Walmart mass shooting in El Paso puts focus on new risk to retailers

The deadly mass shooting at a Walmart Inc. El Paso store has sparked questions about the risk of violence at the nation’s brick-and-mortar retail locations, with one expert expressing confidence that there will be progress on safety measures, even if the move is minimal.

Since the August 3 shooting in El Paso, Walmart WMT, -1.95% has continued to make news after an armed man dressed in body armor caused panic at a Missouri Walmart and a Florida white supremacist was arrested for making an online threat.

There were no shots fired in either incident. Just days before the El Paso shooting, two Walmart managers were killed at a Southaven, Miss. Walmart. In total, 24 people were killed between the two incidents.

CNN notes that there have been at least eight threats against Walmart stores in recent weeks.

“We are a learning organization, and, as you can imagine, we will work to understand the many important issues that arise from El Paso and Southaven, as well as those that have been raised in the broader national discussion around gun violence,” Chief Executive Doug McMillon wrote in a message to Walmart associates that was published on the company’s website.

“We will be thoughtful and deliberate in our responses, and we will act in a way that reflects the best values and ideals of our company, with a focus on serving the needs of our customers, associates and communities.”

So far, Walmart has kept guns on the shelves but has ordered the removal of videogame signs that depict violence, sparking calls for a boycott of the retail giant. Walmart is one of the biggest gun sellers in the country.

“What a major large-scale event like this does is promotes conversations,” said Jason Porter, vice president at Pinkerton, a global security and risk management firm. Pinkerton has ties to the 150-plus-year-old detective agency of the same name, and was purchased by the Swedish company Securitas AB SECU.B, +0.90%SCTBF, -5.97% in 1999.

“On the corporate side, when discussions are had, decisions are made.”

Some companies, like Dave & Buster’s Entertainment Inc. PLAY, -2.57% and Del Taco Restaurants Inc. TACO, -1.41% have already begun talking about active-shooter incidents as a risk factor in their financial statements, as The Wall Street Journal reported.

An analysis of Securities and Exchange Commission filings showed that Cheesecake Factory Inc. CAKE, -2.57% has included an active shooter as a risk factor in four annual reports.

The risk to any one business rises and falls based on a number of factors, including access to a facility.

“There’s a unique challenge for retail,” said Porter. “You have to be able to provide a secure and safe environment but also have an open environment to welcome customers.”

At minimum, Porter said companies need to have a crisis plan in advance of an actual incident. The biggest determining factor for what the plan actually looks like is corporate culture. Some companies will want to do active shooter drills while others will keep their efforts muted in order to keep from causing panic or disruption.

“It could be something as simple as, ‘We don’t want to put so many security measures in place that it makes it difficult to hire talent,’ or there’s an adverse reaction from the employee base that there’s concern this will happen even though the probability is low,” Porter said, describing the thought process among some executives.

The plans that Pinkerton has worked on range from just creating a plan and talking to employees about it, to high-tech security measures that can detect gunshots.

“Throwing a security guard at the problem doesn’t tend to be effective,” Porter said, but some sort of training and strategically-placed cameras can be helpful.

Retailers can also consider whether to have armed or unarmed security.

One tactic that could be particularly constructive is coordinating with local law enforcement, giving the authorities the chance to learn the layout of a location.

“Make sure they know what a facility looks like, so when they respond, they know what they’re coming into,” said Porter.

Also important is that retailers constantly reassess their risk. For instance, Porter said, outdoor festivals were forced to rethink their crisis plans after the mass shooting in Las Vegas that killed 58 concert-goers and injured 1,000 people.

Retail competitors can look to one another to see what’s being done and ensure that a community standard is being met.

“On a macro scale, the top risk today didn’t exist two years ago,” Porter said. “But on a micro scale, risk is always changing.”

Companies must “look at the actual events and threats they’re combating.”

Walmart shares have gained 13% in 2019, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, -1.49%, which counts it as a member, has gained 11%, and the S&P 500 SPX, -1.23% has gained 15%.

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