Advice and Opinion

Are South African malls safe?

Lebogang Mokubela, CEO of the Lemok Group will be presenting at this year's SACSC Research Conference.
Lebogang Mokubela, CEO of the Lemok Group.

With malls and shopping centres across South Africa being targeted by criminals, one has to wonder if tenants and shoppers are safe?

Lemok Group founder and Chief Executive Officer Lebogang Mokubela said that more needs to be done:

This past week, one of Pretoria’s premiere shopping centres was hit by a brazen robbery of a jewellery store. Criminals, seemingly have no boundaries. They are aggressive, armed with an array of weapons and they aren’t afraid to use excessive force. More needs to be done to protect shoppers and tenants alike. Due to the recent spike in armed robberies at shopping centres, shoppers are becoming increasingly reluctant to visit centres. Crime is impacting on the foot-traffic of centres, this impacts turnover, which will further impact jobs which ultimately affects families and the economy negatively,” he said.

In a case study conducted by Natasha Lutchminarain titled “Safety as a priority at shopping centres in Gauteng: An assessment of existing security measures,” delved deeper into shopping centre safety.

According to Natasha’s research, shopping centres and the modern retailing world have, over the last decade or so, changed dramatically. With this change, crime has also adapted. Criminals on both sides of the counter are working harder and smarter: “Computer-based systems have provided for better accounting, auditing and discrepancy reporting results, but the face of crime has changed along with the technological improvements. Due to the practice of displaying goods openly to attract consumers, shopping centres and retail stores suffer from a high incidence of theft and other crimes, both violent or non-violent, not only from customers, but also from the retail staff. The crime rate at shopping centres increases further just by the mere fact that the site attracts the sort of groups most likely to commit crimes, such as teenagers, alcoholics, drug users, crime syndicates and the unemployed. This, however, does not stop here, these criminal incidents not only affect individual retail outlets negatively but also the shopping centre as a whole,” she stated.

Are armed guards a good idea?

On the surface, arming security guards with guns seems like the immediate answer. But is it really? McDermott (2008: 20) states that security guards should not have weapons and believes that having armed security guards would simply increase the danger to the retail staff and customers as crime patterns show that the size and weaponry of armed gangs just escalates in proportion to your level of armed security. Retail stores are increasingly being seen as ‘soft targets’ for violent crimes and specifically armed robberies-innocent retail staff and customers are often caught in the cross fire. While the larger retail stores have tended to contract security guards at their front entrances, these security guards are not specifically trained to manage violent situations but rather to deter would be shoplifters and petty criminals. Even those shopping centres that have contracted outsourced security companies, have very little chance of averting an armed robbery as these gangs usually work in large numbers and overpower existing security guards.

Lebogang agrees although there are certain instances where shopping centres have to adopt the services of armed guards. “Take Groblersdal for instance. Many businesses in the area employ the services of armed guards due to the fact that Groblersdal is known as a ‘dangerous’ region. Even shopping centres have armed guards. Armed guards are a contentious topic indeed but shopper and tenant safety are of utmost importance,” he said.

What can be done?

Lebogang said each centre is unique in terms of design, location, offerings and market. “In order to productively enhance safety for shoppers and tenants, one needs to ‘think like a criminal’. Criminals, are often smarter than they are perceived. We see mall robberies as brazen, criminals see opportunities. The opportunistic nature of such crimes revolves around accessibility, visibility, entry points, exit points and timing. Stores closer to entry and exit points as well as tenants in poor visibility areas in centres are often more vulnerable. Criminals make themselves aware of location points of security guards as well as response times for security to traverse from one point of the mall to the next. It is also not uncommon for security to supply information for criminal activity to take place. Crime is something we cannot control at the best of times, but it is important for shopping centre managers to assure shoppers, staff and tenants that they are actively working towards creating a safer environment for all stakeholders,” he said.

Lebogang mentioned the following points for shopping centre managers to consider: Share information and create partnerships. Partnerships should be established and maintained among all who are vested in the safety and security within the shopping centre industry. Partnerships can be created with the South African Police Service, shopping centre management, retail outlet managers, customers and communities, businesses, research institutions and organisations that assist the retail industry such as the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa and Business Against Crime South Africa.

Emergency plans

Mall managers need to develop and maintain emergency plans that inform tenants and staff what to do in times of crisis. Tenants themselves need to develop their own individual emergency plans so that staff know what to do as well. These specific plans need to be appropriately and noticeably displayed for further and future references by the specific staff or groups. Further security policies and procedures have to be regularly reviewed and tested in order to maintain the highest possible standards. When considering a procedure for an incident such as an armed robbery one must take into account the realities of an armed robbery. An armed robbery is a traumatic and emotional event which, in many cases, results in totally unpredictable behaviour. The likelihood of emotional and physical injury is high and one must ensure that any proactive action undertaken is designed to minimise the risk of injuries. The preservation of life and the prevention of injury are supreme and no amount of money supports the taking of risks that might lead to serious injury or even death.

Education and awareness programmes

Education and awareness programmes are imperative in reference to armed robberies at shopping centres. All parties involved, from top management filtered right down to the customer, in the retail experience at shopping centres need to be educated and made aware about the ‘good, the bad and the ugly’. These programmes can cover a range of topics such as security measures employed to reduce the chances of being a target of an armed robbery, how to behave during an armed robbery, what to do if you have witnessed an armed robbery, coping mechanism available to witnesses and victims. This should be a regular process and can easily be rolled out to all the employees at the shopping centre, from the top down, by means of formal manuals and compulsory seminars and  workshops.

Customer safety information

Customers can have brochures and leaflets handed to them. The information to customers should highlight the measures they need to adhere to in order to protect themselves. Measures such as: refraining from carrying large amounts of cash, refrain from wearing expensive jewellery or making them visible while shopping, change routes within centres as criminals thrive on patterns and may notice routines etc. Shoppers also need to be aware of the measures undertaken by centre management in order to increase their safety. The purpose of brochures on safety being distributed to shoppers is not to create a sense of paranoia but increase vigilance and overall safety for all.

Trauma counselling and onsite first aid representative

In the event of an incident, trauma counselling and in some cases first aid needs to be administered to those affected. It goes without being said that mall robberies are traumatic experiences and as such, trauma counselling and first aid services need to be provided. Victims and witnesses of armed robberies at shopping centres often suffer considerable trauma from their experience. Trauma counselling and first aid is extremely important and recommended in order to prevent the debilitating effects and the long-lasting impact an incident such as an armed robbery at a shopping centre can have on the victims and witnesses. The shopping centre manager and the retail outlet manager should make provision for trauma counselling. This should be offered and made known that this is an option available to all those.

Anonymous crime reporting facilities

Facilities for the reporting of crime, tip-offs and other criminal activity in centres should be created. Avenues should be made available for the reporting of critical information to both retail employees and customers. Interventions such as an anonymous hotline, secure online facility, text lines and response boxes can be considered. The anonymous avenues available should be advertised widely as most individuals do not want to be identified or have any connection with providing information due to possible negative consequences. Blowing the whistle on crime and wrong doers needs to continue, be encouraged and grow. Information received via these avenues is extremely valuable to law enforcement agencies; it aids them in carrying out their jobs and making society a safer place.

Adequate training for security guards

Security guards need to be adequately trained to handle various situations in the shopping centre. shopping centre managers need to check the efficiency or training levels of the security contract company and insist on basic security aids such as occurrence books and communications systems and equipment. The first aspect that needs to be addressed is that of the screening and vetting systems that management is utilising when employing security guards.

These systems need to be improved upon allowing for the employment of security guards that can be trusted, that have excellent work ethics and that are professional. Finger print security systems can also be used to achieve this. Once employed by a security company, security guards should be trained according to the security needs and changes that arise. Training and retrained with refresher courses are crucial in the security industry because of the ever-changing nature of crime and criminals. The investment made into training of security guards will yield benefits and help with staff morale and motivation. Further security guards deployed at shopping centres need to be trained on the specifics of guarding a shopping centre.

Lebogang concluded by adding that shopping centres need to learn from past events from their own accounts as well as the accounts experienced by other centres.

Shopping centres need to establish their own approach to safety and security for all stakeholders. I also suggest that incidents need to be accurately recorded as it is imperative for a number of reasons such as future prosecutions, sharing and learning. Bring in security experts to assess and provide recommendations. Partner up with organisations that specialise in preventing crime in the retail industry.Consider new technologies and keep up to date with emerging and new security technology that can  be applied to improve security at shopping centres. Open up communication channels with all staff in the shopping centre. Tenants should be consulted and join initiatives and doing this will create a sense of contribution and belonging,” he said.