace homicides from firearms between 2011 and 2015, researchers found that, compared to historical data, these crimes were increasingly in nonrobbery events. “This includes things like arguments, both arguments between employers and employees, arguments between customers and employees, as well as other types of crimes [like] intimate partner violence, mass shootings, and other types of circumstances,” said Mitchell Doucette, health sciences assistant professor, in announcing the results of the study.

William Singleton is a partner at Vistelar, a provider of conflict management training that has worked with several retailers to enhance the skills of asset protection staff. The method of training has varied to fit the organization. As noted, Macy’s utilized a train-the-trainer model.

William Singleton

REI chose to deliver training online. Kroger-affiliate Pick ’n Save used Vistelar to deliver four-hour live-training blocks directly to LP staff. Regardless of the instruction method, content should be founded on treating people with dignity by showing respect, according to Singleton. “I think across all professions there is a sense that the level of aggression is going up. Things are more volatile,” he said. “Our ‘non-escalation’ training program emphasizes setting context and treating people right, so the situation doesn’t escalate.”

Empathy is at the core of its training philosophy. In addition to improving outcomes, that focus has the added benefit of being popular with human resources departments and retail organizations. “They love the whole foundation of treating people with respect,” Singleton noted. Specifically, with respect to customer management, empathy focuses on acknowledging their perspective, seeking to understand, and anticipating their needs. “By using the ‘empathy triad,’ employees gain confidence in this skill,” said Singleton. “And if you do happen to come late and the situation has already escalated, our proxemics—body positioning, hand positioning, and situational awareness—coupled with our redirections and persuasion sequence are popular tools that provide staff with more confidence to handle the situation.”

When private facilities devise a perimeter protection strategy, it is a best practice to clearly identify the property boundary, so that individuals have no excuse for trespassing onto it. It’s similar in person-to-person security, said several experts. Store associates should create boundaries when dealing with threatening individuals, by holding up their hands to indicate they shouldn’t come any closer or asking them politely to lower their voices. “You need to set a boundary so that you know when people cross it,” advised Hector Alvarez, president of Alvarez Associates, in his 2019 ISC West conference presentation, “Workplace Violence Prevention and Response.”

A strong level of confidence among staff is key to tamping down situations that have the potential to spiral out of control. Active listening, offering options, and giving people time to reconsider are learned skills that give staff options for keeping situations on a path of non-escalation. “But if you don’t have that confidence or a structured framework you can refer to in the heat of the situation, situations can easily follow the ‘red brick road,’” warned Singleton.

Jesse Stanley

Jesse Stanley, CPP, CFI, is principal and consultant at Strongside Principles, a business training and consulting firm, with more than a decade of experience directing retail investigations and loss prevention teams. He suggested that while training builds on a client’s existing programs, it can also mean revisiting some very basic aspects of loss prevention. “One of my clients wanted to redo the way they dealt with shoplifters to better prevent the incident from turning into disruptive behavior, and we worked with them to redesign their approach. It started with the language they used and to call them ‘customers’ instead of ‘shoplifters,’ ‘suspects,’ or ‘criminals.’”

Like several other experts, Stanley noted that violence has always been part of the retail risk environment, and that while it’s not entirely clear if danger has truly increased or not, coverage in the 24/7 news cycle has caused it to get more attention in the C-suite. He thinks one undeniable development, however, is the attitude of shoplifters. In the past, when apprehended, thieves were far more likely to act caught. “What retailers are seeing more and more is a difference in their willingness to engage, and to turn around and attack a store employee or LP agent,” said Stanley. “It’s almost like, ‘How dare you try to stop me from committing a crime?’ As if they consider it a sign of disrespect.”

Part of an effective training program may require a retailer to update their “customer is always right” approach. “If I’m a sales associate, and the customer is always right regardless of what the customer is doing, I am going to feel powerless,” explained Stanley. “You want employees to connect with their customers, but they are going to be looking to disconnect if they believe they are powerless in any conflict that might arise.”

In broad terms, retailers need to position store associates and LP staff to succeed—and to avoid setting them up to fail. For example, the new UK survey, which included employee interviews, suggested that some store policies are actively encouraging problems by “rewarding” aggressive customers with vouchers after an incident or a complaint. “What we want to do is ensure that people have the tools they need if they have to engage, to have training that supports store policies, and to have expectations clearly stated,” said Stanley. “That will help them to remain as safe as possible.”

Helpful concepts for employees to understand include the idea that language can put customers on the defensive, from explanations that treat them like children (“those are the rules”) to specific trigger words that can set people off. Stanley noted that disruptive behavior by a customer often has “an unmet demand” at its core, which includes a customer who feels he or she is being treated rudely or disrespected. “And now I react to that, and immediately we’re off to the races,” he said.

“We have to be careful to not overinflate the issue, but we want to make sure there is an understanding of the connection between lower-level aggression and extreme violence,” said Stanley. “When you look at extreme violence you often see that perceived rudeness preceded it, which is not to say that every time someone feels disrespected that they will come in with a gun, but when those events do occur there is often a sense of being wronged in some way that sparked it.”

To devise a program that maximizes its value to employees, LP might benefit from doing more investigation into what the actual exposures and problems are, suggested Stanley. “When you’re doing a store visit, everyone will put on their happy faces. Most people will just say that ‘it’s going great,’” said Stanley. “But we need to use our Wicklander skills, to really interview people and to uncover how asset protection teams and employees really feel about these challenges and how big the problems are, so we can create a plan to help them.”

Stanley said it’s important for retailers to find a vendor who will be a true partner and is able to alter training approaches to best align with the brand and the company culture, be it intensive workshops or computer-based training, and who has the ability to embed training on disruptive behavior into the company’s broader training program. Singleton, too, thinks a training provider’s ability to customize training is a key point for retailers to consider, as well as the scope of topics it can address so that training can expand as a retailer’s program matures. “Ideally, you want a training vendor that is able to train on the entire spectrum, from non-escalation, to crisis intervention, all the way through to active shooter.”

Finally, there is no denying the substantial resources that training consumes, but retailers that have made a point to track outcomes have often found a positive return on investment, according to Stanley. He said one measurement-driven retail client found its investment paid for itself in less than nine months, based solely on a reduction in injuries and workers’ compensation cases associated with shoplifting stops. Others have tracked significantly higher customer satisfaction scores, as employees become more skilled at managing complaints, as well as higher rates of exchanges compared to returns, and increased employee job satisfaction and lower attrition. “It can make a huge difference to shift the paradigm and shift people’s behavior—so that instead of seeing a challenging customer as a problem, they see it as an opportunity,” said Stanley.

Tools

Technology can play a role in protecting staff, including well in advance of the point when de-escalation is called for. For example, crisis-management software from Everbridge is designed to incorporate myriad streams of information, from social media feeds to weather data, to give companies a heads up if threats seem on track to intersect with its assets. That can provide value on a large scale, such as in monitoring supply chain risks, as well as a personal level, by giving corporate LP teams a warning when targeted violence seems to be headed a store’s way, in the shape of an ORC gang, a violent flash mob, or if social unrest is starting to roil. It’s vital life-safety intelligence that corporate teams can then use to reduce the risk of harm to staff by warning store managers to be vigilant, ramp up security or staffing, or close stores.

Ravi Maira

“Here in Boston we regularly have severe weather. And while it’s not a bad thing, we often have Super Bowl parades. And you need to plan for how that might affect stores,” explained Ravi Maira, vice president of industry and solution at Everbridge. “If it’s a snowy day, and all those people on the parade route come in to your store, what is your plan? Have you communicated it consistently across all of your stores in the affected area? For any type of potential disruption, you want to be as proactive as possible.”

Such a centralized approach can also lift some of the security management burden off store managers, who might be knowledgeable about neighborhood crime but might not have the expertise to make good decisions on what to do about it, Maira added. By layering company policies and protocols on top of the threat data, the solution can automate execution of predefined communications processes and track progress—a big help for big retailers. Especially in retail, this has long been a problem without good options, said Maira. “How can you centrally provide support and expertise in a distributed threat landscape for thousands of locations? But an individual store also can’t monitor and keep track of all the weather events, planned protests, construction projects, and other more threatening issues that can be a disruption or put employees in harm’s way.”

As a selling point, this type of tool can yield business as well as safety benefits. It may even help elevate the role of LP, suggested Maira. It’s part of the larger industry story of how retail security teams can provide more value by migrating from a focus on responding to events to being more predictive, he said. Case in point: while retailers can’t control the weather, they can leverage weather-related data to drive their bottom lines, according to a new report from IBM. The survey of 1,000 C-level executives representing thirteen industries in fifteen countries reported that the executives believed improved weather insights can reduce annual operating costs, with nearly a quarter saying the savings can be between 2 percent and 5 percent.

Naturally, there is a limit to technology’s ability to prevent harm from violence in open environments such as retail. “If you’re a corner store and someone comes in shooting, it’s not going to be a savior at that point,” noted Maira. But he added that for a big box or shopping mall, a critical event management platform, tied to other technology such as gunshot detection, can provide a way to spark real-time communication with employees that could be lifesaving in an active-shooter event.

At the 2019 ISC West trade show, booths touting gunshot detection solutions had a larger footprint than in years’ past, from big names like Johnson Controls to smaller ones like Amberbox and Safe Zone. Although the retail applications may be limited, the technology seems to be ripening, and cost has also come down. Safe Zone’s sensors are priced at $149 apiece, which would allow an average-sized convenience store to benefit from coverage for about $600. Late last year, Charleston International Airport added a more complete technology solution from Shooter Detection Systems, which will help steer first responders to an incident more quickly (via shot location information) with more information (by streaming relevant video streams), as well as activating appropriate door locking and unlocking.

Technology can be a deterrent to violent criminals as well. For example, a late-night armed robber of a convenience store will often wear a mask or hoodie to evade identification by surveillance video, but integrating video with a store’s front door can provide protection without putting store associates behind off-putting bulletproof glass encasements or using revenue-limiting “wall through” windows. Moto Mart locations in the Midwest, for example, are using First Line facial recognition by Blue Line Technology to deny entry to individuals who wear masks or otherwise attempt to conceal their identities. During overnight hours, the stores’ doors remain locked until a surveillance camera outside the store entrance captures a clear image of an approaching customer’s face, at which time software unlocks the door, with the goal of preventing incidents by forcing potentially violent criminals to be videotaped.

“Retailers’ number one priority is the safety and security of their main assets—their associates—as well customers, but we’ve been living for a decade in an environment where LP is being asked to do more with less,” explained Hedgie Bartol, business development manager for retail at Axis Communications, which is where networked security technology comes in, he said.

Hedgie Bartol

Unlike a closed video-surveillance system (CCTV), a network solution is easy to scale and redeploy, which provides LP with real options for leveraging technology to enhance safety and security without the cost of deploying additional LP staff. One example, he noted, is to use audio analytics, either as a standalone module or a camera add-on. “They can tell when things are getting heated, like between a cashier and a customer,” said Bartol. “It can immediately send an alert to a manager or someone who is specially trained in de-escalation to go to the scene to help,” said Bartol.

In an ISC West conference panel discussion on physical security applications for artificial intelligence, Ken Mills, general manager of IoT, surveillance, and security at Dell, recounted how one European city’s shopping district, hampered by rowdy behavior late at night, deployed audio analytics to trigger street lights to increase brightness when it detected escalating voice levels. Doing so helped to modulate patrons’ behavior and restore the shopping area’s reputation in the community as a safe place to go at night, he explained.

Networked solutions also facilitate stores sharing information with law enforcement, piping live video to police if a glass break detection sensor alarms, for example. “The capabilities that technology now affords would help mitigate tragedy if they were more readily shared with law enforcement,” Bartol added.

Technology-based opportunities to prevent violence and crime in retail environments range from very simple to complex, according to Bartol. But he warned, if you don’t know that tools like aggression-detection intelligent video are out there, then it’s impossible to identify how to best apply technology to a retailer’s advantage. “I think retailers, with LP at the lead as the owner of most of the technologies, are at the cusp of great things,” said Bartol. “But in a lot of these scenarios, it’s a matter of ‘we don’t know what we don’t know.’” Beneficially, networked security technology has taken some of the pressure off LP and should encourage their creativity. “I suggest they think about, ‘What would I attempt from an integrated technology standpoint if I could not fail?’” he said. “With consumer expectations for smart and connected stores, there is way more risk these days from doing nothing than in adopting wrong technology, because networks make it far simpler to change technologies today.”

 

If security technology and other security measures are to maximize their ability to deter crime and violence, then people need to know it’s there, explained Read Hayes. A store guard needs to appear sufficiently capable and alert to intervene. Patrol vehicles need to have a form factor that allows them to be seen over rows of parked cars. Surveillance systems need to announce themselves. “It’s not just about the actual capability of countermeasures but also how the ‘problem people’—those who create intimidation for customers—view its capability,” said Hayes. “You have to increase the visibility of security countermeasures if they are going to make the problem people feel less safe.”

It’s a point that Larry Hartman echoed. He believes the trend of deploying large pubic monitors has violence prevention benefits. “A 360 fish-eye camera provides great coverage, but the public doesn’t necessarily appreciate that,” said Hartman. “But a fifty-five-inch monitor is an immediate visual deterrent for someone when they walk in.”

Both technology and training have an important role to play in protecting sales associates from harm, especially with workplaces being perceived as more dangerous. A new survey by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) conducted in March found that one out of every seven US workers say they do not feel safe at work. Additionally, the percentage of organizations reporting incidents of violence is up 36 percent compared to 2012. SHRM’s survey report posits the question whether the increase reflects actual violence levels or simply a greater level of awareness, less tolerance, and better reporting of violence. But in a way, suggested several retail security experts we interviewed, it doesn’t really matter. Retail employees—those who do the heavy lifting of managing potentially aggressive customers day in and day out—must receive protection from violence as well as feel protected.

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