Making Shopping Centers Safer

Article excerpt

How safe is your mall?" asked a recent cover story in USA Today. If shopping malls have become the new urban centers, they have also inherited their share of urban crime. According to the 1993 National Survey of Shopping Center Security, conducted by the Burns Security Institute, the average mall experienced 104.7 criminal incidents annually, compared to only 20.2 incidents in 1978.

The perception, however, is worse than the reality. Violence against persons at shopping malls is rare. Shoplifting, car theft, and car break-ins account for most of the average mall's criminal activity, and even these are usually infrequent.

A shopping center is much safer than walking down a city street, going to a football game, or arriving at an airport, according to David Levenberg, corporate director of security at General Growth Management, which operates 80 shopping centers from Long Island to Hawaii. "But because people have felt that the mall was a haven of safety for so many years, when something does happen, it looks heinous," says Levenberg.

However, for the retailer and the manager, the impact of even one or two incidents, especially if they receive media coverage, can lead to a perception of danger. And fear keeps customers away.

John Hagenow, general manager of Harlem Irving Plaza, a neighborhood center located in Chicago, says, "One of the main issues malls must combat is perception versus reality. An issue of prime importance to a manager is how the public perceives his or her shopping center. In general, it's probably harder to fight the perception than the actual security problem."

Fighting the perception

To combat customer fears, some malls are publishing safety tips for customers. These include such common sense practices as parking in a well-lighted area, putting packages in the trunk rather than the back seat, having your keys in hand when walking out to your car, and trying to shop in pairs.

"It's a very proactive approach to show concern for the public," says Hagenow. "You're telling customers, 'We feel this is a safe mall in which to shop, but you should be doing these things any place you go.'"

It's important that the customer recognize his or her role in the security of the shopping center, says Ken Lokiec, assistant vice president with the Edward J. DeBartolo Company in Youngstown, Ohio. DeBartolo operates 65 enclosed malls across the United States. "One approach we take is to market our security back to the public. We try to make sure that customers recognize their responsibilities."

Lokiec's firm has instituted a "Project Awareness Program," which focuses on security in three areas:

The property: What the management firm is doing to keep the centers secure and to ensure that people are aware of where the security guards are, how they can be contacted, and what their roles are.

Merchants: What their relationship is to the center's security and to the police department, and how they can report problems for themselves or their customers.

Customers: Their role in security, and how they can protect themselves.

Going a step further, Tysons Corner Center in McLean, Va., prepares a quarterly report for customers on mall crime statistics. In addition to comparing Tysons Corner's statistics with the market as a whole, the handout tells customers how to report crime and how to find the security department.

"We've been doing this for five quarters now," says General Manager Rob Snowden, CPM |R~. He believes that the report gives shoppers comfort rather than frightening them. It helps shoppers understand what is going on and how to prepare themselves psychologically for a shopping trip. The report also includes safety tips and procedures for reporting an incident.

Securing parking lots

Mall owners agree that the number one security problem in most shopping malls is crime against people and property in parking lots and garages. …