Workplace Violence: Redeploying the Retail Security System

Asset prevention teams and security cameras in stores were the effective deterrent retailers needed before the pandemic. Then shopping changed.

Last Updated:
June 6, 2023
| ~
min Read
Meg Moore
Marketing Writer

First came the retail apocalypse.

What upended the shopping experience—the Great Recession, shifting consumer habits, and the online e-commerce juggernauts’ rise to dominance—changed the traditional shopping trip for most Americans. The mall, once a rite of passage for teens, required reinvention. Innovative and fresh thinking brought experiential shopping experiences, online package collection points, and a return of Tiffany, a true ’80s pop icon, to fill mall parking lots across the country.

And then COVID-19 hit—and then subsided—reigniting retail’s post-apocalyptic times. But this had less to do with brands’ aggressive expansion plans and late investment in digital sales. The post-pandemic era presented new challenges. From increasing labor shortages and retaining employees to maintaining COVID precautions, retailers and their employees experienced growing and heightened risks of violence and hostility.

Georgetown University professor Christine Porath uncovered that 78% of frontline workers said that at least once a month, they witnessed incivility at work. Her recent research also revealed that the same number believe customers’ bad behavior toward employees happens more often and is more common than five years ago.

Gun violence and active shooters top the ever-growing list of retailers’ concerns about how to keep employees and customers safe.

Violence and Aggression Top Retailers’ Security Challenges With Store Security Systems

The National Retail Federation’s 2022 National Retail Security Survey paints a perilous picture. Shrinkage, the difference between what a company records as in stock on its balance sheet versus its actual inventory, is an almost $100 billion problem. A more precarious issue is retailers’ safety assessments: Eight in 10 reports that the violence and aggression associated with organized retail crime incidents increased in the past year.

While the NRF estimates that ORC costs companies an average of just 7 cents for every $100 in sales, shoppers’ and employees’ post-pandemic shopping experiences reveal a startling reality. Violence in and around stores is increasing and retail workers bear the brunt. The website Black Friday Death Count, which compiles links to such news stories, tallies 17 deaths and 125 injuries on Black Friday going back to 2006, but these kinds of events happen with alarming frequency throughout the year.

Assaults at retail establishments are fast increasing, quicker than the national average, according to a New York Times analysis of FBI assault and active shooter data. The numbers are startling:

  • From 2018 to 2020, there was a 42% increase of assaults reported to the FBI by law enforcement agencies.
  • Yet, in comparison, assaults in grocery stores increased 63% and 75% in convenience stores.
  • Over 82,000 (nearly 4%) of the more than 2 million assaults reported to the FBI in 2020 happened at shopping malls, convenience stores, and other shops.
  • More than half of active shooter attacks in 2021 occurred where people were handling money, including at stores, post offices, and banks.

Workplace violence isn’t new for retail employees—but it’s on the rise. According to the CDC, working in retail is one of the highest-risk jobs for workplace violence. It’s not just that employees face hitting, fighting, and shooting; they may also experience sexual harassment, rape, bullying, stealing, and verbal abuse. Late-night workers, who typically work alone, are especially vulnerable. A 2009 Occupational Safety and Health Administration report found no less than 15% of all workplace fatalities in the United States occurred in retail settings, usually at night. A sharp decrease in staffing—as well as the self-checkout kiosks that retailers install to deal with that issue—are an underlying factor that contributes to the violence retail workers endure. Unfortunately, traditional store security systems aren’t designed to reduce violence effectively.

Will Difficult Decisions Herald in a Dystopian Future For Retail?

How are retailers working to solve this issue? Some, like Starbucks and McDonald’s, are closing locations in areas across the country where safety concerns override sales. Retail outlets in cities like San Francisco and Seattle, where companies employ higher numbers of remote workers rather than organizations where workers have returned to the office, are experiencing more pronounced effects.

Recent announcements from the leaders at Whole Foods and Nordstrom point to employee and customer safety as the reason why their San Francisco flagship locations will close. These decisions come as the city continues to struggle with perceptions about retail crime, which has increased in several parts of the country in recent years but is particularly acute in the Bay Area. But this isn’t just an issue there—it’s happening across the country, from Nike giving notice in Seattle to Walmart moving across town to another location in Albuquerque, with more than 2,100 stores set to close in 2023.

Despite possible fears of retail’s dystopian future, with delivery drones, robot servers, and self-service in the metaverse piquing curiosity, retailers plan to rewrite the story. Those surveyed plan to exponentially boost budgets for loss prevention and technology, with more than half (52%) increasing line items for capital and equipment.

How Retail Security Systems Will Evolve to Fight Workplace Violence

Tech plays a starring role in the ongoing shift toward intelligence-based loss and violence prevention strategies, as “guest-on-associate violence” has become a greater priority for retailers than any other crime over the past five years. Those who shared their thoughts with the NRF say their current planning includes:

  • Adding artificial intelligence-based video analytics at point-of-sale and self-checkout lanes to note “red-flag behaviors,” like a person with a weapon or shoppers’ sudden rush to the exit.
  • Integrating self-service locking cases.
  • Employing autonomous security robots.
  • Subscribing to social media listening technology, which helps to identify potential events that could affect a specific store’s location. This tool gives managers insights to make more informed decisions on staffing or hours of operation.
  • Implementing multisensory parking lots or curbside surveillance towers or other standalone units.
  • Restricting access to certain areas with a control system.
  • Establishing dedicated ORC teams that can average greater success than security guards whose responsibilities generally can’t cover this enormous scope.

Of course, every business owner can’t invest in these significant but expensive technical upgrades. But training employees how to best handle customer interactions, spot potential conflicts, provide de-escalation training, and implement policies that detail how to react safely and quickly demonstrates just how important human intelligence is.

When workers are unsure how to handle testy customer interactions, it threatens their safety and mental health, as well as that of other customers. Even more startling? Ignoring this crucial customer service component can lead to an increase in repeat or escalated crimes, possibly negating the effectiveness of the advanced store security systems and measures already implemented.

Employees already use the most advanced technology—their cell phones. Taking a photo of a person or license plate, if possible, likely won’t stop a crime. Still, it can help solve it, working in tandem with the most innovative or rudimentary retail security systems. 

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