The attacks on the Madrid railway system exposed how vulnerable so-called soft targets are to terrorism. In the era of “franchise” terrorism in which there is no “chatter”, no warning of imminent attack and no consistency to the terrorists’ modus operandi, no one can be certain they’re not on the hit list, least of all the UK’s grocery multiples, which like the nation’s great sporting venues, are seen by many as potential targets.
So have the multiples modified their defences sufficiently to counter the threat?
In the immediate aftermath of September 11, the whole of corporate UK reassessed its procedures. Contingency plans were tightened to deal with potential attacks on company infrastructure - whether on head office or at store level - and product recall measures were scrutinised to ensure they could counter any contamination threat.
Director of communications at the British Retail Consortium, David Southwell, says: “There was a big change post-9/11. The terrorist threat became a fact of life.”
The multiples took appropriate measures: Sainsbury, for instance, has a dedicated business continuity team, which conducts quarterly dress rehearsals to practise dealing with a hypothetical attack on its Holborn HQ and relocation of its operations to its two recovery centres.
But the nature of the threat changed following September 11 and again following the end of the Iraq war. Both signalled a shift by the terrorists to soft targets and over the past six months, the security forces have warned of a heightened threat to retailers. Southwell says: “If you talk to the Anti-Terrorism Squad or MI5, they’ll tell you that the threat to retailers has intensified over the past six months. It’s partly because of the way the Al Qaeda groups have evolved into small cells that act locally without having any contact with Osama Bin Laden. Retailers are seen to be in a similar position to entertainment venues. We provide public access in a public domain. That’s the type of potential target they’ve been focusing on.”
City centre retail locations have to be particularly alert, he adds, especially where they are in close proximity to known targets or are part of high profile urban regeneration schemes. Steve Mellish, business continuity manager at Sainsbury, acknowledges that London is at particular risk: “The high risk area is central London and we’re based there. We’re looking at a major London-wide event. The risk is perhaps even greater following Madrid.”
The multiples are understandably reluctant to go into any detail over changes to their security. But, in response to warnings from the security forces, they are believed to have further tightened security at store level and the procedures for detecting food contamination.
Southwell says:“They are making sure that the people responsible for security at store level are fully informed and up to date with procedure and that staff in general are fully trained and aware.” He adds that the chief reason the number of product recalls has increased over the past few years is that detection rates have improved.
If a supermarket chain was hit, it could affect the whole food chain. No-one is more aware of the potential dangers than the multiples themselves. Now they are ensuring they get the message across to staff. Over the past few months, Sainsbury, for instance, has introduced a number of initiatives to raise awareness of the security and contingency measures it has in place, including a desktop rehearsal earlier this month on how to handle a variety of incidents and a campaign in conjunction with Business Awareness Week to remind staff how to deal with a crisis.
For now, the perceived threat to retailers is “nowhere near the same level as that to trains and planes,” assures Southwell.
They are as well placed as any UK business to handle terrorism having lived with the the IRA threat for decades, he points out. Indeed, immediately after 9/11, food retailers in the United States sought advice from their UK counterparts on how to improve security.
One thing the experts and the retailers agree on is no one wants to go down the Israeli road of forcing supermarket shoppers to walk through airport-style metal detectors as they enter a store. Heightened threat or not, says Southwell, “it would mean victory for the terrorists if you got to the point where people were too afraid to shop”.