If someone suspicious walks into a Ricker's convenience store in Anderson, Indiana, supervisor Tracy Fowler won't be caught with her guard down.
Mindful that there's always the potential for a robbery, Fowler says she's vigilant when a suspicious shopper moves through the store. "You should always keep eye contact," she says. "If you keep eye contact with someone and say something, I think it makes them feel a little guilty that you're trying to be friendly." Establishing this minimum human contact with a potential thief may just avert a crisis, according to Fowler. "If you become buddies with this guy," she says, "he'll be less inclined to be mean when you turn your back." Pause. "Actually, you never want to turn your back."
In the early 1990s, federal studies showed that grocery and convenience store workers had the fourth highest mortality rate of retail workers (after employees of liquor stores, gas stations, and jewelry stores). But safety training programs for employees have helped lower that risk. Convenience store workers like Fowler know more about protecting themselves against violence at work than they used to, thanks in part to the industry's adoption of employee training classes.
In fact, employee training is among the most basic recommendations the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) advocates in its robbery deterrence program. "Employee training focuses on helping employees be alert," says Lindsay Hutter, vice president of industry relations and communications at NACS. "If employees are alert, they're moving about the store, they're observing activities from different situations. The robber is going to believe, and rightly so, that such [employees] can spot any suspicious activity before it gets under way." The association offers industry-wide training programs in CD-ROM and video format, offering tips on spotting criminal activity ahead of time and on how to handle yourself when confronted.
Cash control policies are also crucial in discouraging thefts, says Hutter. "Jesse James robbed banks because that's where the money was -- it's the same with convenience stores," she says. "If you have a lot of money sitting in a cash register, you're a target." The NACS recommends that store managers keep only $50 in the register at all times and make regular money drops into a safe, so that there's little cash on hand. Hutter also suggests that stores post signs on their doors informing shoppers of that fact. "You want to advertise that," she says. "The word will get around."
Finally, making sure the store is well lighted and has plenty of unobstructed windows will go a long way toward discouraging potential robbers, according to the NACS. "I want the employees to be able to see outside and spot any activity that might be suspicious," Hutter says. "You also want to be able to look in from outside the store -- that's also a deterrent."
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has a list of security measures it urges convenience stores to adopt voluntarily to protect employees. Although most of their guidelines mirror NACS safety suggestions, OSHA goes a step further, recommending multiple staffing on late-night shifts and bullet-resistant enclosures -- suggestions that have stirred controversy in the industry.
Although beefing up the late-night staff, for example, might appear to be a reasonable security measure, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) determined that two clerks per shift may actually invite trouble. Multiple clerks have a tendency to resist an attack, thus increasing the risk of physical violence by 50 percent, according to experts.
Of course, a convenience store attendant should always be prepared for a possible confrontation. Training programs can teach workers what to do in problematic situations, and employees can also pick up plenty of practical advice from NACS and OSHA's safety tips. Among them:
- During a robbery, don't resist. "The robber wants to get in and out of there quickly," says Jay Ricker, owner of 20 Ricker's convenience stores in Indiana and chair of the risk management committee for NACS. "We tell workers that they are to comply totally with whatever a robber wants."
- Don't make any fast moves. If a robber is in your store, keep him or her apprised of all your actions, Hutter advises. "When you go to lower your hands to get the money out of the cash register, tell them what you're doing," she says. "Any quick movement is a sign of resistance to the robber, and that will increase the risk of violence."
- Be attentive to detail. Remember what the robber looks like, what he or she is wearing, and how tall the person is, for police records. Ricker says he has installed inexpensive height strips along all of his doors to help make descriptions more accurate.
Of course, the risk of robbery is only one of the hazards facing convenience store clerks on the job. Back problems and sprains from slipping on wet floors are other familiar problems.
"Convenience stores get a lot of traffic," Hutter says. "There are literally thousands of people who go in and out of a store every week. So when you have inclement weather, you have water or snow that comes in and gets tracked around the store. You have to be very quick to mop that up and keep it clean, for the sake of employee safety as well as customer safety. Mopping itself can make a floor dangerously slippery, so managers suggest always placing a warning sign directly on the freshly mopped area to alert the unwary.
Back problems caused by lifting heavy display racks and merchandise also plague employees. Ricker's employees are taught the simple yet essential technique of lifting with their knees rather than with their backs.
"In our industry, we sell many fountain drinks," Ricker says. "There are boxes of concentrated syrup for Mountain Dew, Pepsi, or Coke that weigh about 45 pounds and have to be changed every so often. They're stacked in one area and have to be lifted onto a rack. That's probably one of the biggest areas where we can have back problems."
National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS)
This association helps its 4,000 members stay abreast of governmental security recommendations and offers safety programs and resources for industry employees.
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
Established in 1970 by the Occupational Safety and Health Act, NIOSH is a federal research agency that makes recommendations to help employers prevent job-related injuries and illnesses.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
Part of the Department of Labor, OSHA develops and enforces safety and health regulations in the workplace.
The direct link to OSHA's Recommendations for Workplace Violence Prevention Programs in Late-Night Retail Establishments is
Amandus HE, Zahm D, Friedmann R, Ruback RB, Block C, Weiss J, Rogan D, Holmes W, Bynum T, Hoffman D, McManus R, Malcan J, Wellford C, Kessler D. Employee injuries and convenience store robberies in selected metropolitan areas. J Occup Environ Med.;(7):714-20.
Hales T, Seligman PJ, Newman SC, Timbrook CL. Occupational injuries due to violence. J Occup Med. (6):483-7.
Federal Bureau of Investigation. Preliminary Semiannual Uniform Crime Report, January-June 2006. http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/prelim06/table3.htm