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Five Design Ideas for Safety


There is little doubt the public’s fear about safety has been heightened. In fact, the news these days is saturated with danger signals. Some people feel the threat of public spaces more acutely than others.

Having been trapped in a building two blocks from ground zero on 9/11, I myself have become hyperaware. I’ve devoted a lot of thought to how we can make shoppers feel more secure in the spaces we design so that they will be drawn to a store, be comfortable staying, and finally, lose themselves in the experience and want to return another day.

By giving attention to the five strategies detailed below, we can make shopping spaces more attractive to people who may be consciously, or subconsciously, thinking about security.

Clear sightlines

Most people’s worst fear is losing control. Being able to see what is going on nearby, and some distance away, helps give us a sense of control over our surroundings. Similarly, not feeling isolated and knowing others will be able to see us if we need help also makes us feel more secure.

As an example, studies have shown that at night women are far more likely to enter well-lit gas station convenience stores with windows than dark ones with solid walls. Presumably this is because if anything goes wrong in the store, passersby will be able to see and respond.

In a department store, the scale is much greater — yet the same principle applies. Increasing light levels, adding windows and breaking down walls to open up sight lines throughout the store and within the store’s façade can give occupants a greater feeling of security. Even on upper levels, windows and clear paths to exits make shoppers feel safer than dividing departmental walls.

The fitting room is perhaps the most isolated and vulnerable part of a clothing store. So we should make fitting room entrances open and accessible, while ensuring that the full-height stalls lock well enough to guard against any intrusion.

Make navigation intuitive

Have you ever had trouble finding your way out of a department store? Store floors are large, sometimes purposely designed as mazes so shoppers will end up browsing longer. However, to the safety-alert shopper, the feeling of being lost is extremely uncomfortable. Not being able to find the exits — particularly your point of entry — does not feel secure. Furthermore, as a parent myself, I know that losing track of family members can induce panic.

At our firm, we try to counter disorientation by placing strategic landmarks throughout a store. These icons are large, memorable, and easy to locate, so that shoppers can easily find their way back to the car, to the mall, or to meet their companions. A classic example of such a landmark is the massive bronze Wannamaker eagle at what is now Macy’s, in Philadelphia.

In addition to creating landmarks, we avoid confusing room design symmetry, whereby everything looks the same. We also try to keep exits and service elements just off the main circulation.

Serve and protect

Another way stores can make shoppers feel safer is through staffing and surveillance. Who, if anyone, seems to be watching people entering and exiting the store? Is that person visible, or behind cameras? Knowing someone is paying attention to who’s in the store acts as a comfort to shoppers and a deterrent to those with ill intent.

Next, do the door and customer service staff seem vigilant and professional? Uniforms, old-fashioned neatness and other signs of professionalism make a store seem well-run and safer.

Lastly, people do notice — sometimes subliminally — and appreciate practical security measures such as cameras strategically placed both inside and outside the building.

Designate safe places and emergency procedures

Current mall “incident” policies generally instruct store owners to hide customers in the back, and to roll down and lock the grilles/doors until a crisis is over. Stores could designate areas where patrons should shelter in the case of a lockdown. People will feel safer once they understand that store proprietors feel some responsibility for protecting them.

Through longstanding experience, Israelis have developed interesting approaches to public safety from terrorists. For instance, some playgrounds contain painted concrete bomb shelters children are trained to run to in case of an emergency. Malls feature hidden barricades that slide out from within walls to contain and compartmentalize attacks. Such efforts to make stores safer will not be lost on customers.

Since the 9/11 attacks, when I had to invent emergency procedures on the spot, it’s been a priority to train my team on how to keep safe and factor safety into projects we design. Retailers, too, should consider bringing emergency experts on board to train staff and help plan their stores.

Offer an escapist experience

If fear starts in the subconscious, can we create an experience that makes the shoppers forget themselves — like a mental vacation? Once their basic safety concerns are met, we can leverage tactile immersion, experience and story.

Positive interaction with employees, music, merchandising displays and so on can allow the customer to relax and be taken away from daily anxieties. This is crucial — this kind of experience acts as the primary payoff for actual (versus virtual) shopping and is what will keep customers coming back to the physical store.

Disney has mastered both immersion and safety, allowing every guest the freedom to become a part of the story. At Disney Springs (the brand’s new retail reinvention of Downtown Disney at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida) many of these ideas are in practice.

As terrorism continues to advance globally, the world will need to become more vigilant about how we plan and design retail destinations. I think most retailers today are concerned with this problem and interested in finding solutions.

Andrew McQuilkin, FRDI, is the international chairman of the Retail Design Institute and retail market leader at BHDP Architecture in Cincinnati.

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