Mall owners know that shoppers are unsettled by purse snatchings and other petty crimes and government warnings that malls are easy terrorism targets. And then this week there was a madman shooter who took nine lives at a Nebraska mall.
As retailers try to lure shoppers to their stores during the critical holiday season, which can account for as much as 40 percent of sales, malls are also trying to send a message that they're safe.
Owners and industry experts say that the nation's 1,200 malls have more protection than ever. Security measures added after the 2001 terrorist attacks have also made it harder for criminals, they said.
Area malls have increased television surveillance to even the darkest corners. They have made it harder to gain access to the roof, utility rooms and other areas that can be hiding places. They've increased the number of security officers on patrol, and generally beef that up even more during the holiday shopping season.
So far, mall officials say they see no sign that shoppers are being deterred by fears stemming from the Nebraska shooting.
"We're concerned about [the Nebraska incident], but we haven't seen a drop-off in shopping," said Frank Meyer, the general manager at Security Square Mall. "I think most people understand that was an unusual occurrence."
The biggest threats at malls generally lurk in the parking lot, where shoppers are at risk of having their cars or wallets stolen or being exposed to a flasher, said Charles A. Sennewald, a retail security consultant based in Escondido, Calif., who is about to publish a book on mall security.
He said he expects that the Nebraska shooting will have minimal impact on shoppers. "It might cause the management at malls to staff up a bit," Sennewald said. "But this is an anomaly. It's not high on the list of risks of mall security."
Malls continue to be safe, said Jon Lusher, principal consultant for IPC International Corp., a Chicago-area firm that provides security to 400 shopping malls, including in Maryland. He said the Omaha shooting won't change shoppers' habits, except maybe among some in Omaha.
Shoppers at The Mall in Columbia yesterday said the shooting had not rattled them. As Doug Janifer, 22, lifted his 21-month-old son, Eric, out of the back seat of his Mazda, he said that he was more concerned about crime rates in the areas around malls than inside them.
April Barbagallo, 43, of Burtonsville said she reads the paper every day but wouldn't let the news stop her from shopping. But Barbagallo said she has become more attuned to her surroundings in the wake of the shootings.
"You look around; you do a double take," she said.
Even the most aggressive security efforts can't stop all crimes, experts said.
"It is difficult for a mall, or anyone for that matter, to secure itself and to prevent some horrors," said Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard Retail Consulting Group in New Jersey. "Some things are hard to prevent."
Baltimore-area malls have had their share of high-profile crimes in recent years - including shootings at Westfield Annapolis Mall, Towson Town Center and Security Square Mall.
The malls use a combination of mall security guards and local law enforcement. Many would not give specific details of their crime-prevention measures.
"We want to reassure our shoppers that their safety and well-being are our top concerns, not just when tragedies like this occur," Lisa Bisenius, group vice president at General Growth Properties, said in a statement. General Growth owns several area malls, including White Marsh Mall, The Mall at Columbia and Towson Town Center.
Capt. John McKissick, commander of the special operations bureau of the Howard County Police Department, said that the department stations an additional 10 to 15 officers at The Mall in Columbia during the holidays.
At Westfield Annapolis Mall, additional Anne Arundel county officers are on patrol - part of an annual increase at shopping centers and parking lots from the day after Thanksgiving through New Year's Day, said Cpl. Mark Shawkey, a spokesman for the police department. He said additional police cars cruise parking lots with their overheard lights activated as a deterrent.
Though the county didn't increase manpower after a shooting at the mall last year, Shawkey said the incident had heightened the awareness of officers and security guards at shopping centers.
"They're more in tune and will be on the lookout for those types of things, especially groups congregating in the food court and other parts of the mall," he said.
Bel Air police provide extra security to malls in Harford County, while the Maryland State Police do so in Carroll County. Security Square Mall also increases efforts during the holiday season.
Department store company Boscov's said it was taking more precautions since the Nebraska shooting. Its security team is paying more attention to people acting unusually. The retailer has a security staff in every store that includes a guard at the entrance and at the customer pickup area.
The company said it doesn't expect shopping to drop off because of crime.
"People will still shop because it's part of the fabric of our culture and society," said Kenneth S. Lakin, Boscov's chairman and chief executive officer. "And they should. You can't live in fear."
Sun reporters Melissa Harris, Justin Fenton, Madison Park, Julie Scharper and Allison Connolly contributed to this article.
Here are some steps that malls have taken to enhance safety:
Added security guards and police.
Painted garage walls white.
Installed call boxes in garages.
Added surveillance cameras.
Closed access to roofs and utility areas.
Installed brighter lighting.