Use this button to switch between dark and light mode.

Risky Business for Small Retailers: The Hard Sell for Workplace Violence Prevention Programs

May 01, 2015 (7 min read)

How can public health departments and occupational safety organizations engage small retailers to participate in a workplace violence prevention program (WVPP)? Using a formal business networking organization might seem like an obvious first choice, but to reach the smallest of the small, you might have better luck with peer-to-peer referrals.

According to a recent survey of small business operators within the retail or service trades, most don't belong to business networking groups and many believe WVPP training is not necessary because they and their employees are not at risk for workplace violence. The latter may be due to a flawed perception of risk.

According to a recent study “How to Engage Small Retail Businesses in Workplace Violence Prevention” published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, when law enforcement officers [fn1] approached 1,326 small retail businesses across 6 sites, offering WVPP training, three quarters of those approached did not participate. Unsurprisingly, most cited limited time, limited staffing and scheduling constraints, which are typical challenges for small businesses. But more importantly, the survey results provide interesting insights into other barriers for getting small retailers to participate in WVPPs.

Retail Gets the Most Hits

But statistics are the smoking gun. As noted by the authors of the study, the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that retail, accommodations and food services experienced 164 of the 397 total workplace homicides in 2013 and most of these were related to robberies. Furthermore, the sector to suffer from the most workplace homicides (by shooting) was retail at 27%—10% more deaths than the next sector to take a hit, government.

Deterrent Strategies

As noted by the authors of the study, most strategies to deter violent crimes are largely based on the Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) model.

[Note: The CPTED model is an approach that grew out of the work of urban planners of the 1960s. The approach has evolved over the years, but it still emphasizes altering aspects of the physical features of a business (both inside and out) to discourage crime. Some of the more well-known practices are improving lighting in areas that are potentially high-crime areassuch as parking lotsmaintaining buildings and removing graffiti and increasing foot traffic that will result in a natural increase of surveillance of an area. The theory behind the approach is that if a potential perpetrator perceives that the risk of being caught is high, he or she will be deterred in committing the planned crime.]

The Study Objectives

Essential to the present study was the implementation of training sessions of a known successful CPTED program. Police departments were asked to deliver the WVPP training to 6 diverse business communities in both urban and rural populations between 2008 and 2011. At the end of the training those that completed the training were certified as having done so. After the conclusion of training the researchers followed up with a survey of businesses in the same 6 areas in 2012.

One of the major objectives of the survey was to learn about the kinds of networks small businesses maintained. If these networks could be identified they would provide the individuals and organizations that are the most likely to assist in the dissemination of information about future WVPP training.

A second objective was to learn about barriers to participation. The researchers took a two-angled approach: interviews with business operators and interviews with “community influentials”.

Business Operators

Business operators (“operators”) in the 6 sites were contacted to participate in a survey. Respondents were eligible if they were located in one of the implementation sites and had agreed to participate and had attended operator training sessions. Not to be left out were those who declined to participate in the training and those who had no knowledge of the program as they would provide information as to barriers to participation. Seventy business operators completed interviews and 56 of these had fewer than 10 employees. Of the 56, 25 had no knowledge or recollection of the WVPP, 18 had participated in the training and 13 had declined.

Community Influential Input

“Community Influentials” (“influential”) were defined in the study as individuals and organizations that inform, regulate, provide products and services, and business operators who are considered influential and are respected by operators. These individuals and organizations were chosen from areas in the Southeastern U.S., away from the targeted business operators. Of the pool of potential participants, 32 were recruited, 15 declined and 14 could not be reached.


Some interesting insights can be gleaned from these interviews regarding the low recruitment levels for WVPPs.

WVPP Training and Design Recommendations

Operators – Recommended short training sessions of no more than 2 hours, in close proximity to the targeted businesses with a number of available time slots to select from.

Influentials – Recommended offering WVPP alongside required training.

Outreach Strategies Designed to Reach Operators

Operators – Recommended personal outreach and peer-to-peer endorsements by those who had completed a training program. Well-regarded peers were mentioned as potential intermediaries, but among businesses of 5 or fewer employees, many could not identify any individuals in that category. Police officers were mentioned as having influence and would be considered trustworthy avenues for reaching operators, but surprisingly few mentioned crime prevention groups, such as Neighborhood Watch. Community organizations, ethnic associations, community and recreations centers figured more predominantly in their recommendations.

Influentials – Also recommended the peer-to-peer approach, but added "door-to-door promotion, and targeting businesses that had experienced crime.  Trade and business networking events were also recommended as possible contact locations. Individuals that provided vital commercial services, such as CPAs were also mentioned. Influentials mentioned regulatory agencies as potential intermediaries as well as crime prevention groups.

Promotional Messages

Operators – Cautioned against too heavy of a sales pitch that made it seem like they were being solicited by another business trying to sell them an expensive service. Operators also felt that promotion should emphasize: safety and prevention, informing retailers about susceptibility to crime, other benefits to business such as increased business that arises out of a decreased incidence of violent crime and the consequent perception that the business is located in a "safe" neighborhood.

Influentials – Indicated the importance of credibility and rapport. Also felt that name recognition of the training programs would be helpful. Influentials added that other benefits could be used to promote the programs, such as insurance savings and the ability to attract better employees because they felt the business was a safe place to work.

Both operators and influentials recommended raising awareness of retailers with statistics about crimes committed against retailers. However business operators of 5 or fewer employees cautioned against the use of language that might frighten away operators from participating. Small operators were also concerned that the solicitation could look like a “regulatory” check rather than something that might help the business prevent crime.

Best Modes of Communicating the Message

Other than direct mail marketing and peer-to-peer outreach the operators and influentials differed as to the best method of advertising the programs. At least one person in each group did not recommend cold calling.

Operators – Mentioned trade publications and newspaper advertisements, fliers, brochures, television, radio and Internet.

Influentials – Emphasized peer organizations and web pages that can easily be found through web searches.

Settings and Memberships That Could Provide Contact Points

Operators – Trade associations and business membership organizations, such as the Chamber of Commerce were identified as potential contact points. (However, of the 56 business operators, only 4 were members of the Chamber of Commerce. So the identification of this entity may have been because it is a known “name brand”.) Also among the recommendations were professional associations tied to ethnicities and immigrant groups. Operators also mentioned churches and temples as a point of contact.

Influentials – Also mentioned community and business development organizations. Influentials thought that rural Chambers of Commerce were more connected in to small businesses. Influentials did not tend to mention ethnic organizations as points of contact.

Reaching the Small as well as the Smallest of the Small

As a result of this study the standard model of dissemination might have to undergo a revision. It's clear that the influentials and operators differed in their points of view. Not only must WVPPs be marketed to both groups, but it is essential to identify those intermediaries that are most likely to reach small retailers. Identifying the “Networks of Influence” is a vital part of the successful marketing of WVPPs among small businesses. The perceived obvious choices such as the Better Business Bureau cannot be the only go-to group when trying to reach small businesses. Clearly multiple trusted intermediaries drawn from within the community will have to be engaged to reach the smallest of the small, who tend not to join professional organizations.


1. Some might attribute the low uptake to a distrust of police officers, but good relations between law enforcement and small businesses were a factor in the study authors’ mention of officers as possible disseminators of WVPP training.

© Copyright 2015 LexisNexis. All rights reserved.