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Robbery and Small Business: How You Can Prepare

How many times has it happened? The day is winding down, there are no customers in the place and with your eye on the clock—longest ten minutes you ever saw—you figure you can get a jump on closing down by vacuuming or even counting down the till. Just then the door opens and in walks a man you’ve never seen before. You sigh as your fantasy of getting out of there right at closing evaporates. As you put on the company-approved customer service smile and ask if you can help this newcomer, your words slide right down the barrel of the gun he’s now pointing at you.

You are being robbed, apparently by someone who didn’t hear that the city has a ban on handguns (I guess criminals don’t watch the news). In fact, 4.9% of all robberies are committed at the workplace, often with a firearm. Of course, that—along with the fact that it no longer really matters if your drawer balances—is all beside the point. You are being robbed. What are you going to do?  

Warning! You Are Not Rambo
I write the following less as a business blogger and more as a long-time Aikido and Iado practitioner: Unless you are a fully-trained expert in unarmed combat with the kind of moves and reflexes that Bruce Lee could only dream about (and let’s face it, if that was you, why would you be working here?), then fighting back while you have a gun in your face is not something I can recommend. True, your robber is every bit as nervous as you are and he might slip, his attention may wander, someone else may walk in, anything could happen that could let you take action in an altogether manly, Ramboesque fashion complete with gunfire, broken glass, blood splatters that would make Cezanne weep and highly-quotable catch-phrases, but there is no guarantee of it and you can’t count on it. As long as he’s got the drop on you, cooperation is the best way to go. Neither the money, nor the merchandise, are worth your life.

Still, there is a real problem with cooperation. The fact that you have to cooperate with the robber in the first place is a sign that your business really needs to upgrade both physical security and security procedures. Crooks should see your business as too hard a target and as a business owner; you owe it to your employees to make that happen. 

Planning for Safety
The time for you as a business owner to consider what to do about a robbery is not when you are actually being robbed. At that point, it is really too late. You need to put measures in place and decide what to do before that ever happens and your employees need to be trained to make sure that everyone follows the plan.
Layout and Technology
You can do much to deter a robbery by the way your business is laid out and by the security technology you use. Take the typical neighborhood convenience store, for example. Walk in to one of these places and what do you see? It is cramped, closed-in, with little open space. This is the perfect environment for a stick-up man. There are plenty of places to hide and wait for the perfect moment; high displays around the service counter isolate the person working there while posters and other displays limit visibility from the street. This kind of environment favors the robber. If the police, cruising by this business, cannot see what is going on inside, how do they know when there is trouble? Major chains, like 7-11, have realized this and have taken action. Everything about their stores is about visibility: The product racks are about chest high, the windows and service desk are not obscured. There are no places to lurk and that makes for a safer work environment. Layout, however, is not the only way you can protect your employees. Some of the other technologies you can do include:
  • Alarms and Panic Buttons . One of the basic things you need is a robbery alarm with a panic button within easy reach of your counterperson. This should be a silent alarm since the last thing you want to do is panic the robber.
  • Video Cameras . Keep a closed-circuit surveillance camera mounted behind the cash register and pointed at the front counter. Make sure that the faces of people standing at the counter are clearly visible and make sure that the tapes used to record the video are changed regularly.
  • Desks and Lockers . Valuable personal items, purses and such should be secured in locked desks or lockers. Left out in plain sight, items such as these make tempting targets of opportunity for thieves.
  • Safes . If you have cash on premises, then you need a safe. You want to keep as little in the cash registers as possible, so all excess money—especially big bills—should be dropped in the safe as soon as possible. More than that, a time-lock that the clerk cannot open will increase the overall safety offered by having a safe. The front door and the service counter should have signs reading: Clerk Cannot Open the Time Lock Safe.
  • Lights and Mirrors . If there are blindspots, wide-angle mirrors visible throughout the premises can eliminate them. You want to see where people are at all times. Therefore, you also want your business as well-lit as possible. Burned out lights should be reported and fixed as soon as possible and external lights should be kept free of any obstruction.
Employee Training
Technology and architecture will only go so far in protecting your business from crime. For any of that to be effective, your employees have to understand how to act and conduct business as safely as possible. According to the Los Angeles Police Department, here are some things you and employees should do:
  • Handling Money . Your employees need to keep as little money available as possible and they need to be smart about how they handle it. Don’t use obvious or marked "moneybags" that make it obvious to would-be robbers you are carrying money for deposit. Also, whoever is in charge of banking the money should vary the times and routes of travel to and from the bank. They should only use one cash register at night, leaving any other registers empty and open with the drawers tilted to show they are empty and make sure that in the evening—especially at closing—the drapes and blinds are only partially drawn so what is happening within can be seen from outside.
  • The Buddy System . No one should work alone. Make sure that at least two employees open and close the business. Also, make sure that a coworker is either watching when one employee goes outside after dark to take out the garbage or clean up; or is out there helping. This is especially important after dark.
  • Operational Security . This begins with awareness. Everyone should know who is in the business and where they are. Red flags include people hanging around without buying anything as well as anything suspicious going on outside. If you see a suspicious vehicle, try to write down the license number, color make and model from inside of your business and then let the police know. In fact, if you see anything suspicious, call the police. Don’t try to deal with it yourself. Finally, never release any personal information on yourself or anyone who works with you to strangers.
  • Customer Service . We all know how important good customer service is, but it can also help save you from a robber. Make sure your employees greet customers as they enter your business. They should look them in the eye and ask if they need help. Attention like this can easily discourage a robber.
  • Keeping Clean . Maintaining a clean, tidy, well-ordered business is inviting to customers, but not to robbers, who tend to prefer more cluttered places. Also, having your employees dress neatly will also send the right message.
  • Know Your Local Officers . One of the best things you and your employees can do to make your business unattractive to robbers is to encourage a relationship with the local beat cops. You should learn the names of your local officers and encourage them to visit your business. The more that happens, the less robbers will want to target your business. 

The Bottom Line: What to Do If You Actually are Robbed
Even if you follow all the advice given here, there is always the chance that you could be robbed. If that does happen, there are some simple rules that you and your people should follow:

  • Cooperate with the Robber. This is for your own safety and the safety of others. You should comply with a robber's demands. Remain calm and think clearly. Make mental notes of the robber's physical description and other observations important to law enforcement officers.
  • Do Not Speak. No one should speak with the robber except to answer specific questions.
  • Don't Stare . Staring directly at the robber can make him think of you as a witness instead of a victim, which could put some very unfortunate thoughts into his head.
  • Prevent surprises . The robber is nervous already so keep your hands in sight at all times; don't make any sudden moves and tell the robber if someone is coming out of the back room or vault or working in another area of your business.
  • Leave It to The Professionals . Don't chase or follow the robber out of your place of business. Catching the crook is the job of the police