SECURITY HEIGHTENED AS MALLS SEEK TO EASE CUSTOMER CONCERNS
Byline: Georgia Lee
ATLANTA — Remember those innocent times, when shoplifting or egg-throwing were the security concerns of malls? They seem a distant memory, as operators of shopping centers across the country have shifted into a constant state of “high alert” since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, increasing security measures and uniformed patrols, installing barriers and strictly enforcing parking and fire-zone regulations. And even this week, many are discouraging trick-or-treating on their premises.
As the holiday season approaches, mall operators also are concerned about people coming out to shop, particularly on big shopping days like Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. They’re keenly aware of Halloween, as well — although because it falls on a Wednesday, it’s not expected to be a big-volume day.
Still, Chicago-based General Growth Properties, with 145 malls, Chicago’s Urban Retail Properties with 63 malls, and Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based Taubman Centers Inc., with 31 malls, have all decided to nix much of the Halloween festivities.
“Safety wasn’t the primary reason we canceled events,” said Wally Brewster, senior vice president, marketing and communication for General Growth. “But connotations of Halloween just seemed inappropriate this year.” He added that threats, pranks and mischief, even hoaxes, have increased since Sept. 11.
“We’ve eliminated trick-or-treating because of the mood of the country and because we wanted to be sensitive to the concerns of our customers,” said Karen MacDonald, director of communications for Taubman Centers. “It’s one less thing for them to worry about.” She added that some Taubman centers will still stage Halloween plays or puppet shows, and that since Sept. 11, Taubman malls have been in a state of “heightened alert and will continue to be indefinitely. We have steps and procedures in all of our shopping centers.” Security in all public places has been heightened, but it’s becoming more and more evident in malls.
According to an official from the International Council of Shopping Centers, uniformed police officers and plainclothes security personnel are patrolling parking lots, entrances, exits and common areas. Parking and fire-lane regulations are being strictly enforced. Loading docks are double-checking deliveries and drivers. Workers, from cleaning people to construction workers, are undergoing increasing identification checks. Access to roofs, where most HVAC units are housed, is being monitored around the clock. Camera surveillance and new high-tech measures are under discussion.
“The focus has shifted from theft deterrent and crowd control to personal safety,” said Cynthia Cohen, president of Strategic Mindshare, a Miami marketing consulting firm. “They’re talking of radical steps, like building cement walls in front of a mall that could stop a bomb-loaded truck from crashing into the entrances. The easiest way for retail to deal with this is zero tolerance.”
While the tightened security will reassure many shoppers, there is also the risk that it will raise anxieties, and as one retail analyst said, lead to the “airportization” of malls, with metal detectors, guard dogs and armed security personnel, eradicating the warm-and- fuzzy feeling that malls were designed to project.
Retail organizations are all over these concerns, asking questions they’ve never before considered. Last week, the ICSC conference in Orlando, Fla., included meetings on security and released statements noting that recent e-mail threats to stay away from malls on Halloween had been thoroughly investigated and proven invalid by the FBI.
The National Retail Federation is planning security forums at conferences in November and June, at members’ requests, in addition to the usual loss-prevention discussions. In the past week, the NRF listed Crisis Resources on the home page of its Web site, with links to sites about anthrax and terrorism.
“Everything is so new, we’re trying to take the first steps to give members guidelines,” said a spokeswoman. “We don’t want measures to appear intrusive or frightening, because we know consumers can only take so much, but we also know they want heightened security.”
Dan Butler, the NRF’s vice president of retail operations, said that early efforts had yielded more cooperation between players. “Malls are starting to work with retailers and with law enforcement in a way we haven’t seen before,” he said.
Industry experts are divided on the rush to security and its effect on consumers. While some see it as absolutely essential to soothe fears, others believe it sends the wrong message, and could actually drive traffic away.
“Our surveys show that 25 percent of people are still afraid to go to the mall,” said Brenda Gilpatrick, president of Atlanta-based Gilpatrick Marketing Group. “It may be a problem of perception, but malls have to address it and do whatever it takes to make people feel secure.”
According to Taubman’s MacDonald, traffic has returned to normal levels, though business is “up and down.”
Tim Keiningham, senior vice president, Marketing Metrics, a Paramus, N.J., consulting firm, and author of “The Customer Delight Principle,” thinks the security craze is too overt. “There’s a lot of posturing going on,” he said. Instead of battening down the hatches, retailers should attract consumers through increased service, events and promotions that emphasize mall’s positive aspects, he said.
“Malls are giving in to a minority of consumers who are afraid,” said Keiningham. “Many more parents take the attitude: ‘I will take my kids out. Terrorists won’t beat me, and they certainly won’t beat my children.”‘
Keiningham said that malls should send a positive message of caring about customers, and focus on the human element, while still addressing security concerns.
“Malls should not be held hostage or take blame for anything done by terrorists,” he said. “The World Trade Center proved that some things are just out of our control anyway.”
One retail consultant, who wished to remain anonymous, said malls were “deluding the public into a sense of security” that isn’t really possible. “More guards aren’t going to stop terrorists, who’ve proven they’ll do anything.”
Unlike some of its competitors, the Simon Property Group, with a portfolio of properties that include the mega Mall of America and the huge Mall of Georgia, sees Halloween as an important ritual that can help heal. “We feel it’s important to move forward with our lives, and do the things that are not only part of our daily routine but also about who and what we are culturally. Halloween is decidedly part of the American culture. And we can help consumers celebrate this holiday tradition like they’ve done in the past,” said a Simon spokeswoman.
The Mall of Georgia, north of Atlanta, doubled events this year, with a six-day “scare fair” featuring music and art festivals, interactive sights and trick-or-treating. Halloween photo packages, similar to Santa Claus photo setups, are available for the first time, and author R.L. Stine, of the “Goosebumps” children’s book series, made appearances.
At the Mall of America, home to “the world’s largest trick or treat,” more than 200 stores will participate, along with other special events that typically draw more than 1,000 children a year.
But just beneath the fun and games, security is heightened everywhere. Codes of conduct are clearly posted around malls, and no adult masks are allowed. Uniformed patrols and closed-circuit cameras have been increased. Contractors and all workers must show credentials and packages must be authorized. At Mall of America, in Bloomington, Minn., police and firemen also will help distribute candy.
“We’re paying more attention to all the minutia of security,” said Scott Higley, marketing director, Mall of Georgia. “We don’t give credence to terrorists. If anything, we want to do more to compensate for all the recent pain and help kids return to normalcy.”
Other malls have taken more vague stances concerning Halloween. North DeKalb Mall, a Cadillac Fairview property in Atlanta, has canceled mallwide trick-or-treating events, but this month features Dr. Evil’s Triple Terror Haunted House.
Some stores are proceeding with Halloween as usual, despite mall policy. Al Jacobs, owner, Kidding Around and Running Around, children’s clothing and shoe stores in The Falls, a Miami mall, will celebrate Halloween in his store, despite cancellation of events by Taubman, which owns The Falls.
“Malls are afraid of getting sued if children get sick from candy,” said Jacobs. “Trial lawyers may have as much to do with this as security.”
Jacobs called it “terrible” to deprive children of the mall as a safe place to trick-or-treat, particularly for kids who live in less-desirable neighborhoods. He has decorated his windows, will wear costumes and proceed as usual. “We’ll have candy, treats and surprises anyway, for any children who want to come,” he said.
Child psychiatrists agree that children need routine, and that canceling Halloween can be scarier than the holiday itself. “Sometimes, we overprotect children, trying to keep them from ever seeing or hearing a bad thing,” said Judith Simmermon, a well-known Atlanta child psychiatrist. “That’s not good. If you use too much antibacterial soap, you become immune to it. With precautions, Halloween is in good fun and kids can handle it.”
For certain retailers, particularly stores specializing in party merchandise and costumes, Halloween is huge. At Party City of Atlanta Inc., a 19-store franchise of Party City Corp. in Rockaway, N.J., with more than 470 stores nationwide, seasonal events are one-third of total sales, and Halloween is the biggest event of the year.
This year, sales should be flat with last year, according to Dick LoPresti, president. But the lack of increases is due as much to Halloween falling on a Wednesday as to the cancellation of events. More adults tend to participate when Halloween falls on a weekend, he said. LoPresti considers the party superstore concept almost recession-proof.
“No matter what the economy does, people still celebrate birthdays, occasions and Halloween,” he said. “This year, any lack of public events is being offset by people celebrating more at home.”
And what of the home, and the increasingly insecure home shopper? According to Elaine Rubin, chairman, Shop.org, an association of online retailers, who may be multichannel, security discussions are intense.
“We’re in an investigative, if not an investing, mode about security,” she said. “We’re looking at what-if scenarios and trying to be prepared for anything.” Shop.org is affiliated with the NRF.
Online retailers are looking at backups in delivery systems, adding personnel, outsourcing and contingency plans. Some have suggested “inspected by” stickers on packages, although they could cause more alarm than good. Other ideas include notification of a gift before it arrives to eliminate fear of unexpected packages.
Cyberterrorism is another fear, with the alarming number of viruses and the ability of hackers to disrupt online systems. For now, preventing cyberterrorism, which has never killed anybody, is on the back burner, in the hands of information-systems experts, said Rubin.
Pre-Sept. 11 projections for online sales were around $65 billion, with about 25 percent coming in the fourth quarter. Rubin said online sales had returned to normal levels by Sept. 24. Halloween sales, although not a significant part of online business, had grown steadily this year, with no spikes up or down. Categories that are often bought early include costumes, crafts and wreaths. Rubin predicted fourth-quarter online sales would exceed projections. She expects consumers will be in the gift-giving mood, traveling less and relying on Internet shopping more.
“People want to feel safe at home, around people they care about,” she said. “The computer is a connection to the world without having to touch the world, and that’s an attractive notion today.”