Smartphones, Body Cameras, Parking Lots: How Retailers are Making It Harder to Protect Stores

What’s the difference between defending from an oncoming car and trying to fend off a masked robber?

For security analysts, the line between these two threats is very blurry. According to a report released this week, the number of security-related robberies in 2017 increased by almost 60 percent over the previous year. Robberies at retailers increased by 9 percent last year.

Also, last year was the second-costliest on record for retailers, with total losses in excess of $5 billion. Each additional $1 billion of losses results in an extra $8 million in costs, according to Mafokeng, an agency that tracks retail crime and responds to victims through its Rural Justice Program.

How do these things get so bad? Researchers have identified two major causes. The first is that, over the past several years, more people have been carrying smartphones. With “a little bit more money in their pockets, more people are coming into contact with these electronic devices that can be converted into weapons,” says a spokeswoman for SafeWise, a consultancy dedicated to crowd-sourced data.

The second is the aging population. All of us will someday be older. We’ll be in a store, or just walking down the street. And, carrying our smartphones in our pockets, we could grab one and use it as a weapon.

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Once you’ve invaded a store, these two real-world problems become magnified. “As individuals age, their physical ability declines. This has an impact in the way they approach,” says Safety and Security Expert Nadia Senyetskaya, a Retail Security Expert with Euro RSCG SSC.“Their defenses decline.” For individuals age 80 or older, for example, Senyetskaya says, “the overwhelming percentage of them have difficulty following directions properly and understanding details of instructions or tasks or concepts.”

But what’s the best way to prevent a product from becoming a tool? Aspect, a manufacturer of electrical systems that keep shelves and walls safe, sells this option: Have an employee use the phone. “They look after all the digital assets of the business, so they should be able to act safely with them,” says Abi Toor-Nam, a member of the company’s Product Safety Department.

The security threat of “body cams” is another problem, says safety expert Mike Shrier. He works with Whole Foods Market in Wisconsin, where more than half of employees have a “body cams,” the latest in retail gadgetry. Most business are showing them off. But there are worries that they can be misused.

Shrier wants to make sure that bosses and workers know how to use them. “What we’re trying to do is educate employees that if a scenario arises, they can bring it up for the manager or whoever needs to know that there are people who need to understand this in case of an emergency,” he says.

The retailers’ own employees aren’t immune. Safeway, the supermarket chain, has reported an uptick in convenience store robberies, says Dr. Jeremy Salberg, a professor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. (Safeway did not respond to our requests for an interview.) One problem, Salberg says, is that convenience stores have relatively lax security measures that might open them up to robbers.

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Another, perhaps less obvious, factor is that employees might be distracted from the regular duties of working and preparing the store for customers by using their smartphones. “They may not pay attention to other things,” says Salberg.

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