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EDITOR'S LETTER: Insecurity Complex

In late February, five people went to the Trolley Square Mall in Salt Lake City and never returned home. They were gunned down in a Columbine-esque shooting when 18-year-old Sulejmen Talovic walked onto the property armed with a backpack full of ammunition, a shotgun and a .38-caliber pistol.

By all accounts, the incident could have been much, much worse had it not been for an off-duty police officer, Jeffrey Hammond, who happened to be at the property. Hammond traded fire with Talovic, pinning him down until the local SWAT team arrived.

The incident llustrates yet again that the industry has done very little to increase security.

In September 2005, Retail Traffic took an extensive look at the state of mall security and found owners of many properties had not done much to make their properties safer following 9/11, even though the Department of Homeland Security had issued warnings that shopping centers were likely “soft targets” for those looking to stage headline-grabbing attacks.

Since then two new studies have been produced — one by the Department of Justice and the other by the RAND Corp. — affirming these findings.

One of the common refrains we heard in September 2005 was that increasing security would spook shoppers, reducing the frequency and duration of shopping trips. Owners did not want to risk revenue losses.

But not one of these reports suggest that malls need to be locked down, that metal detectors are necessary, that guards should be conspicuously armed to the teeth, or that properties need a police presence.

No, the experts agree that it's more about doing the bare minimum.

According to data from the Institute of Real Estate Management, the retail real estate industry spends less per square foot than either apartments or office buildings, even though malls are far more vulnerable.

In our cover story, security experts identified several low-cost, low-tech tactics for improving security. They talked about putting planters or statues in front of entrances to keep car bombers from penetrating properties. They also talked about having adequately trained, professional security officers — not rent-a-cops in dopey uniforms on Segways who can't intimidate a gaggle of teens.

But clearly, even these tiny steps are not being taken. In December, a distraught teen drove his car straight into Altamonte Mall in Florida in an attempt to commit suicide. He sped through the mall concourse and eventually plunged through an atrium to a floor below. Miraculously, no one was hurt, because it was after hours. Mall management had put planters in front of the mall's entrances, but not real security planters. So, the teen easily plowed past them.

Probably the biggest failing has been in the area of increasing salaries. According to some reports, when the shooting began at Trolley Square, no security personnel approached the scene. Why would they? Starting salaries for mall security guards are about $8.50 an hour. That's $1 above the new minimum wage. It's just a quarter more than what the much-maligned Wal-Mart pays its sales associates. It's also $4 less than the average retail wage, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Bottom line: We're paying more for people to sling burgers than to protect the lives of consumers.

If security is a priority, why are salaries so low? We asked everyone we could think of this month (see story, p. 85) and didn't get a straight answer.

We did hear more unsettling details — for example, that turnover for mall security guards is near 100 percent annually. And we heard there's a shortage of professionals with the right kind of experience to adequately survey a shopping center.

In other businesses, employers know that when turnover is constant and critical skills are absent, there is a clear solution: Attract better workers by paying more.

Certainly this is not a moment for mall operators to cry poor. According to the earnings reports that rolled in last month, 2006 brought double-digit gains in FFO for most of the biggest operators. Some racked up gains in excess of 10 percent. Stock prices and valuations have never been higher. Rents continue to rise and vacancy rates are microscopic.

Now, just weeks after five people died in Salt Lake City, the headlines have faded and the issue of mall security along with them.

What needs to happen before we see a true commitment for change?

TAGS: News
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