Confronting Armed Customers Becomes the Toughest Task in Retail

(Bloomberg) -- At Walmart Inc. and Kroger Co. stores, new policies that call for dissuading customers from carrying unconcealed firearms have thrust 2 million employees onto the front lines of America’s gun debate.

The retailers, along with drugstore chain Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. and grocer Wegmans Food Markets Inc., said this week that they’ll ask people not to display guns in their aisles, even in states where it’s legal.

The policies are still gelling, and may be permissive enough to allow a blind eye for gun carriers if no one complains. No matter how tentative, the private-sector decisions were a sharp contrast with congressional paralysis after a years-long spate of mass shootings, including the Aug. 3 massacre of 22 people at an El Paso Walmart. But they sowed confusion and skepticism among the workers who will have to carry out the directives -- and deal with the consequences if customers resist.

Confronting Armed Customers Becomes the Toughest Task in Retail

Neither Walmart nor Kroger has so far provided training on when and how to approach a gun-toting customer, nuanced knowledge that security experts say is critical. In break-room conversations and on internet bulletin boards, workers have voiced complaints that they are being placed in harm’s way. Employees of Kroger, a unionized grocery, enjoy greater job protections than others and have been among the most vocal. The company has already received requests from some locals for information on how the policy will be enforced and by whom.

At least one Kroger stocker first learned of the new policy from a Bloomberg News reporter.

“They have no idea how it’s going to work,” said Jonathan Williams, communications director at the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 400, which represents about 10,000 workers in Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. “We have a lot to figure out.”

Keith Dailey, a Kroger spokesman, said the company is figuring it out, too.

“We’re actively engaging with peers across our industry as we work to formulate best practices that will be communicated to our store teams,” he said. “We have asked store management to continue managing our stores as they always have, by prioritizing the safety of our associates and customers.”

A steady, deadly drumbeat of shootings, including two this summer at Walmart stores alone, has thrust the gun-control issue to the fore. A divided Congress has failed to act, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, saying he won’t consider any measure unless President Donald Trump endorses it.

That inertia has left the door open for states to take the lead. Some have loosened restrictions after killings. New York and others have bolstered gun laws. On Friday, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, a staunch Republican conservative, called for the state to require background checks in most private gun sales.

Corporate America has also taken up the cudgel. Walmart and Kroger aren’t the first stores to discourage customers from carrying visible firearms. But the pair control one-third of the $800 billion U.S. grocery market, according to Morgan Stanley, making them weekly destinations for millions of Americans. Unlike Starbucks Corp. and Target Corp., the first big chains to ask customers to leave their guns at home, Walmart and Kroger cater to more rural populations that include many opponents of gun control.

Self Reliance

That includes shoppers like Cody Simmons. The 23-year-old was shopping at a Kroger in Pasadena, Texas, on Friday while wearing a T-shirt decorated with guns that read: “We Don’t Dial 911.” Simmons, who believes “everyone should have a gun on them at all times,” said he doesn’t support restrictions on open carry, but will still patronize the store.

Others might not be as accommodating, and Arkansas-based Walmart may be on the receiving end of open-carry activists due to its red-state roots. OpenCarry.org, which serves as a forum and networking system for activists, had an active thread on Walmart: “I will not disarm as they have no authority to disarm me,” one user posted. Starbucks also faced protests when it discouraged open carry, with advocates showing up armed at locations in Texas and South Dakota.

Walmart’s policy mirrors that of Starbucks, calling for a “non-confrontational approach” whereby customers are respectfully asked to take guns outside. Walmart doesn’t expect hourly staffers to approach armed customers, said a person familiar with the company’s policy. That will be handled by store or department managers, or security personnel who currently deal with issues like shoplifting.

Customers whose guns aren’t causing any disturbance probably won’t even be approached, said the person, who asked not to be identified as Walmart is still formulating its guidance.

Taking a Bullet

Retailers need to figure out how willing their employees are to approach someone openly carrying a firearm, explained Katherine Schweit, a Washington consultant. A former FBI agent, Schweit has worked on security matters with Walgreens, Walmart and other retailers.

“Security training is essential for all employees, whether they are management, a guy in the warehouse, or a person at the cash register. But it has to be tailored to the position that person is in,” she said. “It is obviously a difficult challenge, but certainly not impossible.”

Second Amendment rights groups might make it more difficult, as the National Rifle Association and Gun Owners of America have urged members to take their business elsewhere. “What these stores have done is very disappointing,” said Erich Pratt, senior vice president of Gun Owners of America. “It’s a slap in the face to gun owners around the country.”

Among registered voters, more than half favor stricter gun-control laws, according to pollster Civiqs. That group includes 75-year-old Gayle Cooper, who was loading her car with groceries outside the Kroger in Pasadena.

“It’s scary for people -- they’re going to be on edge while they’re shopping,” she said. But relying on employees to enforce the policy also concerns her: “It’s like, ‘Who are you? You’re not a police officer.’”

(Michael R. Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, is a donor to groups that support gun control.)

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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