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Broken windows


broken windowFrom time to time the Council does general clean ups when residents may put rubbish on the nature strip on a set day.

Trucks pick up the unwanted items and take them to the tip. When this last occurred in my area, I noticed one resident had put their rubbish out the day after the collection. I smiled each day as I drove past as the pile grew and grew.

Eventually they put up a sign saying ‘No dumping’ which seemed to accelerate the process. People ran out of space and started dumping on the adjacent nature strips.   Eventually the Council came to the rescue and the problem was solved.

This is essentially the Broken Windows theory first introduced by James Wilson and George Kelling, a Stanford psychologist, in 1982.

The theory has since caused widespread debate and gets its name from a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, vandals will break more of them, enter the building, light fires, squat, and possibly destroy the entire building. But if problems are fixed when they are small, the tendency is that they do not escalate.

Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, used the theory to attack petty crime figuring that if they could get on top of this, serious crime would reduce. Similarly the theory has been used in South Africa where crime is rampant.

Despite being among the most discredited theories in the social sciences, Detroit recently adopted a similar policy.

It is really all about having standards and maintaining them, and as retailers, we are mostly not good in this area.

A recent client used their lift as a storage area. People could still squeeze in – just – but the display stands and cardboard boxes full of stock travelled up and down each day. Apart from the inconvenience to staff, the additional electricity must have been costly.

I suggested that a policy should be introduced stating that nothing could be stored in the lift. This was adhered to for a few weeks and then things started to drift back to normal. We found the culprits on each occasion and the discipline became inculcated. That is until I was no longer on site. Returning a week or so ago, I noticed that the lift had items stored in it, but within seconds they had disappeared. The word had spread that I was in the store.

I drew this to the attention of the CEO who commented that they had been very busy and that the priority was to achieve sales.

With great respect, I agreed to disagree with him. Needless to say, the culture in the company is: “go along with what they say – it will all be forgotten in a week or two and we’ll be back to normal”. Thankfully this is starting to change.

This is the very reason that I am such a believer in sending signals. If the standard for that lift is maintained, and others, the entire culture starts to change. No – it is not acceptable Johnny that you do not brush your teeth because you are running late for school. You have to brush your teeth every day, regardless. And if you are late for school, get up earlier.

One doesn’t want a Gestapo mentality to creep into the company, so slack has to be given here and there. One way to go about this is to make a rule that company policy is sacrosanct. People can challenge company policy, but until such time as it is changed, it is law. In the above lift example the rule was made a policy. That should have been non negotiable.

Whether you agree with the Broken Windows theory or not, if you allow those fitting rooms to be used to store fixtures, if you allow the fire exits to be clogged with merchandise – you are on the first step down a slippery slope.

Stuart Bennie is a retail consultant at Impact Retailing and can be contacted at or 0414 631 702

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