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Designing Safe Stores for Shoppers


Retailers continue their efforts to step up design investments to improve the customer experience, but they should also focus on investing in customer safety.

That message was driven home during the SPECS session, “Safe Stores: Design Ideas to Help Customers Feel Safer” Speaker Andrew McQuilkin, retail leader at BHDP Architecture, explained that recent “active” shootings — when individuals actively attempt to harm people in confined, populated areas — have targeted formerly “safe areas,” including malls.

As these incidents proliferate, “people are becoming hyper-sensitive about their surroundings,” McQuilkin told attendees. “In some cases, incidents are fostering different behavior among shoppers — including their transition to online shopping so they can avoid malls altogether.”

Rather than lose customers to a fear of the unknown, the industry should be making it a priority to create safe spaces — stores as well as the overall mall — that are not only attractive, but make shoppers feel comfortable when they visit.

To successfully create safer spaces, retail teams must adopt new design and operational strategies. Here are some of the recommendations McQuilkin outlined:

Designate safe places, procedures

Whether designing concrete bomb shelters or dedicating a discrete location in the back of the store, retailers need to designate areas where they can “hide and protect” customers, if necessary. To ensure that customers feel safe and keep shoppers calm during an incident, members from merchandising, operations, loss prevention and other lines of business must also collaborate to create safety measures that keep shoppers and associates out of harm’s way. Store-level staff must also be trained on how to execute this plan.

The ability to “see and be seen”

Clear sightlines are crucial. Stores must give shoppers visibility to exits as well as the paths to find them. McQuilkin highlighted the value of installing ceiling-to-floor windows at gas station convenience stores, a move that gives shoppers inside and outside of the store visibility to their surroundings. Other retailers are breaking down the walls that separate specific departments inside of stores, making exits easier to locate.

Intuitive in-store navigation

“When shoppers feel lost, they don’t feel secure,” McQuilkin explained, suggesting retailers need to adopt designs that create intuitive navigation. This could be as simple as adding distinct statues or other structures or landmarks that make it easy for shoppers to locate a mall entrance, their car in the parking lot, or even simply meet up with people. Also, avoid confusing room design symmetry, whereby everything looks the same. Try to keep exits and service elements just off the main circulation.

Foster sense of “serve and protect”

Another way retailers can help shoppers feel safe is through security. Knowing someone is paying attention to who is in the store can be a comfort to shoppers and a deterrent to those with ill intent. The ideal team is not just uniformed guards. Some security personnel may be visible on the sales floor, while others patrol the floor in plain clothes. Also, more may be in the back monitoring surveillance equipment.

Create an “escapist” experience

Shoppers used to visit the mall to socialize with friends, and unwind from daily stresses. However, active shootings and other terrorist acts are playing on shoppers’ fears — an issue that is causing some customers to curb mall visits.

“Fear starts in shoppers’ subconscious,” he said. “Leverage strategies that invite shoppers to your property. Focus on creating a destination that delivers beauty and fun, and allows shoppers to relax.”

At the same, he added, focus on the strategies that will simultaneously create a safe place for shopping.

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