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Strategies for improving safety & security in retail environments - a holistic perspective

Let’s look at strategies for improving security & safety in retail environments from a holistic perspective.

Retail security and protecting employees, cash and assets can be a sensitive subject. It can be difficult to have a realistic discussion on the subject, especially in the dawn of a critical incident such as robbery or theft. The view from business owners are usually shaped by previous experience, biased media coverage or advice from parties with a vested interest. These preconceptions can work against business owners when looking at ways of effectively reducing risk.

Having our own preconceived views on this subject after combining almost 20 years in the industry, we thought we would look at the challenges from a different perspective.

As a manager on the Gold Coast in a former life I was tasked with some occupational health and safety duties. Whilst some relish the detail and level of paperwork required to run a proper safety procedure, I was not one of them. The thought of conducting endless inspections, submitting compliance reports and forever hounding workers to keep in line had me dry reaching to say the least.

One of the tools I found most practical and helpful in amongst the reams of guidelines and directives was the ‘Hierarchy of Controls’ pictured above. This simple guide provides a range of controls to counteract damage to employees and assets from unsafe conditions or unsafe actions.

Starting with complete removal of the risk, which is the strongest control, the hierarchy works back from here to reduce the cause of the risk to an acceptable level. Obviously, elimination of a risk or danger is the most effective and the first preference when assessing options. Unfortunately this is not always practical or possible. When looking at the risks from crime in retail through the same lens, it becomes possible to provide and rank some of the solutions available.

When gauging the particular control in question it’s important to rank its effectiveness within the band in which it sits. As an example, CCTV, which is almost standard in all business realistically, sits towards the bottom in the engineering category. Whilst being a visual deterrent for petty criminals, CCTV doesn’t pose a barrier for a determined criminal and doesn’t remove or eliminate the targets for criminals. If installed correctly, working and turned on, it provides a potentially good reference for post event analysis. This means that hopefully the police will be able to recover enough usable evidence to catch and convict the offender. 

In terms of the ‘HoC’ (this is how I plan on referring to the ‘Hierarchy of Control’ hence forth) CCTV would rate a fair way down the list of options compared to completely eliminating the risk and working back from there. I am by no means suggesting ditch the old CCTV system, up grade maybe, but not throw out. Ideally a functional and effective CCTV system is a critical part of a holistic security system just not the be all and end all.  

Working down the ‘HoC’ it’s possible to work through the most appropriate options available. It’s here that I shall include my disclaimer. This isn’t by any means a detailed or exhaustive list of options or what people MUST do. Every business is different and the reality of everyone’s operation dictates certain controls are not possible or appropriate. I do suggest however that business owners should evaluate and challenge the paradigms in place using this type of tool. I often hear when talking to businesses terms like ‘I can’t’, ‘It’s always been this way’ or ‘It’s how we do things’ and wonder if they have asked themselves WHY?

The first of the controls is ‘Eliminate’. By eliminating a risk there is a complete cessation of the dangerous task, removal of the dangerous condition or element. When we think about the threat of robbery completely removing the target of the crime would be the most potent control. Removing all money, drugs or other valuable items from the store certainly meets the criteria of elimination. Is this really possible in this instance? I think the answer would be a resounding NO. By having no stock to steal, not accepting money (which then means no change to be given out!) would lead to a fairly crumby operation, certainly not a profitable one. The next risk that could be eliminated would be the perpetrators of the crimes, people. Closing the shop would mean no customers or bandits coming through the door. With no customers there wouldn’t be much need for staff, which, incidentally would reduce internal theft. Again, I suspect the result would be complete elimination of the robbery risk but a sharp increase in the risk of poverty for the owner.

Every business owners accepts a level of risk by opening their doors to trade. Being that closing the doors and going purely online isn’t really an option for the majority of retail businesses we must look further down the ‘HoC’ to the next level of control, which is Substitution.

Substitution could mean removing cash and only accepting credit card or debit payments for goods. It’s possible to have customers pay online then attend site to collect their purchases. Whilst this is certainly possible it’s quite likely not appropriate. Depending on a variety of factors such as the cost of items, customer demographics and most importantly flexible and good customer service, this isn’t really an option either. It becomes even more remote when you think of substituting pharmaceutical drugs in a Chemist to something not desirable to criminals. It’s unlikely that a customer would accept a bottle of Echinacea pills when what they really wanted Sudafed for their raging, latest edition flu.

Again we see options for substitution, however in the cold light of day these are impractical and potentially harmful to the business. Engineering controls is the next most effective level of control. It’s here that the options open up. There is a abundance of products and services designed to improve security and reduce or negate risk. It’s here that you need to be more discriminating and analytical when selecting the best option or options for your business. Options here include, CCTV, secure cash handling equipment, safes, personal panic alarms, anti jump barriers and security guards etc etc etc.

Whilst each one is designed to reduce risk, some prove more effective then others. As mentioned above, CCTV is a recognized security product and almost ubiquitous in retail environments. However, CCTV has never stopped a serious and determined robbery or theft from occurring. It may have meant the offender was caught shortly thereafter (I stress MAY) but didn’t stop the incident or the trauma and loss it caused. I agree that to some criminals CCTV could be a deterrent however I have never seen any anecdotal evidence to support this. If you have some legitimate supporting information please send it to me! So in this regard it’s helpful to rank your options according to where they fit and how effective they are against preventing an incident.  

I have rated the suggestions put forth above in order of how I see them in terms of effectiveness:

  1. Anti Jump Barrier – installed correctly this effectively seals off the POS, cash, valuables and employees. Essentially this type of system can remove the ability to access the target of robbery.
  2. Secure Cash Handling Systems – Intelligent safes, TACC Safes, Self-Serve Checkouts and the Counter Cache Intelligent all control and limit access to cash held onsite. They are difficult to attack and eliminate crimes of opportunity. They also limit internal theft.
  3. Safes – conventional safes can store cash, drugs and other small items of value. When properly locked they can be an extremely difficult targets for criminals.
  4. Security Guard – Having an alert & uniformed presence in the shop provides another set of eyes, a focused and potentially physical barrier to committing crime.
  5. Personal Panic Alarms – Give employees confidence that they can call for help should something happen.
  6. CCTV – Described twice above.

The next, and second last control is titled Administrative Controls. Essentially this refers to developing appropriate safe work methods, documenting set procedures and guidelines and conducting appropriate training. For our particular focus, this can include opening and closing procedures, how tills are balanced and how banking is conducted. Effective procedures and training can be a most effective control against attack. If all employees know exactly what’s expected of them through appropriate training, incidents can be reduced by efficiency alone. Conducting and documenting regular hold up training will not stop a robbery or theft but it may serve to protect employees, reduce trauma and lessen the time a criminal needs to spend onsite. Administrative controls would possibly be most effective against internal loss as opportunity for theft is reduced.  Training employees in documented procedures for balancing and various other tasks reduces the scope to steal and projects the perception that the employer has a tight grip on the business. Grey areas or gaps in key processes are a ‘would be’ thief’s best friend!

This method of control would also include clear signage highlighting the security features utilized by a business. These overt signs advertise the fact that you have robust and active protective systems in place. Highly visible stickers on doors and counters referencing a CCTV system or the fact staff cannot access cash cast doubt in the mind of criminals. The outcome here would be to force criminals to find an easier target.

The last control in the ‘HoC’ is personal protective equipment. This level of control accepts that by using the above controls a risk is still present. Personal protective equipment or PPE is extremely difficult to utilize in a retail environment. A welder using a welding mask to protect from the inevitable welding flash is appropriate and completely necessary. For a retail assistant, Pharmacist or petrol station attendant to wear a bulletproof vest, ballistic helmet and carry a firearm preparing for a violent physical attack occurs is absurd.

It’s clear from the brief description above that once eliminating a potential risk is ruled out, finding effective solutions can be complicated. I’m here to tell you, it doesn’t have to be. Instead of focusing on one of the controls mentioned in the ‘HoC’ it’s not only suggested, but also expected under OH&S legislation that any and all appropriate controls be put into play. For example, reducing the amount of cash held onsite by regular banking reduces the exposure to loss. Adding an anti jump barrier stops someone from getting to the remaining cash and drugs held onsite and protects the POS operator. Installing some sought of cash storage or handling system further limits the exposure to loss. Overseeing all of this with a functioning and effectively placed CCTV system captures events as they take place and allows for post event analysis. Combining all this with appropriate signage selling the story of what measures are in place provides a potent physical and mental deterrent.

You cannot protect against every contingency. I get a lot of ‘what if’ questions and scenarios put to me in the course of my discussions with small business owners. A lot of the time people’s imaginations run away with them envisaging situations that are statistically possible, however so remote they don’t warrant consideration. Worse still, this obsessing on the worst case scenario actually prevents businesses from investing in good systems that fix a lot of far more likely day to day issues and risks. Preparing for the day Zombies ravage the earth and its inhabitants whilst prudent shouldn’t stand in the way of working on solid and effective retail protection strategies today!

If you would like to ask any questions about the information above or discuss it in further detail, feel free to contact us anytime.