Member Brief: Data that Rings Alarm

Temporarily unlocked. There are no answers here, few forecasts and no real predictions. This is just a reaction to surprising data. Behind closed doors at retailers everywhere, large and small, I suspect that this is the conversation being had.

That outlet mall was 11 minutes away from the home where I spent my elementary school years. A lot has changed in that part of Texas since the early 1990s. Allen, Texas wasn’t the nationally ranked wealth suburb back then. Today, the median household income is $113,719. Unemployment is 4.3% and poverty is negligible. It’s an idyllic place. It’s the idea of the suburb that I wrote about when I explained my concept of Sanitized Urbanization. Few states build suburbs better than Texas. In short, “sanitized urbanization takes the best parts of urban renewal and imports them to upper-middle class and wealthy exurbs.” It was a quote by Noah Smith, a Bloomberg columnist, that spurred this idea along:

“The suburbs” won’t mean exactly what it meant in the 1970s. Then, the term conjured visions of malls, single-family houses separated by broad lawns, and homogeneous White populations. In order to attract today’s urbanites, suburbs will have to offer something a bit different. [Crain’s]

I went on to explain how most metropolitan areas like Dallas are adopting a format that allows for each suburban area to be self-sustaining with its own retail centers, medical facilities, and living spaces. Polycentric development (having more than one center) is a pattern of transport connectivity, urban planning, mixed use development, and progressive city  design. The result of this type of development is a classification of suburban development that has become more commonplace as younger earners continue to flee cities.

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It’s against this backdrop that I view the tragic loss of life in an area that has never experienced this magnitude of violence. New data from the Violence Project suggests that the type of violence that occurred in Allen, Texas is accelerating.

We often think of schools as the primary targets of these acts of needless violence, but while every act is, in itself, awful: retail is now at the center of it.

Until recently, the average American who viewed cable news categorized retail crime as acts of theft and vandalism concentrated in areas like San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, Oakland, Miami, and Chicago. In the 2022 National Retail Federation’s Retail Security Survey, the most pressing issues as it related to the “risk and threat priorities” of retail executives were guest-on-associate violence, external theft, organized retail crime and cyber crimes. “Mass violence” was in the fifth position with 28.1% of executives suggesting that it was “somewhat more” concerning and 29.8% of those polled believing that it was much more concerning. This priority list my change in the coming months.

As retail executives, it is crucial to understand the evolving landscape of public safety and its impact on brick and mortar businesses. The recent tragic mass shooting at the Premium Outlet in Allen, Texas has highlighted the vulnerability of retail locations to such acts of violence. While it is a retail problem, the real solution is not in the control of the retail industry itself. The narrative will need to elevate the concerns around the social contagion that is the targeting of innocent civilians in retail locations and nearby restaurants. I found this paragraph from a recent journal article in the National Library of Medicine to be relevant to one explanation of the data mentioned in this report.

Recently a contagion effect, similar to a “copycat” effect, has been suggested in mass shootings. This effect suggests that behaviors can be “contagious” and spread across a population. In the example of mass shootings, a contagion effect would be said to exist if a single mass shooting incident increased the likelihood of other instances of mass shootings in the near future. Contagion has been documented across a variety of other behaviors, including airplane hijackings, smoking cessation, and binge eating, and has been well researched in relation to suicide. There is now evidence that when a mass shooting occurs, there is a temporary increase in the probability of another event within the next 13 days on average.

So I found it valuable to explore the history of retail shootings from 1969 to 2022 as well as any and all implications for brick and mortar businesses in the coming years. This includes the likelihood of increased visibility of armed guards at malls, potential militarization of on-site police officers, and the potential shift towards online retail due to changing attitudes towards safety.

A Historical Perspective: 1969-2022

1969-1990: During this period, mass shootings in retail spaces were relatively uncommon. Although incidents like the 1980 shooting at the Liberty City Shopping Center in Miami, Florida, which claimed two lives, raised concerns, there was limited public awareness about the potential risks associated with retail locations. Consequently, security measures were not significantly heightened during this time.

1990-2000: The 1990s witnessed an increase in retail shootings, bringing the issue to the forefront. The tragic 1992 shooting at the Fort Hood Mall in Killeen, Texas, where 23 lives were lost, was a turning point. This incident sparked discussions about the necessity of enhancing safety protocols in malls. While some malls began implementing security measures such as increased surveillance and limited access points, the overall response remained relatively limited.

2000-2010: Mass shootings in retail locations continued to occur with alarming frequency during this period. Incidents such as the 2007 Trolley Square shooting in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the 2008 Westroads Mall shooting in Omaha, Nebraska, further underscored the urgent need for improved security. These incidents prompted retailers to collaborate more closely with law enforcement agencies to enhance security measures. However, the scale of the problem remained significant.

2010-2022: Mass shootings at retail locations reached a distressing peak during this period. Incidents such as the 2012 Aurora theater shooting in Colorado and the 2019 Walmart shooting in El Paso, Texas, where numerous lives were lost, amplified public concerns about safety in retail spaces. Retailers began taking security more seriously and worked to improve measures to protect their customers and employees. However, the high number of incidents continued to pose challenges.

Here is a breakdown of the alarming data surrounding mass shootings, detailed by year (source: The Violence Project):

YEARK-12CollegeGov BuildingChurchRetailDiningOfficeResidenceOutdoorsWarehousePost Office

Growing up, it was a widely held belief that the most dangerous schools were the ones with metal detectors. These were the schools in rougher parts of town; violence was anticipated and so was the presence of law enforcement. Even today, the best public high schools in the United States avoid this measure. They believe that it would communicate that the assumption of safety was a lost cause. While this is the prevailing behavior in K-12 schools, retail centers may not hold similar beliefs.

Projected Impact and Market Assumptions

Increased visibility of armed guards: In the wake of the rising frequency of retail shootings, it is likely that malls and retail locations will prioritize security measures to ensure the safety of shoppers. Armed guards may become more visible, acting as a deterrent and providing rapid response in case of emergencies. This heightened security presence will aim to instill a sense of safety among shoppers and employees, encouraging them to continue visiting physical stores. The presence of armed guards can also serve as a proactive measure, potentially deterring potential assailants.

Potential militarization of police officers: Given the gravity of the trend line, it is possible that police officers responding to retail shootings will appear more militarized. The aim would be to swiftly neutralize threats and minimize casualties. However, striking a balance between effective response and maintaining a welcoming environment is crucial to prevent unnecessary fear or discomfort for shoppers. Collaboration between law enforcement agencies and retailers will play a vital role in establishing guidelines that prioritize both safety and the customer experience.

Shift towards online retail: The changing attitudes towards safety in retail spaces may inadvertently lead to a shift towards online retail. Consumers, increasingly concerned about their wellbeing, may opt for the convenience and perceived safety of online shopping. This shift poses challenges for traditional brick-and-mortar retailers. To adapt, retailers must invest in developing robust online platforms and implementing effective omnichannel strategies that seamlessly integrate their online and offline presence. This approach allows retailers to cater to changing consumer preferences while providing a consistent brand experience.

Retailers may likely leverage the shift towards online retail by enhancing their digital marketing efforts, improving website user experience, and offering personalized recommendations to engage customers. The Connected Mall concept that I wrote about in 2020 will become commonplace throughout the many, premium suburban malls peppering the United States.

Here is that thesis. Easton Town Center, the premium retailer at the center of the thesis eventually facilitated the operation (same day shipping in a 20 mile radius), though the solution still appears early.

It is important to note that the shift towards online retail is not a complete solution. The risk of violence should not keep customers out of stores. Many consumers still value the tangible experience of visiting physical stores, socializing, and engaging with products firsthand. Therefore, brick and mortar retailers should focus on creating unique in-store experiences that emphasize safety while recognizing that there’s only so much that can be done without governmental intervention.

Looking ahead to 2025, the market assumptions for brick and mortar businesses are multifaceted. On one hand, the demand for enhanced safety measures and visible security presence may lead to increased costs for retailers. Budget allocations for security personnel, technology upgrades, and training programs may rise to ensure the safety and well-being of customers and employees. Retailers should view these investments as vital for building trust, maintaining a secure environment, and mitigating potential risks.

On the other hand, the integration of advanced technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and data analytics can help retailers optimize their security strategies. AI-powered surveillance systems can identify potential threats in real-time and trigger immediate alerts, enabling a proactive response. ML algorithms can analyze historical data to identify patterns and predict potential risks, assisting retailers in implementing safety measures. I anticipate these types of preventative measures to become more common.

The history of retail shootings at malls reflects an unfortunate reality of our society. It is crucial to acknowledge the impact of such incidents and proactively address safety concerns to ensure the longevity and success of brick and mortar businesses. By increasing the visibility of armed guards, collaborating with law enforcement agencies, and embracing technology for both online and in-store experiences, retailers can navigate the evolving landscape of safety, build consumer trust, and maintain a competitive edge in the retail industry.

Without viewing retail violence with a proactive lens, the concept of the suburban mall, one of the enduring tentpoles in American capitalism will be unrecognizable. And given that this sort of violence is less tolerable to many (than the same magnitude of violence elsewhere), the irony is not lost on me. Capitalism is at stake and retail is America’s chief employer. Maybe then, something will have to be done about it – in a way that respects personal liberty while also respecting the importance of life.

Retail has been at the center of a political maelstrom for a while now but the Allen, Texas massacre is likely to exacerbate things. Adapting to this, the changing consumer attitudes, fears and preferences will be vital in fostering a secure shopping environment. Ultimately, the answers to these concerns will determine the future of retail in the United States.

By Web Smith | Edited by Hilary Milnes with art by Alex Remy and Christina Williams

Part one of this series: Where NatSec Meets Commerce (China’s Influence)

Editor’s Note: I hate the phrase “thoughts and prayers” because it denotes a powerlessness to affect change. My hope is that the contribution of this perspective helps in some way, shape or form. My sincerest condolences to the families, businesses, and lost lives impacted by this tragic event.

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