Safe Stores: Five Design Ideas to Help Customers Feel Safer

Andrew McQuilkin, retail market leader at BHDP, discusses ways his team helps retailers design with shopper’s safety in mind by creating safe stores.

how to design safe stores

During a recent European Department Store conference session on the global purchasing power of Chinese nationals, a fellow audience member—the president of a major department store—whispered to me: “No one’s talking about the elephant in the room. They (Chinese customers) stopped shopping in April. We all want to understand why?”

Reasons for the recent plummet in international department store sales are complex, but it doesn’t take much imagination to connect this trend to world events. The death of a Chinese man in the March Brussels terror attack—highly publicized in the Chinese media—and that of another Chinese national in the Istanbul attack, may have helped scare Chinese shoppers away.

Domestically, with the FBI now calling the attack at Crossroads Center in St. Cloud, Minn., that injured eight people a “potential act of terrorism,” the public’s fears about safety have been heightened.  In fact, the news these days is saturated with danger signals. Some people feel the threat of public spaces more acutely than others. Having been trapped in a building two blocks from ground zero on 9/11, I, myself, have become hyperaware. But even those with no direct experience are, at some level, fearful—and, as noted in and numerous studies of shoppers, fear affects shopper behavior. People change where and when they shop, or quit shopping in stores and malls altogether in favor of online buying.

On the last point, if you look at —a pattern emerges. From 2009 to 2014, internet revenues increased at a steady pace. But the increases accelerated in 2015 and even more in Q1 and Q2 of 2016. Again, the reasons for accelerating internet sales may be diverse. But it’s hard to imagine that the rapid-fire terrorist attacks—beginning with the highly publicized January, 2015 attack of a satirical newspaper in Paris followed by others in Paris, Brussels and Nice —would not spook international tourist-shoppers.

Given this reality, I’ve devoted a lot of thought to how we can make shoppers feel more secure in the spaces we design so that they will be drawn to a store, be comfortable staying, and finally, lose themselves in the experience and want to return another day. With attention to the following five strategies, I believe we can make shopping spaces more attractive to people consciously or subconsciously thinking about security.

1. Clear sight lines.
Most people’s worst fear is losing control. Being able to see what is going on nearby, and some distance away, helps give us a sense of control over our surroundings. Similarly, not feeling isolated and knowing others will be able to see us if we need help also makes us feel more secure.

As an example, studies have shown that at night, women are far more likely to enter well-lit gas station convenience stores with windows than dark ones with solid walls. Presumably this is because if anything goes wrong in the store, passersby will be able to see and respond.

In a department store, the scale is much greater—yet the same principle applies. Increasing light levels, adding windows and breaking down walls to open up sight lines throughout the store and within the store’s façade can give occupants a greater feeling of security. Even on upper levels, windows and clear paths to exits make shoppers feel safer than dividing departmental walls. The fitting room is perhaps the most isolated and vulnerable part of a clothing store. So we make fitting room entrances open and accessible, while ensuring that the full height stalls lock well enough to guard against intrusion.

2. Make navigation intuitive.
Have you ever had trouble finding your way out of a department store? Store floors are large, sometimes purposely designed as mazes so shoppers will end up browsing longer. However, to the safety-alert shopper, the feeling of being lost is extremely uncomfortable. Not being able to find the exits—particularly your point of entry—does not feel secure. Furthermore, as a parent myself, I know that losing track of family members can induce panic.

At BHDP, for instance, we try to counter disorientation by placing strategic landmarks throughout a store. These icons are large, memorable, and easy to locate, so that shoppers can easily find their way back to the car, to the mall, or to meet their companions. A classic example of such a landmark is the massive bronze Wannamaker eagle at what is now Macy’s, in Philadelphia. In addition to creating landmarks, we avoid confusing room design symmetry, whereby everything looks the same. We also try to keep exits and service elements just off the main circulation.

3. Serve and protect.
Another way stores can make shoppers feel safer is through staffing and surveillance. Who, if anyone, seems to be watching people entering and exiting the store? Is that person visible, or behind cameras? Knowing someone is paying attention to who’s in the store acts as a comfort to shoppers and a deterrent to those with ill intent.

Next, do the door and customer service staff seem vigilant and professional? Uniforms, old-fashioned neatness and other signs of professionalism make a store seem well-run and therefore safer.

Lastly, people do notice (sometimes subliminally) and appreciate practical security measures such as cameras strategically placed both inside and outside the building.

4. Designate safe places and emergency procedures
Current mall ‘incident’ policies generally instruct store owners to hide customers in the back, and to roll down and lock the grilles/doors until a crisis is over. Stores could designate areas where patrons should shelter in the case of a lock-down. People will feel safer once they understand that store proprietors feel some responsibility for protecting them.

Through longstanding experience, Israelis have developed interesting approaches to public safety from terrorists. For instance, some playgrounds contain painted concrete bomb shelters children are trained to run to in case of an emergency. Malls feature hidden barricades that slide out from within walls to contain and compartmentalize attacks. Such efforts to make stores safer will not be lost on customers.

Since 9/11, when I had to invent emergency procedures on the spot, it’s been a priority to train my team on how to keep safe and factor safety into projects we design. Retailers, too, should consider bringing emergency experts on board to train staff and help plan their stores.

5. Offer an escapist experience
If fear starts in the subconscious, can we create an experience that makes the shopper forget herself—like a mental vacation? Once her basic safety concerns are met, we can leverage tactile immersion, experience and story. Positive interaction with employees, music, merchandising displays and so on can allow the customer to relax and be taken away from daily anxieties. This is crucial—this kind of experience acts as the primary payoff for actual (vs. virtual) shopping and is what will keep customers coming back to the physical store.

Disney has mastered both immersion and safety, allowing every guest the freedom to become a part of the story. At Disney Springs, the franchise’s new retail reinvention of Downtown Disney, many of these ideas are in practice.

A new way to think about the customer

As terrorism continues to advance globally, the world will need to become more vigilant about how we plan and design retail destinations. I and my colleagues at BHDP feel that most retailers today are concerned with this problem and interested in finding solutions. As store planners and retail designers, we will need to bolster our customers’ experience with specific, beautifully designed solutions that focus on the development of engaging, yet safer shopping.


Andrew McQuilkin, FRDI is the International Chairman of the Retail Design Institute and Retail Market Leader at BHDP Architecture in Cincinnati where he provides design leadership and inspiration for forward thinking retail organizations. To learn more about BHDP’s retail work, visit http://www.bhdp.com/work/retail/. To connect with Andrew directly, email amcquilkin@bhp.com.

A version of this article appeared in Chain Store Age; republished with permission.