Guest columnist Eric White writes the LPXtra blog and is director of retail strategy for Wren Solutions, and formerly served as a loss prevention executive for Walmart.
Hosting high-excitement retail events, such as Black Friday, means your loss prevention and security team will need to consider crowd control.
Photo credit: Image courtesy stock.xchng/RobinUtrac
The quickly-approaching holiday season brings to mind the importance of protecting retail events. From fights over limited product, to the trampling of a security officer at a post-Thanksgiving day sale in 2008, unfortunately, Black Friday brings equal opportunity for both profitability and risk.
To ensure events yield maximum revenues as well as safety for customers and staff, retailers must take steps to prepare for special events. Many loss prevention teams do an exceptional job managing special events, but insight into what it takes to keep an event safe will also help other groups in retail understand not only why it's important to get LP involved early, but also how everyone can contribute to ensuring a safe and successful event. The four Cs are fundamental to protecting a special retail event.
Communication is perhaps the simplest, but most essential element to consider both before and during a special event. Good communication yields improved effectiveness in execution and is also the best way to control a situation before it degrades into a crisis.
Consider, for example, the situation of a tired, cold crowd that has been waiting outside for several hours. Communication is the first step to managing that crowd. Managing expectations and helping them feel better about the wait can help calm nerves and disarm tempers. For example, "We've opened the doors now and the wait from this point is 40 minutes." Or, "We're going to open the doors, but we need you to be patient and not push, so no one gets hurt." In most cases, people want to be agreeable and will do what is asked of them if it is clearly communicated.
How would a warm cup of coffee or hot chocolate make that customer feel? Chances to build loyalty exist everywhere and events can't just be about the sale, they have to be about the experience.
Similarly, an event will proceed smoothly if the staff is able to stay in communication during an event. Staff members need to be able to send updates and directives instantly through a dependable system. "We need security outside, as there appears to be an intoxicated, angry customer in the crowd that needs to be removed." Or, "The celebrity left early and there are disappointed customers. What can we offer these customers as a goodwill gesture?"
Communication is fundamental. Be sure there is a dependable system for communicating – whether that is cell phones, walkie-talkies, loudspeakers or a combination of all of these. Good communication is a far easier way to manage a situation than trying to physically control an already deteriorating situation.
Any time a large number of people assemble, situations have the potential for more volatility. One of the most important things a retailer can do to control crowds is diffuse fundamentally competitive situations.
When planning events, marketing and merchandising teams' primary goal is to generate traffic and excitement. The creation of limited availability offers is a great way to generate excitement and crowds. However, these offers set up potentially dangerous situations for crowd control, where people are pitted against one another to reach the product, break in line, etc.
The LP team should collaborate with all of the other groups in retail to plan an exciting AND safe event. The spirit of competition can be maintained while diffusing the immediate need for conflict. Some examples include handing out wristbands to the first 100 people in line instead of having them race to the site of the new product and fight over the last items. Another option is to spread the limited merchandise throughout the store to avoid a single point of a crowd crush.
Coordination during Event
Coordination includes all of the logistical activities that take place at the actual event in real-time. It's about having and using the right people and resources. It's knowing how and when to turn to the emergency action plan. It's making real-time decisions to ensure that the event is being managed and does not deteriorate into a crisis situation.
One of the most important things a retailer can do to ensure excellent event coordination is to make sure the right people are at the event and in the right roles. For example, assign a boisterous people person to manage the crowd. This "sales" person will establish a rapport with the crowd easily, put a positive spin on their wait and possibly entertain them. Then assign the more security-focused person to observe the crowd, watching for agitated behavior that would require a security react. This obrserver is in place in case communication from the sales person is not effective.
It also means knowing when to contact law enforcement, and when to enact the emergency plan. The art of knowing what action to take and when is tricky. Loss prevention professionals are skilled in this, but they require the support of the entire retail organization to make their decisions effective.
Contingency planning applies to every aspect of planning. It is the art of anticipating how a scenario may differ from how it is planned. What if it rains? What if the power goes out? What if the celebrity does not show? This "what if" game is a worthy exercise so that the LP team has time to think through how they might react to an alternative situation.
Contingency planning for communications means identifying a back-up means of communication for key staff if the primary system is lost. Will the group meet at a specific location or will a specific team member call a gathering using a loudspeaker? If someone cuts in line or becomes unruly, who will make the decision about how it is handled -- whether the person is asked to leave the event or whether they will receive a reprimand and close supervision? If it's raining or extremely hot or cold at the event, will crowds be brought inside the building to wait in an effort to protect their own safety and health? If a bomb threat is called in, who has the authority to make the decision on whether or not the event is cancelled? How will the crowd be dispersed in case of an emergency? Good contingency planning means being prepared for anything and everything.
Just these few, simple insights can help everyone in retail better understand some of the aspects of ensuring a safe special retail event.
About the author: Eric White serves as director of retail strategy for Wren, providers of physical security solutions used by some of the world's most innovative and respected retailers including Walmart, The Home Depot and Target. White has 20 years of experience in loss prevention, asset protection and physical security, having served at Walmart and The Home Depot. He has been awarded Diplomate status for innovative work and leadership in the Private Sector and serves on the board of directors for the American Board for Certification in Homeland Security (ABCHS). White can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find more of Eric White's commentary at Wren Solutions' LPXtra Blog.