In a bustling New York City block not far from the bright lights of Broadway, sounds of Bach and Mozart cut through air. The classical music isn’t coming from street performers, and it isn’t meant to be calming—they are blaring from speakers outside a 7-Eleven convenience store. It’s a tactic that a numerous stores across the country increasingly use. The idea is to relentlessly blast music to act as a deterrent to the homeless panhandlers who congregate outside their businesses and harass their customers.
Pick up your favorite hometown paper or watch any local news channel and you’ll likely be met with reports about crime, vagrancy, drug use, or much worse happening with a convenience store as a backdrop.
The National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS), reports there are over 150,000 convenience stores across the U.S.—or for another perspective, one store for every 2,225 people.
With so many communities relying on their local convenience stores for a wide variety of everyday items, it’s no wonder that crimes there are on the rise. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 6% of all robberies in the U.S. take place in convenience stores—many of them mom-and-pop shops. FBI statistics corroborate that trend. In 2019, almost 7% of all robberies happened in convenience stores and in 2020, that number rose to 10%. That doesn’t even begin to paint the picture of overwhelming incidents that go unreported like vandalism, harassment, or someone running off with a six-pack of Heinekens or pocketing a bag of Doritos to satisfy their munchies.
Part of the reason why convenience stores provide the setting for so many bad things to go down is ironically—its convenience. They are usually open long hours with many stores operating 24/7. The around the clock access always allows for a meeting point and the stores usually have minimal staff, particularly during the evening or overnight hours. Being centrally located not only lends itself to easy accessibility, but also to quick getaway routes on major roads and highways.
Types of Challenges
- Merchandise theft—according to the National Retail Federations, shoplifting and other theft occurrences cost retailers over $61.7 billion in 2019.
- Robbery—NACS reports that the U.S. convenience stores industry conducts about 160 million transactions a day. Most convenience stores sell small ticket items which lead to more cash transactions. Cash in the registers are targets for criminals who are looking to pocket it.
- Vagrancy and harassment—convenience stores can be a magnet for the homeless. Due to the stores being open early and late (some 24/7), it provides a stream of panhandling opportunities. This can lead to customers feeling harassed or unsafe which can lead to customer attrition.
- Vandalism and sanitary/cleanliness—convenience stores are often victims of vandalism and graffiti. Homelessness can also contribute to trash being left and poor lighting can encourage unseemly acts.
- Prostitution and drugs—convenience stores offer a variety of goods that people need often in a pinch. As a result, they are high traffic establishments that cater to many patrons. Unfortunately, for the same reasons, they are prime areas for prostitution and drugs.
All these issues can be disastrous to the financial health and the success of any business. However, the threat of violence is what really keeps business owners and the communities up at night. FBI statistics show that convenience stores were the fourth most common place for violent crime in 2020. In fact, convenience stores have some of the highest rates of workplace homicides in the U.S.—second only to taxicab drivers.
It's a trend many convenience stores would like to reverse. A study by University of Toronto researcher, Katherine Decelles, looked at CCTV video of almost 200 robberies in convenience stores to see why convenience store robberies become violent. What she found was that in any given situation there are associated social norms or patterns of expectations of what will happen in that scenario. For example, if you go to a restaurant, you expect to be greeted, led to your table, given menus, order, and receive your food. If any of that is disrupted, there can be a level of agitation experiences. Would-be criminals also have preconceived notions of how a robbery should play out—expectations that the clerk is stationed behind the counter, that there will be immediate compliance, and that there will be no interference from customers. If any of those expectations are drastically different, or unplanned variables appear, panic can ensue, and things can go south quickly. Decelles concluded that when store clerks are not behind the counter as expected, a quick demand for cash now becomes a situation where the perpetrator of a robbery becomes in a heightened state where they must now hunt for the clerk before making the demand. And according to Decelles, that can be the beginning of a flashpoint for violence.
However, experts say there are tangible ways to minimize a convenience store’s appeal to criminals to begin with.
Ways to Minimize Crime
- Increase lighting in surrounding areas and install surveillance cameras—eliminate dark areas. This eliminates areas where people can conduct illegal or seedy interactions in the shadows.
- Minimize blind spots—this allows clerks and employees to have visual contact with potential shoplifters. People are less likely to steal if they feel they are being monitored.
- Train staff on company safety and security policies and to de-escalate conflict—many retailers are employing a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to interacting with shoplifters. No amount of merchandise or money is worth an employee who is injured or worse.
- Install panic buttons—acts as a rapid emergency distress signal in dangerous situations. A silent alarm discreetly alerts authorities.
- Reduce the amount of cash available in the register—utilize store or smart safes or regularly schedule cash pickups.
- Invest in signage—let people know about the security measures you have in place as a deterrent—think of a “Beware of Dog” sign.
- Maintain a professional and welcoming environment—keep area clean and uncluttered to patrons. Make sure the premises is free from trash or debris and remove graffiti as soon as possible.
Turning convenience stores into inconvenient targets can be daunting but shouldn’t feel like it takes place in a vacuum. Many customers see convenience stores as an integral part of the fabric of their communities by providing them a much-needed service. Experts say that engaging with and fostering a sense of community with patrons, other local businesses, as well as law enforcement creates a common goal of safety. The more eyes and ears that seek to do good can be an effective deterrent to those that are looking for opportunities to do bad.