Tuesday, 9:00 p.m. About a dozen customers are still shopping. Cashiers are closing up and the night crew is restocking and straightening up for the next day.
A man in his 30s carrying a backpack is acting strangely — nervous, mumbling incoherently and wandering aimlessly. Suddenly he pulls out a handgun and starts firing. People scramble for cover. Is it a robbery or a random act of violence?
This scenario could be played out in stores anywhere in the country. But the issue under discussion in many retail boardrooms is not about gun control. Rather, it’s about what retailers can and should do to protect customers and employees.
In a newly released loss prevention survey by the National Retail Federation, about two-thirds of retailers said they have a policy covering active shooter situations; many others are in the process of developing one.
“Retailers are talking to their staffs about active shooter situations and are beefing up fortifications or deploying things like safe rooms,” says Rich Mellor, vice president of loss prevention for NRF. “Retailers are also being more permissive about employees having cell phones on them. They’ve come to the conclusion that if something happens they should be able to call the police.”
The Boston Marathon bombings “reminded us we need to be vigilant and on constant alert and able to work with any agency that needs our help,” adds Rhett Asher, vice president of industry relations for the Food Marketing Institute.
It’s the potential for violence that is the ultimate concern.
“Retailers have consistently addressed new and emerging threats,” says loss prevention consultant Joseph LaRocca. “Every time there’s an incident, the big retailers assess what they and their competitors did right and wrong and make adjustments.”
“Security differs for each scenario and retailers, in partnership with law enforcement, must assess what protocols to follow,” LaRocca says. “But it’s also about giving employees and managers the right training and hoping they follow the policies and common sense when something happens.”
Retailers began thinking about this in earnest following a 2007 shooting at Westroads Mall in Omaha, Neb., in which nine people, including the 19-year-old gunman, were killed and five others wounded.
“Retailers have open doors: We invite people in to touch and feel the merchandise,” LaRocca says. “It’s not an environment like corporate offices, banks or schools. Incidents are simply going to occur. It’s about how we handle them.”
The concealed carry question
Some issues are touchier and more complex than others — concealed carry, for example. At present, 49 states allow people with permits to carry concealed weapons. Applications for permits are at record levels in Florida, for example, where one in 15 adults has a license to carry a concealed weapon, according to state data. The General Accounting Office estimates that there were about eight million active concealed carry permit holders in the United States as of 2011.
One of the more difficult decisions for retailers is whether to prohibit customers from carrying concealed weapons. “There are complications with whatever posture you take,” Mellor says. “If you forbid firearms, people who have licenses may be discouraged from shopping the store or you could lose them permanently if it becomes a personal issue.”
The overwhelming majority of retailers surveyed by NRF don’t permit employees to have firearms on the premises and include that in their company policy.
“I don’t know of any retailers that allow employees to carry weapons in the stores .... I don’t think they want armed security either,” says Gus Downing, president of security and loss prevention firm Downing & Downing.
“The first reason is training. You can get a license to carry a weapon, but that doesn’t mean you know how to use it. The public law enforcement community has very strict guidelines and ongoing training that lets people work on their skills. In the security guard industry, there’s no standardized ongoing training program that could guarantee that when they pull that weapon they know what they’re doing.”
In April, the Nebraska Furniture Mart, one of Omaha’s biggest retailers, said it was changing its policy to allow shoppers with permits to carry concealed weapons. The retailer says it plans to start arming some security guards following handgun training. Similar policies will reportedly be used at the company’s store in Kansas City and a unit under construction in suburban Dallas.
Downing is convinced that retailers will increase their use of off-duty police. “It used to be a practice only for high crime areas,” he says, “but now it’s sending a message to consumers that we are as concerned about their safety as selling something to them.
“The most successful retailers will be the ones that can integrate this message within their marketing programs and visual presentations to consumers. We used to have signs that said, ‘Shoplifters will be prosecuted.’ I predict we’ll see more signs saying, ‘We’re concerned about your safety,’” Downing says.
Video surveillance’s importance
While retailers have always discouraged confrontation in violent situations, they are taking a proactive approach to safety, says Mellor. “They are taking suggestions from employees and have instituted training and refresher courses.”
Video surveillance is growing significantly, he says. “Retailers have video in stores to protect assets as well as customers and employees. But more of them are putting cameras on the exterior of their buildings. We know how important that was in Boston,” Mellor says, referring to the surveillance images Lord & Taylor provided that were instrumental in identifying the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings.
Another instance occurred in Tucson, Ariz., in 2011 when then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot outside a Safeway supermarket. The store’s video clearly captured pictures of the shooter; the case highlighted retailer video as a critical tool for investigators and prosecutors.
“It also gives retailers information in advance on what’s going on outside the store to determine if they have to close the store quickly, call the police and whether a customer is in duress,” Downing says. “And these cameras are not hidden. They’re out in the open as a deterrent to crime. Fewer incidents will take place where cameras are deployed.”
Whatever the method, it is clear that retailers are beefing up security. But it’s no longer a matter of going it alone. “The world changed after 9/11,” Asher says. “The federal government realized they couldn’t handle everything and that there was a world of resources in the private sector. That’s when government and retailers became good partners. It started with the Department of Homeland Security and migrated to agencies like the CDC, FEMA and even the Red Cross.
“I’m finding that retailers are constantly reviewing and fine-tuning their plans,” he says. “We have several leadership groups here with companies getting together to share best practices.”
“I think we’ve responded as an industry and [are] doing the things we should be doing,” Downing says. “But it’s unrealistic to think there’s such a thing as perfect security. You do the best you can by having good programs and policies in place if something does happen, then hope for the best.”