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But What About the Squirrels?

How to rid your business of unwanted visitors that are keeping legitimate customers away.
A man installing a security camera outside a store

This is part two of a column that ran in the June issue of Convenience Store News. If you didn't have the chance to read that column (which was excellent, IMHO), allow me to bring you up to speed. My previous column talked about unwanted visitors.

I bludgeoned the analogy of a bird feeder to death in trying to make a point about the difference between having guests that you want vs. guests that you prefer not to have. The bird feeder is your convenience store. The birds are the customers who you work very hard to attract and are the reason you're in business. The squirrels are those who hang around the bird feeder because it is easy to get food. The end result is that the squirrels scare off the birds. Not the optimal circumstances for when you are trying to run a business.

In this column, I want to go into the specifics of what I'm advising at a site that's having this problem and provide you with the results that we are seeing in the first three months.

This location should be a successful convenience store and fuel site. It's on the corner of a busy intersection (on the "downstream" side of the traffic light of the busiest street) and has excellent access. There is a dense residential area around it and while there are some other convenience stores in the area, there is not a dominant player in the local market. However, the squirrels (sorry!) seem to be keeping the legitimate customers from frequenting the site as often as they want to.

My suggestion to the business owner was to use a three-prong approach.

The first objective was to clean up the site to make it more attractive to customers, especially female shoppers. When I arrived, the store looked like many urban convenience stores: heavy security bars on the windows, dirty forecourt area, peeling paint, a trashed dumpster corral and lots of signs covering up the windows.

A business must be presented to its customers in the best possible light. If someone thinks the owner doesn't care about how the property looks, then they are going to think the owner doesn't care about what happens on the property. This is an open invitation for people who have nothing better to do than hang around and create mischief.

I had the operator powerwash the sidewalks, the parking lot and the brick exterior of the building; repaint the mansards and the parking poles; and restripe the parking lot. I encouraged him to take down all of the signage in the windows that was not required by local ordinance, paint the security bars on the windows and doors to match the rest of the color scheme and make them less imposing, and clean all the glass on the exterior.

Furthermore, inside the building, ceiling tiles that were stained were replaced, the interior walls repainted, the floors cleaned and signage removed from the windows of the cashier cage. The counter and backbar displays were rearranged so that the cashier had better sightlines within the store and into the parking lot (customers can see that the cashier can see them!). My goal was to enhance the appearance of the store without investing a lot of money.

The final part of improving the store appearance was maximizing the lighting — making sure that the interior, exterior and the parking lot were all well-lit, and replacing bulbs in the signage frames that were burned out. The overall effect, especially at night, is a "fishbowl" where customers can see into the store before they walk in the door. We wanted high visibility into, and out of, the store.

The second objective was to install additional video cameras that are connected to an AI (artificial intelligence) enhanced software system, allowing me to analyze whether the steps that I am recommending are effective. With this system, the cameras can be monitored remotely, the videos are immediately stored in the cloud (so that someone cannot steal the DVR to remove the video), and I can track "incidents." My goal is to provide the owner with hard data on whether the nuisance abatement measures are effective.

Objective three was to put speakers on the exterior of the building that provide a level of discomfort for those people loitering outside the business. Research has shown the effectiveness of playing music to move loiterers away from a property. We have used this method in our stores in the past and it seems to be an effective way to dissuade people from just hanging around the store.

The speakers create a sonic space that is uncomfortable for someone who is standing around for long periods of time. While the idea of playing the sound of a dentist drill at high volume is appealing, it's not a practical solution, as we want our legitimate customers to continue to come into the store. Therefore, I have based the strategy on a modified definition of discomfort.

We want to create an environment that particular individuals would find uncomfortable. This is based on using music that the target audience doesn't like to listen to, finds irritating after a while, or is music that makes them "uncool" in front of others. The music genres that I usually start with are classical opera, traditional country or smooth jazz, but sometimes you have to keep experimenting with the music to see what is effective for the specific location. The key is that the target demographic does not enjoy hearing it for an extended period of time, whereas our customers at worst will find it to be a minor disturbance and may not even notice the music as they make the short trip into and out of our store.

With a sound program, there are three things to keep in mind. First, you must stay within the local noise ordinances. Second, if you're playing music, it needs to be with a music program that pays the proper royalties and licenses for the commercial use of that music — just playing something off your phone is not legal. Third, the control of the music must not be left to the staff on duty because they are the ones that can be most heavily influenced/intimidated by the people who want to have the music turned off.

So far, the initial results are very promising. After the cleanup, the number of police incidents and calls dropped to almost zero after averaging about eight calls per month for the previous year. Anecdotal evidence from the staff is that fewer people are hanging out and when they do appear, they are loitering for a shorter amount of time. Sales seem to be increasing over the same period last year, but it's going to take time for word to get around the community that things have changed and bring customers back into the store. The music program has been effective as well, by pushing those people who are still loitering around the area off our property and further away.

We are going to continue this program for the next six months to make sure it is sustainable. If that is the case, then we will have been able to accomplish our objectives of reducing the number of criminal nuisance instances at the site, increasing sales, and becoming a better neighbor to the community.

Hopefully, our birds will come back to the roost.

About the Author

Roy Strasburger

Roy Strasburger is CEO of StrasGlobal, a privately held retail consulting, operations and management provider serving the small-format retail industry nationwide. StrasGlobal operates retail locations for companies that don’t have the desire, expertise or infrastructure to operate them. Learn more at Strasburger is also cofounder of Vision Group Network, whose members discuss future trends, challenges and opportunities, and then share with all retailers and suppliers, regardless of the size of their business. 

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