In August in Texas, a robber with a knife stole cash and handguns from a local pawnshop. In September in Florida, three armed men smashed jewelry cases with sledgehammers and got away with $150,000 in jewelry and watches. In September in Kentucky, pawnshop owners and a customer were shot and killed by robber. No arrest has been made, and police are still searching for the robber.

Can it happen to you? You read in the newspaper or see on television that a local store has just been robbed and your heart sinks.

Robbery deterrence can encompass many proactive methods and tools. However, effective loss prevention in any business results from some critical practices and attention to detail. Good customer service, proper lighting, assertive signage, cleanliness and heightened awareness are proven effective measures that cost little but provide the deterrence you need in protecting your business.

Keeping your customers and employees safe is not always easy. Years of experience and loss prevention studies have shown that the number one robbery prevention technique is simply good customer service, which comes as a surprise to many business owners and managers. The easiest way to ensure you are aware of your customers and that they know you are aware of them is by simply greeting them in a proactive, engaging manner.

Experience has shown the quickest way to earn more money in any type of environment is by properly greeting your customers. What is less well known is that it's also the single most effective step you can take to reduce serious problems in your store.

To be effective, the “customer greeting” needs to be sincere, consistently delivered by all employees and rendered immediately upon the customer entering the store. The best greeting is one provided by a cheerful, appropriately dressed, sincere employee, who is on the floor and forces the customer to acknowledge the employee. The best way to ensure exceptional customer greetings and customer service is to have an underlying company philosophy that places customer care at the core of one's business practices, and to be certain employees understand it.

Some sample greetings are:

  • “Good morning/afternoon/evening. May I help you?” (This forces the customer to verbally respond.)
  • “Thank you for coming in today. I have a (shirt, blouse, slacks, etc.) just like what you are wearing. What may I show you today?" (This greeting lets the customer know you can identify them and forces them to verbally respond.)

There are hundreds of other effective greetings. Observe employee greetings at other business establishments that you respect and choose a greeting you like and would recommend to your employees. Practice it at home until its use becomes second nature. By using an effective greeting, you and your employees make the undesirable person in your store aware that you can identify them. Robbers do not want recognition.

Good customer service forces people to think twice before they decide to commit any kind of crime. A robber wants a situation that is fast, easy and low risk. Being on the floor and effectively greeting a would-be robber makes it harder, slower and increases the risk of their apprehension.

Also be aware of what is occurring outside of your store. Get in the habit of watching cars, customers and others who are in the parking lot. If you see anything suspicious, do not hesitate to contact the local police department and ask for a routine patrol check. Here is a short list of things to look for:

  • Cars backed into parking spaces
  • Cars left running in the parking lot
  • Customers or others loitering outside the store
  • Customers or others attempting to disguise their appearance
  • People appearing to watch your store

If you see these or any other uncomfortable situations you should immediately contact your local police department and ask for assistance.

While you need to be aware of people outside of your store, you certainly have to be aware of people inside your store. Be alert and suspicious of people wearing clothing that could conceal weapons or merchandise. Watch for people wearing nonseasonal clothing (for example, a person wearing a coat in midsummer). While this is not illegal, it is certainly suspicious.

One way to handle such a situation would be to approach the customer and say: “I have a jacket just like the one you are wearing. How may I help you?” This lets the suspicious customer know that you are aware of them and can identify them if they do something wrong in the store. Chances are they will go to an easier target to commit their wrongdoing.

Also be cautious of a group of people who enter your store at the same time and spread out, or people who ask questions about your business and store security practices. For example, what time is your shift change or how many people do you use to open and close the store?

When you have suspicious people in your store, alert all other store employees by using a “store code phrase.” A code phrase is simply a sentence that is easy to use in normal conversation and will not alert nonemployees something is wrong. For example, your code phrase could be: “Phil, you have a call on line four,” or “Shelley, did Mr. Wilson’s batteries come in?”

Both sentences appear to be normal conversation; however your store employees would know there's no “line four” or that the company doesn't “order batteries for Mr. Wilson.” Therefore, there must be a potentially serious problem in the store. How should one react once the store code phrase has been used?

First, make an immediate assessment of the situation to determine if it's already a serious issue that requires a police response and, if so, whether you are able to safely make such a communication. If the situation has not progressed to that point, your reaction should mirror that old phrase "the best defense is a strong offense." Your course of action should be to provide the suspicious customer with superb service. As many associates as possible should go to the scene of the suspicious customer and make their presence known. This is a drill that should be practiced with employees several times per year under different scenarios.

As you can see, there are several important aspects to reducing the risk of robbery or theft in your store, and a major point is good customer service. Here are four more key elements that should be implemented to reduce potential problems in your store:

  • Never discuss your store’s security procedures with customers or friends — the last thing one should do is divulge such information in casual conversation.
  • Develop a good relationship with your business neighbors and agree to watch out for each other. This is a no-cost, highly effective form of security that greatly enhances the probability a robber will be caught before he or she can enter your store.
  • In order to reduce temptation for robbery, keep your cash drawer located where it is difficult for a customer to see inside it.
  • Remove excess cash from your cash drawers and lock it in a safe.

When robbers choose their targets, they look for easy marks, and stores that present a poor appearance or have disheveled looking employees face an increased risk of robberies. It is very important to present an appropriate business appearance and image.

Good lighting is a strong deterrent to crime. Ensure all indoor and outdoor lights are operational and used. Check lights at least once a day to ensure that they are working and that nonworking bulbs are replaced. Make sure your sales material, banners, posters and signs do not block the windows that allow a clear view into the store.

If you have a camera system, it is important to make certain that they are not blocked by store signage. A good rule of thumb is to watch the store security monitor daily to ensure all cameras are working properly and are unblocked.

Ensure the outside of the store is cleaned up daily. During nonbusiness hours people may have dropped trash in your parking lot, so make certain trash is picked up and properly disposed of each morning. A minute or two spent each day cleaning up the outside of the store will greatly reduce the potential for an undesirable person to enter. Remember, a messy store not only indicates you don’t care about your place of business, it also invites undesirables.

The inside of the store should always be spotless. Floors should be swept and mopped daily to ensure they keep a just-cleaned appearance. Trash should be disposed of in appropriate receptacles and placed in the dumpster daily. When trash is removed from the store, use the front door if possible and always take out the trash during daylight hours. The back and side doors of your store should only be used for emergencies.

As an owner or operator, your customers' and employees' safety should always be your number one priority, followed closely by protecting the store’s assets. Internalize these three essential "ways to be":

  1. Be aware of your customers
  2. Be aware of your surroundings
  3. Be safe