Retail safety and security: When prevention isn't enough

As violent crime rises, improving employee training and store design can reduce the odds of trouble
Photograph: Shutterstock

This is a Winsight team study, reported by CSP’s Hannah Hammond, Greg Lindenberg and Chuck Ulie, and Winsight Grocery Business’ Diane Adam, Jeneice Drake and Heather Lalley. 

“Don’t move.” That was the moment on an evening in 1978, midway through a shift, that Tom Hart, then employee at a Wilson Farms convenience store in Buffalo, N.Y., knew he was being robbed. That and the gun pointed at him. 

“It didn’t seem real to me at first,” he says. He had been on the job for about three months. “I had never thought about getting robbed. It was never discussed. It was completely different back then.”

A second person came around the back counter and put a gun to Hart’s head. He told him to open the register. “There were around six or seven people in the store, and I remember looking across the counter at a woman with a young kid and thinking to myself, ‘OK, I’ve got to get through this as quickly as possible.’ That’s all I remember thinking,” Hart says.

Hart opened the drawer and triggered the silent alarm. “I took the money out of the register, gave it to them and they left. No one got hurt. The police came by very quickly. The person in the back didn’t even know it happened. But it was a harrowing experience,” he says.

A harrowing experience—and nowadays there are many. According to FBI data, there were 22,838 incidents of violent crime at U.S. convenience stores in 2021, double the number from 2017, and 3% of the nation’s total violent crimes. Gas stations, a separate FBI category, accounted for another 14,723 (nearly triple 2017’s numbers) and grocery stores 6,960.

The total for these three categories: 44,521 incidents of violent crime, 6% of the U.S. total, versus 20,348 five years earlier. 

Such incidents are increasingly forcing retailers’ hands :

  • In October, Wawa permanently closed two downtown Philadelphia stores due to “safety and security challenges” after they were ransacked multiple times. “Despite reducing hours and investing in additional operational measures, continued safety and security challenges and business factors have made it increasingly difficult to remain open in these two locations,” the company said in a statement.
  • Following a string of robberies that resulted in the deaths of two people—a c-store clerk and a customer at different locations—and the wounding of three others, 7-Eleven Inc. in July recommended that six Los Angeles stores close temporarily. The retailer offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the gunman.
  • Also this past summer, citing safety concerns including incidents of customer drug use and other disturbances, Starbucks announced it would permanently close 16 locations in several markets and transfer workers to other cafes, according to a report by CSP sister publication Restaurant Business.
  • Similarly, mass shootings in grocery stores—Safeway, Tops, Walmart—in 2022 led to at least temporary store closings as communities mourned the loss of loved ones and neighbors. 

The increase in violence nationally—and at retail establishments including convenience and grocery stores specifically—has prompted businesses to discuss how to protect themselves, both via training and store design, to reduce the odds of being victimized.

Hart—that teenager manning a c-store 45 years ago—is now one of those trying to help. He is the director of business development for Ready Training Online (RTO) Inc., Elizabethtown, Pa., which helps c-stores with robbery prevention. It also aids in handling shoplifting and violent crime, de-escalating situations and getting through a situation without making it worse. 

Following a career in c-stores, including as chief operating officer of the Store 24 chain in Boston, Hart joined RTO in 2008. There, he told CEO Jeff Kahler that the first thing he wanted to work on was robbery prevention. 

“There are two reasons: One, it happened to me, and I wasn’t trained. I got through it, but that doesn’t mean it would be like that for everyone,” Hart says. “Second, a lot of people don’t like to talk about it. It’s uncomfortable for management to say, ‘You’re a new employee, I want to talk with you about potential violence that could occur on your shift.’ ”

So, Kahler and Hart sat down and wrote a robbery prevention model for RTO. 

“Most people in this world will not be the victim of a violent crime, so the odds of someone automatically knowing how to handle something are very small,” Hart says. In talks, Hart lets people know violent crime can happen and simplifies what to do if it does. “Remain calm, cooperate, you don’t want to fight back, you don’t want to argue. There’s nothing in the store we can’t replace; we can’t replace you.”

The aggressor can sometimes be an employee, so training can include recognizing shifts in behavior to keep stores safe, says Amber Bradley, owner of the Calibration Group, Nashville, Tenn., which trains retailers and restaurants about loss prevention and safety and security issues.

If someone has a major personality shift, for example, or is complaining about how the “company is out to get them,” those could be red flags, she says, emphasizing the importance of training frontline employees to not write off these behaviors as someone just having a bad day. “Now you report it,” she says.

With employee-instigated violence, retailers must have policies and procedures in place to act on any potential threats or other concerning information, says Bill Flynn, founder and chief strategy officer for Ann Arbor, Michigan-based The Power of Preparedness (TPOP), a workplace-violence training organization that has partnered with FMI-The Food Industry Association, Arlington, Va.

A zero-tolerance policy that results in the termination of any employee who engages in harassment or violence toward others is also essential, he says. In addition, pre-employment screenings should be conducted, even for hourly positions, to root out anyone with a history of domestic violence or other red flags. 

“The cost of reacting after a serious incident has occurred is 100 times more costly than taking preventative action,” Flynn says. 

In a massacre at a Walmart in Chesapeake, Va., two days before Thanksgiving 2022, a longtime overnight manager opened fire in the store’s breakroom, killing six co-workers before turning the 9mm, semi-automatic handgun on himself. The manager used his detailed knowledge of the store’s inner workings to turn a place of rest for workers into a murder scene, Flynn says.

“Their knowledge of the facility places the store at a disadvantage,” he says.

“A lot of people don’t like to talk about violence. It’s uncomfortable for management.”

On the other hand, in most cases in which grocery and other retail employees commit violence in a store, there often was a long history of warnings signs that should not have been ignored, he says. 

“People rarely just wake up one day and snap,” Flynn says.

The stresses of the pandemic, coupled with mounting economic uncertainty, social and political unrest, and more have fueled a pressure cooker for grocery and c-store customers and their employees. These workers, like healthcare employees, were deemed essential during the pandemic’s earliest days, forced to stay on the job while many others retreated to the safety of their homes.  

Flynn’s organization, which was founded about six years ago, is working with FMI to bring active shooter preparedness and de-escalation techniques to the association’s member grocery stores. In the wake of November’s Walmart shooting, TPOP added a behavioral indicator portion to its course for food retailers.

In addition to employee training, there are store-design considerations that can help reduce problems.

RTO, for example, discusses bright lighting, how to keep the store safe and what to look for.

“People are looking for a place to rob that feels unsafe,” Hart says. “It’s dark and there’s a lot of stuff in the window—people (who are causing trouble) are  attracted to that. At 1 or 2 in the morning, there are people who are out a little later than they should be, looking for mischief or looking for trouble. You don’t want to be that. You want to be a beacon in the night for safety.”

The company has instructions for district managers on how to conduct a night visit. “Make sure you know what goes on around the neighborhood,” Hart says. “It’s important to be out with the store manager at night because “sometimes it’s a completely different story.”

“Supporting employees on the second shift, overnight is important to get feedback but also to let them know they are part of the team and you are there to support them and make sure they are following all of the safety precautions you have in place. You really want an eye on: If you were passing by the store, would you feel safe pulling into the parking lot?”

Hart says another important part of robbery and violence prevention is working with the neighborhood. “At Store 24, we were a believer in going to community meetings … to understand what our neighbors were talking about. If you are not there, and they have a problem, they’re going to talk about it anyway. It’s better to be there, address the situation.”

It’s also critical to have the uncomfortable but necessary conversations about violence with employees and be proactive with training before something happens, he says. Talking honestly with people will put them more at ease than if they hear about an incident from someone else.

In grocery stores, it’s common today that people try to exit with carts full of product, either to resell or because they can’t afford to buy it, Bradley, of Calibration Group, says. One way to combat this is with gatekeeper technology, she says, such as a shopping cart whose wheels lock if it doesn’t go through a point-of-sale interaction. The person stealing will usually walk away once the cart locks, she says.

For retailers, it’s a fine line balancing safety and security with a pleasant, welcoming shopping experience.

“There are a lot of stakeholders involved,” says Doug Baker, FMI’s vice president of industry relations. “There are a lot of tools and resources that need to be put in place.”

A retailer should have a plan for if violence strikes a store. Once the threat no longer exists and those wounded and affected have been evacuated, TPOP and FMI recommend, “Management should engage in post-incident assessments and activities in coordination with local law enforcement and emergency personnel.” This includes:

  • Accounting for all individuals
  • Setting up and staffing a family assistance center
  • Assessing the psychological state of those at the scene and referring them to appropriate healthcare specialists
  • Employing continuity of operations plans to ensure key functions are carried out
  • Determining a transition plan including when to resume normal business operations

When working with grocery stores and other retailers, TPOP considers three key areas: Violent-crime prevention, saving lives and making a store marred by violence operational again. 

“It’s always a goal to stop these attacks altogether,” Baker says. “That’s probably not realistic. Now you’re just making sure to save as many lives as you can. … When I started in the grocery industry as a bagger, I was learning how to bag and how to push eight carts instead of five. Unfortunately, in the grocery business (today), you’ve got to know how to save lives. You even have to know how to stop the bleeding, how to apply a tourniquet. Safety training is just a way of life.”



More from our partners