FEAR OF CRIME HAS SHOPPERS SHAKING

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Crime is having a profound effect on consumer behavior, and now retailers are becoming the victims.

A survey by America's Research Group, Charleston, S.C., shows 37.1% of the 1,003 consumers polled by phone April 1 to 4 have changed the way they shop in the past year because of fear of crime.

"This is great news for the security industry but devastating to supermarkets, drugstores and other retailers," said Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group.

According to the survey, 21.1% of consumers made fewer shopping trips to stores because of crime worries. Among retail outlets, convenience stores were visited less frequently by 40.6% of consumers; department stores, by 21.2%; grocery stores, by 11.8%; and drugstores, by 10.4%.

The study suggests convenience stores could be "destroyed as a distribution channel if perceptions don't change or if retailers don't take a major offensive to counter the present suspicions of fear," Mr. Beemer said.

"One of the problems that exist is that convenience stores have always had a higher perception of robbery than most other retail entities," he said. "Part of that is even highlighted in movies as well as on the evening news and the morning newspaper."

At retail locations like supermarkets and drugstores, consumers tend to shop alone and leave with many packages. In their eyes, that makes them susceptible to crime, Mr. Beemer said.

"Many consumers told me they would not shop in any store where that retailer did not carry out their packages," he added.

The shopping habits of consumers with high incomes were most affected by crime. For consumers with annual incomes of $75,000 or higher, more than half have changed their shopping patterns in the past year. Some carry less cash and use credit cards more often.

Most significantly, eight in 10 are shopping less at night and 60% said there are areas where they used to shop that they would not frequent today.

The survey showed high-income consumers are much more crime "sensitized" than the general population, Mr. Beemer said. It's frightening to see that "in the consumer group with the highest disposable income, people are not shopping as much. That has real ramifications on upper-end retailers in America."

Of all the consumers surveyed, 75.2% believed that news reports made them feel less safe. Only 9.6% attributed their feeling of insecurity to bad experiences of friends or relatives.

Crime fears have led consumers to most often change their behavior when visiting banks (39.1%) and fast-food restaurants (15.4%).

"With banking, it's not just because of ATM use, but people literally fear going to the bank," Mr. Beemer said.

So far, fear of crime doesn't appear to have given a significant boost to catalog shopping and home shopping channels, Mr. Beemer said. Only 11.7% of consumers said they buy products through catalogs and 8.1% ordered through TV shopping channels because they fear crime.

The study didn't investigate possible marketing solutions for retailers. The biggest problem marketers face is "how do we talk about it without increasing the fear," Mr. Beemer said.

The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 points.

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