At many shopping malls, visitors interact with face-recognition kiosks, climb rock walls and indulge in soothing massages. But on one Sunday in January, hundreds of shoppers in Utah wanted nothing more than to find closets and bathrooms.
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That was the response to a gang-related shooting at Fashion Place Mall in Murray, Utah, which caused panicked visitors to take shelter in back rooms and elsewhere. Others fled the building.
Natural disasters, violence, even flash mobs — these events are becoming a pressing reality of shopping, even as merchants step up efforts to attract and enthrall customers. Retailers invested an estimated $3.4 billion in artificial intelligence alone in 2018 to enhance the shopper experience, but how are they safeguarding their stores, and shoppers, from potential harm that is becoming more common?
Turns out, many have been quietly doing that, without compromising the shopper experience. The National Retail Federation operates a microsite dedicated to emergency preparedness for crowd management, disaster recovery and active shooter situations. The global consulting firm Safe Shopping Centers, in Sweden, is dedicated to evaluating and certifying the risks and security of retail destinations.
Also, Home Depot and Lowe’s operate emergency command centers dedicated to tracking catastrophes and organizing relief efforts. Home Depot’s center includes trucks loaded with supplies from gas cans to batteries.
Retail Security Taking A Front Seat
Threats to physical retail environments have become prevalent enough to secure a session at SPECS Show 2019, a convention for retail planning, design, construction and maintenance, to take place in March. Titled “Building and Preparing for Threats and Disasters,” the session will include officials from Home Depot, the apparel chain Buckle and FEMA.
It makes practical sense. Large-format stores and shopping malls have open-access layouts, steady hours of operation and often draw predictably large crowds through sales events and hosted public activities. All of these factors put large groups of people in a vulnerable position in the case of a natural disaster or other emergency.
Among the events retail organizations are precautioning against:
Mass shootings. There were 340 mass shootings in the United States in 2018, according to the non-profit organization Gun Violence Archives. The number that took place in shopping centers is not broken out, but Wikipedia lists 27.
Natural disasters. While home improvement chains tend to benefit from natural disasters, retailers are not immune to the effects of hurricanes, fires and tornados. Hurricane Harvey caused an estimated $1 billion in damage to stores in Texas and Louisiana, and Hurricane Irma resulted in nearly $2.8 billion to retailers in Florida, Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Bahamas.
Flash mobs. Coordinated via social networks, these quickly executed crowds can cause panic and injury, in addition to theft and damage. Chicago’s Water Tower Mall recently banned unaccompanied minors on Friday and Saturday nights to avoid disruptive behavior, including flash mobs. The decision followed a series of incidents involving young people, according to the Chicago Sun Times.
Cyber danger. Though typically associated with online retailers, cyberattacks that threaten physical harm can create panic in shopping centers. In the Russian city of Magnitogorsk recently, cyber criminals sent coordinated, anonymous bomb-threat emails to shopping malls, schools and hospitals. The event occurred three weeks after a natural gas leak caused an explosion at a nearby apartment block, killing 39. No bombs were found.
Safety In Store: 5 Guidelines
There’s no window dressing for the potentially hazardous events that could befall shoppers, but they should expect safety. It’s just a matter of time before they recognize when it’s in place.
- Appoint a team. A crisis management team is essential to ensuring every shopping center staff member knows his or her role as well as the roles of others, so they can react confidently in a crisis. Individual stores within shopping centers should have teams as well, and all should coordinate their efforts (more on that below).
- Train, regularly. Shoppers are most safe when all staff, including tenants and suppliers, are trained not only to identify suspicious activities, but also to lead an evacuation and to use emergency medical equipment and safety systems. Response and evacuation drills should in fact be routine. Some emergencies, such as flash mobs, may require specific alert procedures to verbally or visually diffuse a potential disruption.
- Learn safety words. Like all those SWAT teams and soldiers in the movies, regular shopping center workers could learn safety communication systems, including hand signals and actions, that enable them to size up the nature of a threat and act appropriately. Mall operators should further establish that security personnel will coordinate communications with state and local public-safety agencies, federal agencies, such as the FBI, mass transit and delivery companies.
- Pick go-to partners. Mall and store operators should reach out to neighboring properties, such as schools, businesses, gyms and religious facilities, to ensure these locations would accommodate and provide shelter for fleeing shopping center visitors, as well as friends and family members who gather to reunite with victims.
- Keep it clean. If shoppers can’t find the bathrooms because of signs, center-aisle displays and other clutter, then they shouldn’t be expected to see the emergency exits in a panicked situation. All areas — from the stores to the food courts — should be well lit and clear of blockage, for easy evacuation.
These precautions do not have to rob retail destinations of good experiences. Indeed artificial intelligence technologies, such as facial recognition, can help reduce the risk of threats while even enhancing the shopping experience.
Which is to say that retailers and retail tech developers should strive to get both — safety and entertainment — for the price of one. Because no matter how much is invested in interactive kiosks and rock walls, shopper well-being represents retail’s highest-returning investment.