Of all the issues that face small business owners, the possibility of theft and robbery might be the most troubling. You worry about keeping your business safe—it’s not just about having peace of mind when you’re off the clock. It’s also a matter of your business’s long-term survival.
Problem is, it’s impossible to predict when the safety and security of your customers, inventory, and cash on hand will come under threat—whether from the hands of a professional criminal or a trusted employee. You can take preventative measures, however, to minimize the risk of thieves attacking your business.
Here are 6 ways to prevent a robbery from hitting your small business.
1. Get in touch with local law enforcement before a crime happens
The police aren’t just there for after a crime takes place: You can get with them at any time to discuss trends in local crime. They’ll give you both information specific to your business and general advice about how to handle robberies.
“Local crime prevention units will come out to talk to business owners and residents, and will address specific crimes that may be occurring in those areas,” says Ron Bennett, a former police patrolman, detective, and community outreach officer in California’s Bay Area.
Letting business owners and employees alike know what to look for ahead of time can be enormously helpful for stopping a crime before it happens—or mitigating the damage done.
“Most of the time, local agencies will keep statistics of what kind of crimes have recently occurred, and where they’re happening,” Bennett says. “Then if there was a rash of a certain kind of crime on small stores, we’d get in touch and let them know: ‘Hey, this is what’s happening, these are the methods being used, and if you see something similar to this, automatically dial 911.’”
2. Be aware of your surroundings and how you might be a target
Obviously, keeping a watchful eye on who comes in and out of the business, as well as on the nearby streets, is always a good idea. But even smart surveillance could be no match for the allure of your business location to potential thieves.
“Robbery is usually a crime of opportunity,” Bennett says. “For example: We’d notice certain stores near the freeway were often hit, and we know because there was the opportunity for the criminals to escape more easily, compared to away from the freeway.”
If you have a business near an easy escape route, don’t panic. But law enforcement will likely keep you aware of their concerns, and help you piece together the puzzle before a crime happens.
“Locations, times that robberies often occur—any bit of information that when combined together shows a certain M.O. of that type of crime, you want to give that out to the small business owners,” Bennett says he would explain to his old department.
3. Hire real, live security personnel
You can access all kinds of tools in the security trade: surveillance cameras (both hidden and visible), RFID tags on inventory, ink tags. But nothing is better at dissuading robbery or theft than security personnel that is present in your store. A recent review found that a security observation booth was by far the most effective prevention method.
“Video cameras can be deterrents, that’s true, but some criminals are determined no matter what and will ignore them,” says Gloria Henry, Director of Security Training at FedCap in New York City. “Plus, surveillance cameras can capture footage of criminals, and cops can conduct an investigation, but by then the damage has been done.”
This is why Henry can’t emphasize enough the importance of security guards on site.
“It always comes back to manpower,” she says, “And you want to have professionals, so you have to come up with good money to hire people with experience, with certain licenses, who know how to handle certain situations.”
That’s the sticking point, of course: money. But as Henry puts it, businesses will be paying for this one way or the other.
“I understand it’s expensive and a big investment for small businesses, and sometimes people don’t want to pay it,” she says. “But if you don’t have security, you’re going to lose business as well. Customers won’t feel safe. The last thing you want is a robbery in your store which then hits the news, because you’re going to lose business and sales.”
4. Stay up on the news, and get involved in the community
Just as you can stay informed of local crime trends with the help of the local police department, you can also know more about what’s happening by being involved in your community. This could perhaps give you ideas on how to discourage potential thieves before they strike.
First, simply knowing about robberies in your community can help you put your store and employees on alert. Second, attend public safety meetings put on by the police or community leaders. These meetings will not only inform you of best practices but help you make connections with other business owners—and there is strength in numbers as well as knowledge.
According to the Los Angeles Police Department’s Small Business Crime Prevention page, personal contact can put off a would-be criminal—and there’s a strong possibility that robbers are among the people in your neighborhood and community. Greet customers in a friendly and knowing manner and you’ll turn potential enemies into, at worst, benign visitors (if not outright customers).
5. Make sure your alarm system notifies the police first, not you
If you can’t afford around-the-clock security personnel, you might consider investing in an automated security alarm system that is armed 24 hours a day. But different systems have different methods of alerting owners of a break-in, and Bennett recommends one that contacts the police first, rather than the owner.
“The one problem with those security systems, the thing is, the time frame is not good,” he says. “Certain companies call the store first, or they may call the subscriber’s home residence first, and so there might be a 5 or 10 minute delay from the time the alarm has been activated and the time the police are even notified.
“What I suggested was, and some companies will do this and some won’t, is an alarm system that directly contacts the police department first,” he adds.
Some business owners would prefer to be on the scene first, and then decide if law enforcement needs to get involved. But Bennett says that the police simply have more resources to devote to a burglary than a single business owner does.
“Once the alarm is activated, dispatch would notify all the units. Then we’d have certain avenues of escape—when someone commits a crime, they’ll often try to go down a certain street to try to get free—that we’d block off,” he says. “So we’d have units blocking off areas as well as units investigating the situation directly. It’s never a one-on-one situation.”
This is much safer and more responsible than trying to take the law into your own hands.
6. Outfit your physical space with the proper security measures
If criminals are determined to steal from you, they’ll find a way to (try to) do it. But you can set up you business to discourage would-be thieves, in the way you design the layout and equip your physical space. According to the LAPD, they include:
- Apply deadbolt locks or metal security crossbars to all outside entrances and inside security doors.
- Install secure locks and burglar-resistant glass on windows.
- Keep the cash register in plain view from the outside of your business, so it can be monitored by police as well as spotted by passersby and customers if a robbery occurs during business hours.
- Install lighting on the inside and outside of your business, especially around doors, windows, and other entry points.
- Provide security system information to employees only on a need-to-know basis. The sad truth is that employee theft and fraud is a major source of loss—amounting to tens of thousands of lost profits for businesses each year on average.
- Keep minimal cash in the register at all times, and make bank deposits often and during business hours.
- Most importantly: Cooperate with burglars if confronted. It’s not worth losing your life over.
As long as there are small businesses, there will be people looking to rob, burglarize, and otherwise steal from them. It’s simply a risk that every business owner must take. The trick is to minimize risk and maximize awareness. Getting out ahead of potential thieves is the best remedy.
“With security, an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure,” says Henry, and despite the clichéd nature of that advice, we’re inclined to agree. If robbery is a crime of opportunity, eliminate the opportunity, and your business, your customers, and your peace of mind will be better off for it.
Editorial Note: Fundera exists to help you make better business decisions. That’s why we make sure our editorial integrity isn’t influenced by our own business. The opinions, analyses, reviews, or recommendations in this article are those of our editorial team alone. Eric Goldschein