It's no surprise that security is a top issue for Security Square Mall in Baltimore. Although the center is actually named after the boulevard that borders the property, the title fits in well with the mall's focus on safety.

"One of our challenges is creating a positive public perception of the security at the shopping center," says Deirdre Moore, vice president and general manager at the 1.2 million sq. ft. Security Square Mall. "That's true with most shopping centers, whether it's a strip center or mall, post office or grocery store. And you're always wanting that public perception to be a true one."

One step that Security Square Mall has taken to make customers feel more comfortable is to pick up its back-room security station and plop it in the mall's center court. Now the public can watch as the monitors display footage from the 30 video surveillance cameras located throughout the property.

"We have seen a very positive response because the message that has been communicated and received is that security is here, security is visible and security cares," Moore says. "Shoppers can see that someone is out there with their best interests in mind."

SpectaGuard LLC is one firm that specializes in helping malls ensure that peace of mind. The King of Prussia, Pa.-based company provides security systems and staffing to regional and superregional centers across the country.

"The value we bring to our client is not that we can offer staffing or technology or both; the value is our philosophy. We break down and analyze a facility," says Jim Joly, SpectaGuard's vice president of the mall services division. SpectaGuard emphasizes the importance of evaluating mall security based on five different aspects: facility design, policies, procedures, technology and personnel requirements.

"I think center owners owe it to themselves and their customers to evaluate their facility in some form or fashion in relation to those five aspects," Joly says.

A misconception among some centers is that an existing program does not need to be changed or updated. However, SpectaGuard is continually looking for new tools and methods that will help malls improve their security practices.

"We're trying to put value out there for our clients," Joly says. For example, SpectaGuard has noticed a growing emphasis on external security issues for the past five years. Shopping centers have been focusing on parking lot safety to increase customer service and deter crime.

Studying safety concerns SpectaGuard wanted to further validate the theory that safety outside of the mall was a growing concern among shoppers, so it commissioned a safety study. MSI International conducted the National Security Study for SpectaGuard in August 1998. The results of the study released last fall offer insights into consumers' shopping behavior and their perceptions regarding mall security. The study consisted of 203 telephone interviews among a random sample of consumer households in the Northeast, Midwest, South and West.

The study concluded that perceptions of mall crime and concerns over personal safety are widespread. The results showed that 53% of mall shoppers were very or somewhat concerned with their personal security. In addition, not only did perceptions of security play an important role in selecting a mall, but a perceived lack of security often deterred people from going to certain malls. According to the study, 67% reported that security was a very important factor in their choice of malls, and 52% named lack of security as the top reason for not shopping at a mall.

"Basically we felt the study validated where we felt the benchmark was in the industry, and confirmed our perception of the public's concern about external security," Joly says. Seventy percent of the respondents' surveyed reported that they felt least safe in the park-ing lot, while an additional 21% said they felt least safe outside, although not in the parking lot.

Having well-lit parking lots was regarded as the No. 1 mall security issue, with 85% of respondents rating it as very important. Now SpectaGuard is taking that information back to its clients to emphasize the importance of external security.

One tool that has been instrumental in improving outside security is call centers. Call centers provide direct communication with mall security staff for customer assistance requests, as well as emergency situations. SpectaGuard has formed a relationship with the Code Blue brand to introduce call center systems to its mall clients.

"We've definitely seen a push within the mall industry to incorporate the technology over the past 24 to 36 months," Joly says.

The call centers offer a convenience to customers who might need assistance with flat tires, dead batteries or lockouts. They also improve safety by serving as an emergency communication and alarm device. For example, an individual who pushes the emergency button will alert security and activate a powerful blue strobe that can serve as a visual deterrent to criminals, says Joly.

"These call centers are not being implemented because of high-crime stats. Developers are being proactive because of the ability of call centers to carry out two functions," says Joly, referring to the emergency and customer-service capabilities.

SpectaGuard is in the process of incorporating call centers into the surface parking lots and parking ramp at Garden State Plaza in Paramus, N.J. The center is owned by Los Angeles-based Westfield, Corp. Mall managers at Garden State Plaza decided to add the call centers in large part due to the customer-service features.

"We receive numerous stops on our patrols for assistance of jump- starts, lockouts and other vehicle problems," says Laurence A. Fedorka, Garden State Plaza's general manager. "We wanted to provide people with another source of communication with our command center."

Columbus, Ohio-based Glimcher Realty Trust also has introduced call centers to some of its properties. Glimcher's new Jersey Gardens project in Elizabeth, N.J., for example, will feature call centers on virtually every light pole on the property, says John P. Hoeller, Glimcher's senior vice president and director of properties. "Security is a customer service. What we want to do is make sure the consumer feels comfortable in visiting our properties."

Fairlane Town Center in Dearborn, Mich., conducts its own safety surveys among customers and tenants. "One of the biggest issues that customers respond to is safety in the large parking lots," agrees Aj Jemison, Fairlane's general manager. In recent years, Fairlane has increased its efforts to make shoppers feel safer outside the mall, which in turn encourages more evening shopping.

Fairlane increased lighting and added call centers. In addition, the mall has offered valet parking for several years. But one recent change has been to offer free valet parking after 6 p.m. from Monday through Friday.

The service is a convenience incentive for some, while others prefer to use valet parking rather than walk alone in the parking lot. "It encourages people to come and shop during the week," Jemison says.

Security measures Shopping centers are being proactive in responding to customer concerns regarding perceptions of safety. "Forward thinkers really understand the connection between security and customer service. We want our customers to understand that we're here for them," Jemison says.

Malls such as Fairlane are committed to providing top-quality security. For example, Fairlane provides its security staff with a variety of tools to help them do their job. The most critical tool is training. In addition to standard security training, staff members receive comprehensive training on first aid, CPR, customer service and diversity. Some security officers also move on to more rigorous education by enrolling in a six-week training program with the Michigan State Police. Those persons completing the intensive program will then have police powers on mall property. That power allows security personnel to make arrests, such as in cases of shoplifting, Jemison says.

"Security has always been an important issue, something we spend an awful lot of time on," agrees Hoeller. "We're always looking for ways for the customer to feel comfortable, and security is an issue that has been prevalent in the retail business for quite a period of time."

One important aspect to emphasize in a security program is visibility of security measures. Seeing the security officers on foot, on their bikes or in their vehicles makes shoppers and tenants feel more comfortable and helps deter crime. Surveillance cameras also provide an important security measure. "Visibility in my mind is an important part of any security program," Hoeller says.

Fairlane is another center that has come to recognize the importance of visibility. The mall has added information stations at all five entrances in addition to the main center court station located in the mall. The staff at those booths have direct access to security via two-way radios. And as part of security uniforms, security staff are required to wear their hats at all times, which makes them easy to identify in a crowd of shoppers, Jemison says.

Security Square Mall operates surveillance cameras inside and outside the property. The security cameras tape 24 hours a day, and the security station is always supervised during mall hours.

"What we like to do is communicate the marriage of technology and people. Technology is only as good as the people you have managing the technology," Moore says. Security Square Mall operates two security vehicles, a bike patrol and a foot patrol. Management also supplements its in-house staff with off-duty police officers.

"Crime is something that happens because of opportunity," Moore says. "We're looking at any way that we can to reduce the opportunity."

Increased security measures do impact crime. For example, a year after surveillance cameras were introduced in the parking lot in 1997, car thefts dropped by 40% at Security Square Mall.

In addition, the mall actively promotes security in the industry and educates shoppers on safety. Security Square hosts an area mall security directors' meeting that features guest speakers from local police precincts. "What we're really working hard at doing is going outside the mall to provide and receive information on trends in the marketplace," Moore says.

Security Square also hosts special events that support safe shopping tips targeting such population segments as seniors and children, says Moore. "As an industry, shopping centers are on the cutting edge of consumer safety and looking at different and innovative ways to deter crime on their properties."