Bag checks may become a reality for shoppers in response to growing terror threats.

You might be reading this in an Albany cafe or a Wellington hair salon. You might be in the Sylvia Park food court, a Riccarton outlet complex, a Westgate supermarket, waiting to bungy-jump off a bridge or even at the airport.

It has probably already occurred to you that, while doing these activities, you could be placing your life in the hands of terrorists.

But how are businesses responding to those possibilities? Retail giants make difficult decisions over how they assess terrorist risks to their customers. Generally, they weigh the options in the absence of any terrorist attack, but assess risk in a context of high uncertainty. They want to ensure accessibility for customers, and not overly burden them with security delays and processes.

We all know the world has changed since 9/11, and here, since the Sydney terror attack.

Advertisement

And the increased threat of global terrorism on large service organisations in the tourist industry that are considered targets — or "soft targets", such as coffee shops in open places or public places near sports venues — often clashes with negotiating the more mundane difficulties of running an entity day-to-day.

Black swan extreme events — those that come as a surprise — have a major effect and are often inappropriately rationalised with the benefit of hindsight. The challenge is to be prepared for them.

Business continuity management needs to focus on developing the capability for organisations to be resilient in the face of uncertainty. As well as traditional floods and fires, that now includes simultaneous and often complex threats that leave our inter-connected worlds vulnerable.

Examples of this are the cyber threat to banks and other global systems from such things as Ed Snowden's classified information leak from the National Security Agency over the past two years; Fonterra's Chinese milk crisis that threatened our major primary market; and the Germanwings disaster a few weeks ago in which a suicidal pilot flew a plane with 150 people on it into the French Alps.

You may think a terrorist strike isn't likely to happen in New Zealand.

We are sheltered by our isolation, but that doesn't mean we can remain complacent. The recent naming of Westfield malls as targets for Somali-based Islamic terrorists al-Shabaab should send a collective wake-up call to anyone operating a mall or shopping in one, and the toughening up of "soft targets" will eventually affect all Kiwis.

Shopping malls have become a focus for a range of family leisure activities, including cinemas, bowling alleys and childcare facilities.

Onsite free parking and accessibility is attractive and handy.

Advertisement

However, it can also raise the risk profile of mall shops, their employees and customers.

As well as malls, large entertainment and arts centres such as the Aotea Centre and Vector Arena are "postcard targets" — those at the forefront of terrorist threat. If you live or work near landmarks such as the Sky Tower, Eden Park, the Beehive or Dunedin's Forsyth Barr Stadium you have to accept you might be vulnerable.

Soft targets give terrorists an obvious tactical advantage — in terms of law enforcement it is easier to identify and disrupt plans to attack hard targets because the plotters need considerable financial and technical preparation. Soft target attacks, however, can be attacked by lone wolves or small cells.

But to what extent do private sector organisations respond to their vulnerability and exposure, and are they complacent about the hazards they face? Most companies don't want to add cost to their customers or convince stakeholders to invest in something that may not happen.

Terrorism and other major threats present businesses with an acute and urgent picture of uncertainty, which individual managers find difficult to interpret and which renders strategic decision-making problematic.

Buy-in is required from the top of Kiwi organisations to support a fundamental shift towards joint security and resilience that might require traditional organisational boundaries to become blurred to support the functioning of daily life, and maintain critical national infrastructure.

So how might this affect New Zealand consumers? Hardening or toughening soft targets could mean that if you are going to the mall, you might have your bag checked at the entrances, and there might be restrictions on how long you can stay in the carpark. Employees might require security passes, and purchases might be checked on leaving the mall.

If you're going to the cinema, there could be more security screening, including bag-checking machines. You might see more CCTV or facial recognition software being used inside the mall and in carparks that are watching all your movements. Security or police staff might ask for proof of identification, carparks might be occasionally restricted directly under or on top of the mall, and we might see more information in the media informing customers about raised security threats at particular locations.

These measures haven't all been introduced into British malls yet, but if the threat alert increases, these could be initiatives impacting on our doorstep because New Zealand hosts global chains and organisations that will change their policies worldwide.

Extreme events cannot be dealt with by individual organisations in isolation. "Joined-up security" is needed — which could include more emergency training of employees within the mall; more restrictions on mall suppliers; more documentation to meet business and security requirements; and closer links between mall management and local and national security.

Worrying in New Zealand is the lack of a culture of sharing information with rivals. During an extreme event, an absence of clarity about roles, processes and expectations can create considerable delay and potentially hinder recovery. Small businesses like cafes might have resisted investing in security and so become the "weak link" sited next to large organisations targeted by terrorists.

Given the geographic proximity of many business districts, corporate communities and government offices near iconic buildings and large shopping malls this poses a key strategic challenge for the future of business continuity management and is a situation that mall shoppers are wise to be mindful of when they next go for a spot of retail therapy.

What's your view?
Email letters@hos.co.nz

Dr Bridgette Sullivan-Taylor is based at the University of Auckland Business School's Graduate School of Management. She is a senior lecturer in strategy and international business focusing on strategic resilience in the face of extreme events.