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Your #1 Tool for Deterring Thieves: Why Physical Security Hygiene Matters

December 12, 2019

This article originally appeared in Loss Prevention Magazine.

In trying to deter thieves, it helps to put yourself in their shoes and see the store environment as they do. Are burned-out lights in the parking lot? Are the cameras hanging by a wire or facing the ground? If so, it’s like hanging up a welcome sign for thieves.

By contrast, imagine walking into an environment that’s clean and well lit, with signs that illuminate as you approach and cameras that pan, tilt, and zoom in on your face. Would you feel inclined to attempt a theft in those conditions? Few people would. By making sure all your physical security components are up to date and kept in good working order, you can achieve good physical security hygiene.

“Physical security hygiene” is a term I created to refer to the best demonstrated practices and other activities that security professionals can undertake to improve and/or maintain their physical security standards. In my previous role in loss prevention, we caught a shoplifter who actually gave us some really helpful advice about our security issues.

He told us that he chose a specific fitting room to defeat tags because in his visits to our store, he saw there was dried ink on the fitting room walls from other previously defeated tags. Because we had not been taking the right steps to maintain our fitting rooms, we created a lower perceived risk of being caught for shoplifters, which led this man to take advantage of our poor physical security hygiene.

In a previous article, I discussed the illusion of security theater, which offers security measures to make people feel more confident about their security while doing little or nothing to actually achieve true security. Security theater is meant to deter threats without offering actual additional safety. Physical security hygiene is similar in that the goal is to deter potential thieves by showing them you are paying attention to what they are doing. The major difference is that physical security hygiene takes this one step further by emphasizing the importance of security maintenance and smart investing.

Maintaining Your Physical Security

We are all familiar with the traditional examples of physical security: metal fences, folding security gates for your entrances, motion-activated lights, security cameras, signs, locks, and security guards. These are all common, accessible, and effective ways of protecting your store from potential thieves. But the issue with physical security is not whether it works but rather that it requires regular upkeep to continue being effective.

As I mentioned earlier, the lower perceived risk for thieves is the greatest danger that poor physical security hygiene creates. If someone sees a barbed wire fence with holes in it, they might think that either no one cares about maintaining this fence or even that no one is around to see that the fence has been damaged. If someone is walking through a parking lot or past a store entrance and sees that the lights are flickering or completely burned out, they could come to the conclusion that no one is interested in making sure that the area is well lit in order to see who is coming and going. If your store has security monitors connected to your security cameras, but these monitors are turned off or look like they are not working, then they might imagine that the cameras do not work or that they are just for show.

All these instances of poor physical security hygiene, whether they exist independently or in combination with one another, create a lower perceived risk for thieves being caught. And when thieves think they won’t be caught, they’re more likely to target you.

Good physical security hygiene depends on the regular upkeep of your physical security measures. This is the most effective way for you to deter opportunistic thieves, who are usually cautious and apprehensive. These thieves shoplift when they see little to no risk, so if they see an alert security guard or a motion-activated security camera or light, they are a lot less likely to attempt to steal something.

Making Smart Investments

With the latest and greatest technological innovations, it is now possible for you to install almost any kind of physical security you can imagine. If you want a motion-activated security camera that also highlights someone’s face in a connected security monitor and plays a warning over a nearby speaker, you can have it.

But with so many options available for your loss prevention team, it can be easy to get caught up in buying the coolest, newest gadgets without thinking about how these solutions are supposed to help you. Because when that motion-activated security camera needs system maintenance because the motion sensor has stopped working, that costs money. And if you have dozens of these security cameras, monitors, and speakers in your stores, those costs will add up.

If you invest in physical security but you do not have a good practice of physical security hygiene, you won’t ever get the ROI you expect. It’s like getting a home security system and never turning it on. That is why it is essential that you consider the cost of maintaining your physical security measures when planning your loss prevention strategy. A retailer with good exterior lighting, a few security cameras, and regular maintenance presents a much stronger image of good physical security hygiene than a retailer who has an artificial intelligence-enabled security system that clearly hasn’t been updated in a while because they just do not have the budget for it.

If you do not take care of the physical security methods you put in place, they are simply not going to work. Physical security hygiene is about choosing the security solutions that work best for you, not ones that will end up working against you if you can’t maintain them.

Three Simple Steps for Good Physical Security Hygiene

So how do you make sure that your physical security is doing the job you need it to do? Here are a few best practices for physical security hygiene.

Choose physical security solutions that work for you. Like many loss prevention solutions, physical security can be a big investment. That’s why you should create a strategy that solves your unique problems instead of buying the new big thing in LP. If sturdy gates and reliable lights have worked for you in the past, then it’s better for you to continue investing in them, along with one or two newer solutions, than to eliminate these security measures entirely so that you can try a whole new security system.

Create a physical security budget that includes maintenance costs. As I mentioned earlier, you also need to consider the cost of upkeep for your security, whether it’s replacing light bulbs, updating signage, or repairing damaged locks or gates. When it’s time for you to review your annual budget, make sure you account for the costs of updating, repairing, or replacing your existing security measures, so you continue to show potential thieves that they will be caught if they attempt to shoplift.

Work with your team to enforce good physical security hygiene. Your physical security isn’t just about having the right tools; it’s also about making sure your team of store associates and LP professionals works together to keep things running smoothly and in apparent good working order. What do you think when you walk into a store and see a security guard on his cell phone? Physical security hygiene has as much to do with appearance as functionality. This could include training your guards to remain alert while on shift, implementing security tactics like confronting loiterers and creating a schedule for your team to periodically check on the status of your security measures and report if anything is broken or needs maintenance.

Though retail loss prevention has changed a lot in recent years, it is important to remember the basics of physical security, and that starts with maintaining good physical security hygiene. If you work with your LP professionals to create a smart physical security strategy, you can stretch your LP budget even further than you might originally think.

Tom’s column is featured in every issue of Loss Prevention Magazine. To subscribe to the printed version of the magazine and enjoy other great content, visit