What can go wrong in a shopping centre?

The United Kingdom’s largest shopping centres attract millions of visitors per year – some even attract over a million visitors per week! With so many people visiting shopping centres, there is of course huge potential for something to go wrong and a large number of challenges that can arise. It is therefore important that steps are taken to make shopping centres safe, secure and pleasant environments for customers and visitors, as well as for the staff who work there. The best way to do this is to work with an established retail security specialist that has a dedicated retail division that is trained to handle any situation that may arise in a shopping centre.

Security in shopping centres

It is quite often the case these days that security guards in shopping centres will not just be there to provide security. Instead, they will carry out a wide range of different tasks, effectively acting as additional key members of the shopping centre’s facilities management, centre management or estates teams. In many shopping centres the overall role of the security guard has changed and grown so that it has a wider focus on shopping centre safety overall, not just security. So, they might assist with carrying out maintenance work for example to make sure that visitors to the shopping centre are safe, rather than just keeping an eye out for shop lifters. They may also play a key role in carrying out health and safety audits. They will also work closely with a wide range of external agencies, work with the shopping centre to develop policies, and train their personnel in all of the areas that might be needed to provide the best service to a shopping centre. Below, we look at what can go wrong in a shopping centre, and therefore how security teams can help to keep it safe.

Terrorism concerns

Shopping centres are potential terrorist targets. In November 2014, to coincide with Britain’s counter terrorism week, Birmingham’s anti-terrorism police chief warned that the West Midlands Police believe that terrorists could target crowded shopping centres in order to inflict maximum damage. At the same time Liverpool shopping centre bosses, Manchester shopping centre bosses, and bosses at other shopping centres around the country were being warned by police to step up their security measures, as crowded places such as shopping centres are potential targets for terrorist attacks, particularly in the run up to Christmas and around other major holiday periods.

The risk has increased in recent months. At the end of August 2014 the UK government raised the UK terror threat from substantial to severe. This is the second highest of five possible threat levels to the UK, meaning that an attack is highly likely. It was previously at this level between early 2010 and summer 2011, and has so far only been at the highest level, critical, twice before, in August 2006 and June 2007. The official threat level informs security professionals across the public and private sectors as they make decisions about the appropriate level of protection in place across the UK. So, we are on heightened alert.

This was emphasised by a report by the Home Affairs Select Committee of MPs in May 2014, which said that all police forces should ensure that local shopping centres have received the British Council of Shopping Centres guidance, and should put in place and test a response plan. This followed fears that UK citizens travelling to fight in foreign conflicts may return to the country and pose a threat.

Whilst there has not been a major terrorist attack on a shopping centre in the UK so far, there was of course an attack on the Westgate Shopping Centre in Nairobi, Kenya, on the 21st September 2013. In this attack, unidentified gunmen attacked the shopping mall, killing at least 67 people and wounding over 175 people. The four attackers were themselves killed in the attack which lasted until the 24th September. The Islamist group al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for this terrorist attack.

MPs on the Home Affairs select committee subsequently visited Nairobi, and as a result concluded in their report that: “The devastation caused by the acts of terrorism that day highlight the need for vigilance on the part of the public and private enterprise. Terrorists can strike anywhere and previous terrorist plots in the UK have focused on shopping centres (including planned attacks on Bluewater and the Trafford Centre). The National Counter Terrorism Security Office has produced Counter Terrorism Protective Security Advice for Shopping Centres.”

The report went on to say: “Both members of the public and those in private enterprises have to ensure that vigilance is constant, this is especially important in areas where crowds of people congregate. Those in charge of areas visited by high numbers of people (such as shopping centres) must ensure that they have adequate security, surveillance and response plans. Ensuring public safety cannot be the sole purview of the counter-terrorism command and the security service, it is a responsibility in which all UK citizens and companies take a share. We note that the British Council of Shopping Centres have updated their guidance following the Westgate attack. We recommend that all police forces ensure that local shopping centres have received this guidance and put in place and test a response plan.” Security guards therefore play a crucial role in monitoring suspicious activity and being up to date with counter terrorism rules and procedures, as well as what to do if there was an attack.

Lost children

A lost child in a shopping centre is completely different to a terrorist attack, but if you are the child who is lost, alone and scared, or if you are the parent who cannot find their child and is worried that they may have been abducted, then there is no worse feeling in the world. It is perhaps every parent’s worst nightmare – turning around in a busy, crowded shopping centre to find that their child is nowhere in sight. Most parents will briefly lose their child at some point, and it can happen to anybody, as was demonstrated in 2012 when the Prime Minister left his then eight year old daughter in the pub, despite having an entourage with him. Whilst most of the time the child will just be in another part of the shop, having wandered off without thinking to look at something they wanted to, there is always the risk that something more sinister might have happened as well. The most extreme case, which many people will remember, was when two year old James Bulger was abducted from the New Strand Shopping Centre in Bootle in February 1993 and then tortured and murdered by two ten year old boys.

A prominent, visible security presence in a shopping centre provides reassurance to parents visiting the shopping centre with their children and means that both parents and children know immediately who to go to in the case of a lost child. The shopping centre should have a missing child procedure too, as virtually every venue in the country has one. One method frequently employed by shopping centres is to have a Child Safe Zone scheme. Shopping centres with this scheme in place display Child Safe Zone stickers and posters around the venue with a local “hotline” number clearly displayed on it. By calling this they get direct contact with the local security teams who can help to search so that the parents can stay near to the place where they last saw the missing child. Security can also notify all the retailers in the shopping centre. This is also valuable for older children and vulnerable adults. Some shopping centres also offer wristbands to children on entry which parents can write their mobile phone numbers on, allowing security to easily contact the parent if the child does become lost.

Parents are advised when they visit a shopping centre with their children to encourage them to stay close, to use reins or wrist links, not to leave them in an unsupervised play area, take note of what the child is wearing and to carry an up to date photograph of the child. Parents are also encouraged to teach their children a few basic principles in case they do get lost in shopping centres, such as not to leave the shopping centre with a stranger, and to go to the nearest checkout if lost in a shop and ask the shop assistant for help.


Other emergencies that may occur in a shopping centre include fires starting. Thankfully there are relatively few major incidents involving fires in UK shopping centres because of the use of sprinklers and fire alarms. However, there are on occasion’s fires within certain areas of a shopping centre, perhaps one store or the kitchen of a restaurant, which can still cause a lot of damage and potentially panic. A security presence at night can be vigilant for any potential fires starting and take action before they get out of hand. A security presence during the day can ensure that evacuation procedures are carried out calmly, safely and correctly, and if a fire does start anywhere they can contact the emergency services and liaise with them to provide them with the help and information they need to tackle the fire and keep everyone safe.


Individual stores in shopping centres are increasingly at risk of becoming victims of shoplifting. The most recent British Retail Consortium Retail Crime Survey revealed a dramatic increase in shoplifting in 2012-2013, when it reached the highest recorded level in nine years. This led to the direct cost of crime to retailers rising to £511 million, which was 166% higher than in 2007-08. Crucially, the average value of each incident of customer theft increased by 62% to £177, with losses 166% higher than five years previously. It is believed that there were around 2.7 million offences against retailers in 2012-2013. Whilst shopping centre security guard’s aren’t necessarily deployed in each individual store within the building, their presence around the centre as a whole is a deterrent for would be thieves, and retailers know that they are nearby, available and accessible if needed.


A riot in a shopping centre sounds unlikely, but if you cast your mind back to August 2011 that is exactly what happened, when riots broke out across London, Birmingham, Merseyside, Greater Manchester, the West Midlands, Bristol and several other cities and towns across England. There was widespread looting of shops and businesses, including in shopping centres, as well as damage to property and even arson. In the current economic climate of austerity, it is not unthinkable that riots could be triggered again at some point in the future, or could take place locally on a much smaller scale. Having security officers that are specially trained as to what to do in such a situation can greatly help with protecting your staff, customers, stock and premises.

Night time duties

Security guards in shopping centres can also play an important role over night which customers and visitors don’t see. This includes letting deliveries in to the centre and assisting with this process, patrolling the shopping centre through the night, monitoring vulnerable areas of the building, preventing burglaries and being on hand if the intruder alarm is activated. It also involves helping to the prepare the shopping centre for the following day of trade so that when retailers and customers arrive in the morning, everything is as it should be and is a safe environment for everyone.


This article has looked at just some of the things that can go wrong in a shopping centre, but there are a wide range of other emergency situations which could arise where it would be invaluable to have a trained security presence on hand. For example, if a child (or adult) started choking on their food, or if a child’s shoe lace of clothing got trapped in an escalator. Overall, security guards need to be vigilant, keeping watch for not only suspicious activity and behaviour, but also any scenario where something might go wrong.

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