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May 25, 2016

How to Manage Suspicious Customers

As a gun shop owner, you want to think that every customer entering our shop is excited to be purchasing a new firearm, ammo or accessories. In reality you know this is not always the case.

There are times when an individual or group may enter your establishment with bad intentions in mind. In the world of retailing, we refer to this activity as “external threats” or “external risks.” The risks come in the form of shoplifters, organized retail crime (ORC) syndicates, credit card fraud operators or, even worse, as people casing your establishment for future robbery or burglary.

Recent statistics show that burglaries continue to increase. As an FFL and business owner, your focus must be on keeping firearms out of the hands of criminals and protecting your assets (inventory and staff members). There are several things you can do daily to prevent your location and staff from becoming a victim.

First you want to look at your store’s environment. Start with a well-trained staff of employees who must be aware at all times of people entering the store. Since criminals try to avoid recognition, they are more prone to enter during slower periods of the day and when staffing is minimal, such as early morning, lunch breaks and just before closing. Your staff should always be observant to customers who enter the store alone but keep an eye on the parking area. Do they have an accomplice outside? Are they hesitant to enter? Do they enter quickly? These may all be suspicious behaviors. Criminals working in pairs or groups will also often use cell phones, eye signals and other non-verbal methods to communicate to one another while appearing to be shopping alone. How about if two or more individuals unfamiliar to your staff enter the store together? Do they appear cordial, relaxed and talkative, or are they tense, discreet and non-conversational?

Your typical customers display consistent behaviors and have consistent conversations, even when they’re first-time firearm purchases. When you don’t see or hear that consistency, trust your gut!

Those of us in the retail security business often say, “If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t!” So what should you do when something just doesn’t “feel” right, and how can you react proactively? Your best approach should always be to follow these basic steps.

  1. Greet Every Customer

    • Have a firm program in place that says every customer entering the store will be greeted. For larger stores where staff may not have an immediate view to your front door, you may want to install a door chime that sounds when people enter and exit. This aids greatly to alert the staff of new customers as they help other patrons, and it also alerts possible criminals that you are aware of their entry.
  2. Talk to Your Customers

    • If you don’t recognize a new customer, strike up a conversation. Make cordial but direct eye contact and welcome them to your store.
  3. Inquire

    • Use great selling techniques by inquiring if a customer new to your store is a local resident, if they work in the area and why they stopped in. Most legitimate first-time customers will have something interesting and logical to share, while suspicious individuals may avoid revealing anything personal and respond to the question of why they stopped in with “Just looking.” Some will reply with something that doesn’t relate or make sense at all, and it’s particularly with these individuals that your internal sensors may start to fire.
  4. Alert the Team

    • An alert code word or phrase can serve as a signal to all other employees that you might have a situation on your hands. That alert should initiate several activities, such as all staff members should move to the sales floor and quickly assess the situation. One staff member should also stand ready to activate your panic/hold-up alarm or be ready to call 9-1-1. If possible, someone else should check the parking area for anything unusual. Not only are you prepared to deal with a robbery if one starts to go down, these reactive activities will tell any would-be criminals that you are alert and on your game and may dissuade them from their plans.
  5. Thwart Shoplifters

    • If someone is suspected of shoplifting or attempting to shoplift, approach the customer directly and provide uninterrupted, one-on-one contact. A shoplifter is most often simply waiting for the opportunity to conceal items and exit the store quickly. Eliminate that opportunity. Quickly and directly request to hold the merchandise at the counter until they’re ready to pay for it. This method has been effective for retailers across the country and works in most situations. Typically, the would-be shoplifter surrenders the merchandise he or she is trying to steal and will opt out of the criminal act given the opportunity.

If another patron alerts you to a shoplifting act, use caution in addressing it, as you did not personally observe it. Provide great service until more details can be confirmed, but use caution and avoid any wrongful accusations.

  1. Showing Firearms

    • When showing firearms, ask for an unexpired, state-issued photo ID and hold it until all firearms are safely secured; it is also recommended that you make this a written store policy that is prominently displayed for all customers to see. Holding an ID can, of course, potentially aid law enforcement if a grab and run occurs. Trigger locks, if in use, can be left in place at your discretion, serving as another theft deterrent. Finally, be sure to show one firearm at a time to prevent distractions and maintain inventory control. If you or your staff ever feel unsure about what’s occurring with a particular customer, secure all firearms immediately and summon help from other staff members.
  2. Selling

    • Beware of straw-man purchasing scenarios and act accordingly as per ATF guidelines. If you suspect possible fraudulent activity, ask for photo identification to confirm identity, especially with credit card transactions. As a shop owner, you are permitted to confirm authenticity of a cardholder’s name and expiration dates with photo ID. When in doubt, you can also contact the issuing bank listed on the back of a credit card, though this process is best completed away from the customer.

Remember, NSSF has a wide variety of Don’t Lie for the Other Guy tools to help you guard against straw purchases. These include training videos for your staff and the Don’t Lie for the Other Guy Retailer Kit that includes a training DVD, brochure, posters and other Don’t Lie accessories that help educate your customers as well as staff. Visit for more information.

  1. Please Exit the Store

    • There will be a time where your suspicion signals are so strong that you know something bad is likely to happen. Don’t delay in these situations. Use your code word and have a staff member call 9-1-1. Waiting to call the police can easily escalate a situation in your place of business and result in unnecessary injury and damages. To avoid confrontation with an irate customer and when personal safety is a concern, advise him or her that you have summoned the police and you’d like for them to exit the store.
  2. Role Play

    • There is no predictability in where or when a situation will turn ugly or a crime will be committed. Now is the time to begin to review store procedures with your staff and conduct actual training role-play scenarios. “Practice makes perfect,” as the old saying goes, and such practice will add confidence to your staff’s ability to manage suspicious customers.


Have questions about your store’s security and security procedures? NSSF is now offering a day-long security consultation program for its members. Spearheaded by Bill Napier, a member of NSSF’s FFL Security Consultant Team and an expert on security issues affecting the firearms industry, and Patrick Shay, NSSF Director, Retail Development, the NSSF Store Security Audit Program will add yet another layer of safety and compliance knowledge to NSSF’s efforts in these areas, while also providing additional value to NSSF membership. Learn more here.


You may also be interested in: Bad Communication Begets Bad Results

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