Black Friday calls for increased vigilance in parking lots

The post-Thanksgiving door buster sales event phenomenon known as "Black Friday" has come to mark the annual beginning of the Christmas shopping season in the U.S. Unfortunately, for many retailers, it has also become synonymous with out of control behavior by consumers as much as it has with deep discounts on merchandise.

This year was no exception with numerous incidents reported at stores across the country. One of the most widely publicized events occurred in the Los Angeles area when a woman attacked fellow shoppers with pepper spray in an attempt to grab a discounted video game console. However, the majority of serious incidents occurred in the parking lots of retailers.

A man in San Leandro, Calif., was shot by robbers when he refused to relinquish items he had just purchased. In Connecticut, a woman waiting for her husband at a home improvement store was carjacked at gunpoint.

According to retail security experts, these incidents demonstrate the importance of having comprehensive security plans in place to help mitigate the risks to shoppers in parking lots.

"Customers are easy targets in parking lots," said Pat Murphy, president of Houston, Texas-based LPT Security Consulting. "They are focused on getting into or out of the store and during the holidays, there are generally a lot of cars moving around so it is difficult to sense a slow moving vehicle that may be a threat."

Murphy, a former area loss prevention manager with Sears and the former director of loss prevention operations at Eckerd drug stores, said that having a visible security presence can act as a deterrent on parking lot crime.

"It is going to prevent some level of crime in your parking lot," he said. "In short, the visibility to me serves as a deterrent and it helps the customers feel better as well."

Once a retailer decides that they need a visible security presence, Murphy said the challenge becomes figuring out how much security is adequate.

"There is no staffing ratio that says for 'X' number of acres or 'X' number of parking spaces you should have 'Y' number of security officers patrolling, so it really is an educated guess at best," Murphy explained. "They have to base their decision on what type of incident history they've had in the past."

Retail security consultant Curtis Baillie, principle at Security Consulting Strategies, LLC, said that retailers inviting the public in for these special sales need to extend the same protections they would employ for shoppers inside the store to their parking lots.

"What they should be doing is hiring extra security or off-duty police officers to be in the parking lot to be on the lookout or there to detect and deter these incidents," he said. "If they're not doing it citing budget reasons, then shame on them because they are the ones that are creating the extra traffic into the stores and into their parking lots."

Perhaps the biggest the challenge posed by Black Friday sales, both inside and outside the store, is crowd control. John Gantenbein, principal at Minnesota-based loss prevention consulting firm KRG2 and a former vice president of loss prevention at Macy's West, said that retailers should start their Black Friday security preparations with how they're going to handle people lining up at their doors before they open.

"These people are there, generally, for specific promotional items and how they are presented and merchandised and the directions that are provided to customers prior to the door opening are very important," he explained. "I think staging is appropriate and has proven to be very effective where people are allowed into the store... to assure them a level of orderliness."

Joe LaRocca, senior advisor for asset protection with the National Retail Federation, said that a part of this staging process could involve handing out coupons or vouchers for items customers are standing in line for, which could reduce the potential of crowd violence. He added that retailers should also communicate with the crowd through some means to let everyone know what the process will be like when they enter the store to begin shopping.

"Like any crime, when you have large clusters of people, the more people you have the more potential there can be for an incident," LaRocca said. "Having the appropriate amount of resources available, obviously working with law enforcement personnel and mall security officers would be key."

Jeff Floreno, director of operations and security strategy at loss prevention security solutions provider Wren, believes that retailers need to "draw a line in the sand" when it comes stopping unruly customer behavior and recommends that they conduct security assessments to determine where there greatest threats are.

"Some of the things I think we need to look at are what is happening in the community around that parking lot and then what's happening inside the parking lot," Floreno explained. "Let's say we have a parking lot in Washington, D.C. Are we going to put security in that parking lot to the same level that we would put in... maybe Woodbury, Minnesota? It's two different types of settings and two different types of crime levels. I think the retailers need to understand what the crime levels are and then develop a program for security."

Choosing the right solutions

In addition to having a physical security presence, nearly all security experts agree that retailers need to implement basic security measures in their parking lots.

One of them most obvious things that stores should include in their parking lot security plans is ensuring they have adequate lighting. According to Gantenbein, criminals use a risk-reward analysis just like people in other professions do and will strike in areas that are not well-protected with good lighting. Having good lighting will also provide a better quality surveillance image.

"You want to provide the safest and most secure environment for your customers and employees or they simply won't shop there or they won't work there," he said. "It really is a business imperative. You have to be able to detect and prevent and lighting and effective video will accomplish that."

Though Murphy believes that having cameras trained on parking lots is good, he said that, by and large, they are "silent witnesses" in retail environments because most are not actively monitored.
Baillie echoed these sentiments.

"If it is a retailer that already employs cameras in the parking lot and has direct lighting, I think the best thing is to make sure they're working and that they have somebody on the cameras that are actually observing the parking lot," Baillie explained. "This is not a time to just let the cameras run on the parking lot and catch something that may happen. It's time to have somebody actively watching the cameras and responding to situations that they determine are a potential issue."

In addition, Floreno said that retailers may also want the capability to push video streams out to security officers in the field through the use of mobile devices to help them respond better. (Click here to read an exclusive SIW column from Floreno on tips for using video to secure parking lots.)

He also recommends trimming trees and bushes, not only to eliminate potential camera view obtrusions, but to also reduce the amount of places a person could hide prior to an attack. Security experts say that parking lots that have surveillance cameras should also post signage that says the area is under surveillance.

Utilizing security officers

Bud Bradley, vice president, national accounts portfolio management at guard services firm AlliedBarton, which oversees security at more than 270 shopping centers and malls, said that the risks posed by Black Friday sales have made it necessary for retailers to bring in additional security personnel and that managing crowds and parking areas are the primary responsibility of security officers at these locations.

Guards can also be instrumental in helping traffic flow in and out of a shopping center, as Bradley noted that they can be entrusted to setup vehicle traffic patterns and also manage pedestrian traffic, which can prove difficult sometimes.
"It's pedestrian traffic that presents the biggest challenge to us," he said. "Making sure that people cross in the crosswalks and that they don't have their nose or face buried in a cell phone and they're not distracted while they're walking to and from their cars."

Security officers can also provide that key physical presence that can help safeguard parking areas.

"As far as parking lots go, visibility is the key. Using overhead flashers, revolving lights... and in some of the major shopping centers they're turning to portable guard towers," Bradley said. "The more visibility and the more perception that there is security in those lots, the shopping public feels safer."

Murphy said that retailers should also consider having their guards utilize Segways or similar modes of transportation rather than vehicles.

"They sit up above the roofline of the cars so you can see more of what's going on and I really like that," he said. "They are very fast, they're very agile, you can get around a parking very easily, instead of a vehicle that's a subcompact car with a flashing light on top where at best (the guard) may only be able to see in front of them."

Murphy added that it's also important for retailers or property management companies to clearly explain the job responsibilities of guards and what is expected of them.

"We don't want you sitting in your car on the perimeter of a parking lot for an eight-hour day, we want you mobile and visible," he said. "The responsibility falls to the person hiring them that they're duties are very clear."

Working with law enforcement

Baillie said that retailers need to share their crowd control plans with law enforcement officials who can also provide advice on how the situation could be better handled.

"They can evaluate your plan and maybe suggest a way to do it better or additional security measures," he said. "The biggest thing is just being in communication with police to make sure that they know that you have a security plan and how you intend to execute it."

Murphy agreed.

"I think this is critical and every effort should be made to meet with local officers to discuss plans during these types of events, Murphy said. " At best it is controlled chaos and there are simply not enough staff to manage the high volume of people who have their eye on that limited quantity Xbox."

It's also important, according to Floreno, to establish relationships with local law enforcement officials well in advance of holding any kind of special event.

"I think it goes back, not just to Black Friday, but an operational process within the security department in how they do business," he said. "A long time ago when I first got in the industry, one of my managers told me the key to success was you don't make a friend the day you need them. When it comes to an event like Black Friday where you need a little more help or maybe you need some increased patrols around your store or parking lot, reaching out to those people you have a good relationship with is real important. But the fact is that it is somebody you have a relationship with makes it easier for you to get the support you need."

Law enforcement can also help stores with potential traffic concerns that may arise with a special door buster sale, according to LaRocca.

"Parking lots can get very full and you need to have some place to divert traffic and have some way to manage the large number of vehicles coming into the parking lot," he said.

Open air lots vs. parking decks

The type of parking lot a retail organization has to secure can also present different challenges.

While lighting and surveillance cameras would obviously be recommended for both applications, how they're utilized can be different. The presence of stairwells and elevators in parking decks can also pose their own unique risks.

"Enclosed parking venues really pose more a problem," Baillie said. "It really requires a different frame of mind than an open air parking area. It actually requires more people and parking garages should really be using cameras with somebody observing them and able to report when they have seen an incident developing."

Murphy said that security managers may want to consider the use of emergency communication kiosks in parking garages.

"Parking garages are a challenge year round. Security personnel have a disadvantage as it is simple enough for someone to just duck down inside a car and not be seen," he said. "Anything that would enhance the ability of a customer to communicate with a centrally located security department should be considered. I think that creates an environment that says to the possible offender that we take our security very seriously."

While they have their own set of security challenges, Gantenbein said that parking decks can also be easier to protect in some respects because they have limited entrances and exits.

When it comes to protecting employees in parking areas, Gantenbein said that stores can have guards escort them to their vehicles or have assigned parking spaces in some instances to better utilize resources.

"That certainly allows the mall and loss prevention to utilize their cameras to help detect potential intrusions or an assault," he said "When an associate can park in anywhere in a lot, I think it can create more exposure."

Retailer's "duty of care"

Another thing that retailers need to be aware of when it comes to securing their parking lots is the legal paradigm known as "duty of care" or what "reasonable" security measures they should have in place to protect against potential litigation.

According to Murphy, duty of care boils down to the foreseeability of crime in an area and how a retailer or other establishment addresses their perceived threat level.

"If a mall never had security, then maybe that's the point in time that it's appropriate to begin formulating a program for that," he said. "If they already have mall security, where are the crimes happening? What time of day? What types of crimes? They need to go into an analysis mode to determine all of the things a police department would try to work with to establish where patrols should take place. That is a reasonable expectation of a security company that's guarding the parking lot of a mall or shopping center."

Still, Murphy said that the changes made do not have to be dramatic, but more incremental in nature.

"What I tell apartment managers and things of that nature is you don't have to go out and immediately erect a 10-foot wall and put guard towers up, it's incremental," he said. When we say a standard, reasonable care, it's exactly that. What's a reasonable person going to do once they're made aware of a certain level of activity happening on their location? Doing nothing is unacceptable, but then again, putting a battalion of marines out is also unreasonable, so you've got to find that balance."

Baillie said that past incidents at a site also play a role in a retailer's duty of care and he encourages the use of crime analysis mapping to better determine what security measures should be implemented.

"Retailers, at least once a year, should be doing crime analysis mapping on their businesses," he said. "That would allow them to see the different types of crimes that are occurring on the property and allow them to effectively plan for security measures."

According to Gantenbein, retailers should view parking lot security as a critical part of their business operations.

"It's a critical imperative for individual stores and mall associations to put on their best hat when it comes to potential business disruptions and violence and losses at their respective locations," Gantenbein said. "It's difficult to anticipate if someone has a can of Mace in their purse or what they may do with it. I don't know that you're ever going to totally mitigate the fact that on occasion these things will happen. Sometimes things happen, but I think (retailers) are doing the best they can and they have to or there's consequences."
 

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