Counter-terrorism efforts well-worth consideration by retailers

By Eric White, Doug Reynolds and Michael Rozin

Retail is an evolving business that must constantly adapt to changing consumer demands, technologies and economic and demographic trends. Retailers are extremely adept at this, and are perpetually reinventing the way they do business, both in terms of interactions with consumers and also how they streamline operations. This is a requirement for successful retailers because, like it or not, everything impacts retail: technology, weather, politics and even terrorism. 

Unfortunately, retailers of all types are vulnerable to terrorist threats to their operations, either as a target or a potential enabler. The results of this kind of attack could be devastating. And while counter-terrorism may seem to be stretching the limits of what retailers can and should be doing, the truth is that implementing this kind of program is not only a smart way to protect the business and help thwart attacks, but also reaps operational benefits.

If you don’t believe that retail is an attractive target to terrorists, consider the following: retail is the second largest industry in the United States, with $3.8 trillion in annual revenues, employing 12% of our work force. The industry fuels our economy and supplies our nation. Retail is the lifeblood of capitalism and a successful attack would strike tremendous fear in the hearts of Americans, nearly all of whom regularly participate in and rely on the retail experience. A successful attack on retail may not evoke the drama of the falling Twin Towers, but certainly would be as symbolically impactful and perhaps even more effective at disrupting the economy. This goes without mentioning the brand damage and liability associated with an attack occurring in your store. 

What can retailers do? Most retailers feel neither equipped nor aware enough about these issues to know how to start a counter-terrorism program. The behavioral detection program at the third largest mall in North America -- Mall of America -- provides an excellent example of an effective, manageable program that can be modified to implement in any retail environment.

Mall of America’s security team employs behavioral detection to uncover malicious intent of potential terrorists or other criminals. This technique uses trained interviewers to approach individuals behaving suspiciously and question them in a very casual, non-confrontational style. The interviews are designed to uncover untruths, inconsistencies, and even physiological characteristics such as nervousness, sweating, irritability and failed eye contact that are subconscious signs of lying. The interviews may not ultimately reveal a mastermind plot or even the fact that the individual is involved in a terrorist attack, but can certainly uncover a hidden agenda or arouse further suspicion. The process will likely deter the individual from coming back to your store. Easier, less aware people and places will be selected as a target. Or, perhaps, enough suspicions are aroused to warrant reporting an individual to local authorities who can then collaborate with federal agents to further assess the threat.

Behavioral detection programs reap additional operational benefits as well. This method employs such a casual, friendly approach that legitimate customers may actually consider it an enhancement to their customer service experience. Stores that practice behavioral detection also train staff to be more aware of people in the store, which can also improve customer service.

In addition, Mall of America has uncovered many other crimes and incidents such as shoplifting, collaborative theft with employees and vandalism. These are losses that can continue to add up, stripping retailers of profitability, if not caught early. Generally, employees and loss prevention (LP) professionals who are more aware of what’s going on in the store are more likely to note any suspicious behaviors, or operational issues that need to be addressed, thus nipping potential loss-causing activities early. 

Another step retailers can take to help prevent terrorist attacks is to flag suspicious combinations and/or quantities of items that could be used by terrorists to construct improvised explosive devices. Consider the attempted Times Square bombing, in which a bomb was made of a propane gas tank, large quantities of fertilizer, and other household items. Retailers already have sophisticated POS systems in place that flag combinations of purchases of items. It would be easy for them to flag other transactions if a list of potential bomb-making materials were provided. 

The good news for retailers is that this does not have to be a daunting initiative. In many ways, a counter-terrorism program leverages the capabilities and systems LP teams already have in place today. LP professionals are already extremely adept at spotting suspicious behaviors and can leverage this capability with some additional training to learn the behavioral detection method. Systems such as the POS and video surveillance are extremely sophisticated and already in place. They must simply be employed to provide valuable data to be analyzed for these new purposes. 

At closing time for every day that a counter-terrorism program successfully prevented attacks, the benefits reaped by retailers last much longer than just that day -- and include protecting your own business and brand for the long-term, as well as doing the right thing to protect customers, staff and even the nation. Retailers should simply approach counter-terrorism programs as another environmental factor to which they must adapt They can feel good about implementing this kind of program in that it also yields overall improvements to their business.

Doug Reynolds is director of Security for Mall of America, where he directs a staff of approximately 100 officers in the 24-hour operation that is responsible for securing the 4.2 million-sq-.ft. facility (doug.reynolds@moa.net).

Michael Rozin is special operations security captain as part of the Mall of America Security Department. In this capacity he has developed, implemented and managed a behavior detection unit and variety of additional innovative security programs focused on mitigating the threat of terrorism (michael.rozin@moa.net).

Eric White is director of retail strategy for Wren (wrensolutions.com), providers of physical security solutions used by some of the world’s most respected retailers including Walmart, The Home Depot and Target (eric.white@wrensolutions.com).