I used to work in retail, and my role, like many in the sector, was very public-facing. I chose to work in a role knowing that each day, I would be interacting with a variety of new people I had never met before, in a place that anyone had access to enter during business hours. With increased instances of mass gun violence in public places throughout the United States each year, I understood the underlying threat to my health and safety. The risk was unlikely but present enough that my teams and I were required to train for these types of scenarios. But now, with so many retail properties still closed or operating at a limited capacity from COVID-19, at least public mass gun violence has decreased.
While closed properties may not have gun violence, they still have the potential to draw in crime. Most of us can picture a seedy looking urban area, ripe for crime, with boarded-up, vacant buildings, broken windows, and cans of empty spray paint littering the ground. However, unoccupied spaces are often not so scary looking. They are, however, still susceptible to crime. Our empty retail properties are particularly vulnerable right now thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. With so many unlit, gated stores and fewer people, store closures present safety issues for properties like vandalism and theft, especially because they are not necessarily sitting empty. Stores filled with merchandise and limited on-site security staff, if any, could be viewed as payday by criminals and thieves. Ryan Schonfeld, founder and CEO of RAS Security, a security consulting firm, explained how “mass vacancies, like retail or un-leased buildings, are a pretty big opportunity for bad actors.”
As malls across the country begin to reopen to the public, even partially, growing vacancies still present safety concerns. Simon malls are leaving it up to each tenant to decide, meaning some stores will open and others will remain closed. In my experience, walking through even a fully operational mall after closing at night sometimes felt ominous. but was, for the most part, safe. Now, retail workers and property staff will need to be particularly cautious in these partially vacant centers as retail vacancies directly correlate with higher rates of crime. Furthermore, the number of retailers filing for bankruptcy due to stress from COVID-19 continues to grow, so finding new tenants to fill these vacancies will be difficult, which could create ongoing safety issues for landlords.
By creating different layers of security checkpoints, or “choke-points” as Schonfeld calls them, buildings help provide a defense system against bad actors. Depending on the type of building and its location, some of these checkpoints include security guards, lobby turnstiles, controlled or programmable access, and surveillance technology including cameras and thermal scanners. While security is undoubtedly important, owners still have to be conscious of its costs, especially those who may not be receiving rent payments regularly. Schonfeld explained, “The knee jerk reaction is to hire a guard. But they will cost around twelve thousand a month per post.” Instead, he recommends “using technology like security cameras and software,” which still provides adequate security but at much lower price than the costs of guards.
Other technology that can help protect buildings and their occupants are tenant engagement apps. While these have been commonly used in multifamily to provide updates for tenants, they are also useful in retail settings. This type of software keeps tenants aware of all pertinent information in real time, whether on site or not, making it especially helpful during widespread vacancies and temporary closures, like those occurring now. These apps also allow tenants to act as an additional set of eyes and ears for properties by providing an easy way to report potentially dangerous issues, like suspicious activity, facility equipment in need of repair, or hazardous conditions like icy entranceways. Landlords are then able to prioritize and fix issues more quickly.
One such retail tenant engagement app, Mallcomm, allows users to customize it. For example, some landlords created a COVID-19 button on the homepage of the app, so their tenants can easily access the most important updates. “The app provides our operations and security staff with an up to date contact list for all Mall of America employees so everyone using the app has access to emergency notifications and COVID-19 updates. This has been critical in communicating closings, after hours access, and many other operational and security requests,” said Patrick Wand, senior IT project manager at Mall of America.
According to Jame Segil, president and co-founder of Openpath Security, a building access control provider, “9/11 taught us that any building can blow up. Columbine taught us that any building can be shot. Now, we are learning that any building can spread a virus,” regardless of whether they are occupied or vacant. For both spaces, access control has been one of the key ways to prevent safety issues. “We have been surprised by how people are using our tech in vacant spaces,” said Segil in regards to Openpath. “We have a lockdown feature that is put out for active shooters. It is being used now for shuttered facilities” to keep everyone out, but Segil also sees their technology playing an important role as buildings begin to reopen.
Openpath’s technology also has remote capabilities, meaning property managers “can set this feature from their phones, and give access to only the people they want to have it,” according to Segil. For buildings with offices, access can be staggered to prevent overcrowding. Many companies are planning to send their employees back to work in waves. Remote capabilities gives tenants the ability to provide access to designated employees as needed, simplifying the management of workplace re-entry.
For the buildings that have remained open, mitigating potential outbreaks has been a huge focus the last two months. Property managers and owners have been trying to get ahead of the curve. “We are already seeing requests for thermal cameras to detect fevers or access controls that can do a contact analysis,” said Schonfeld, but he also suggests that properties carefully weigh their options. “We are seeing manufacturers overselling their capabilities or outright lying. Yes, there is a need for it, but we need to be cautious,” he said.
People’s fears tend to evolve based on what is happening in the world. If I still worked in retail, I imagine I would soon be required to train my employees on providing customer service in a socially distant world, as well as hand washing protocols, mask requirements, and other ways to prevent disease transmission. People certainly don’t forget about the old issues and challenges that cause them fear. Instead, they adapt by incorporating even more safety measures to meet the newest challenge while still doing their best to maintain the old. We train our buildings to adapt right alongside us as we supply them with better technology and update their designs. Afterall, the premises of Darwin’s most well-known theory was not about who (or what) remains the same, but rather the incremental changes that propel us forward.