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Missouri Walmart scare ends without any shots fired but reflects retailers’ new reality

Though rare, ‘active shooter incidents’ are increasingly part of the grim calculus that businesses must reflect in their planning, training and risk assessments.

Texas State Troopers keep watch at the makeshift memorial for victims of the shooting at the Cielo Vista Mall WalMart in El Paso, Texas. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

A heavily armed man in body armor and fatigues set off a panic Thursday at a Missouri Walmart. The police were called and a manager pulled the fire alarm to evacuate the store. Then it was over without a shot fired.

The scare was all too real in the wake of the recent shootings in Gilroy, Calif., El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, that left 35 people dead and dozens of others wounded. Though statistically rare, such incidents have become part of a grim calculus that retailers and other businesses are increasingly reflecting in their planning, training and risk assessments to protect their customers, their workers and their bottom lines.

Some companies, including the Cheesecake Factory and Del Taco, now include “active shooting situations” as potential business risks in regulatory filings, alongside more typical considerations such as labor costs and extreme weather events. Others are reevaluating how and how often they train workers to respond to armed assailants as stores and malls become more frequent targets. And some insurers are now offering coverage for “active shooter” incidents.

“In the past they would say it won’t happen to us,” said Renata Elias, a risk consultant for Marsh, an insurance brokerage and risk advisory firm. “But now they see it as this can happen anytime, anywhere or anyplace.”

On Thursday, a man showed up at a Walmart in Springfield, Mo., wearing body armor and military-style clothing and carrying a “tactical rifle,” a handgun and many rounds of ammunition. Shoppers panicked and began fleeing the store while the man pushed around a shopping cart and took video on his phone, a police spokesman, Lt. Mike Lucas, told the Associated Press.

The 20-year-old then walked outside the store, where an off-duty firefighter held him at gunpoint until police arrived and arrested him, according to news reports. Lucas told the AP that investigators have yet to determine his motives or whether he intended to shoot anyone.

The incident comes just days after shootings at Walmart stores in El Paso and Southaven, Miss., left 24 people dead and dozens more wounded.

The Arkansas-based retail giant has made active-shooting training available for all employees since 2015. But it has since upped the frequency from once a year to four times a year. In July, it began using virtual reality as part of the training. Employees are taught how to evacuate stores and given strategies for hiding or defending themselves if they are unable to escape.

“You can never predict violence, which is why we take training and preparation so seriously,” said Randy Hargrove, a spokesman for Walmart. “No retailer is immune to it.”

After a shooting, it is common for retailers to consult other businesses in their area and check with local authorities to determine whether any part of their plan for keeping employees and workers safe should be updated, said Robert Moraca, vice president of loss prevention at the National Retail Federation.

“They take this opportunity to look at their plans and make sure they’re not missing anything,” Moraca said.

Many businesses that previously limited active-shooting training to security workers have expanded their programs to include their entire staffs, Elias said.

Companies also are devising blueprints to deal with the aftermath of a violent workplace event. Walmart, for instance, is helping El Paso employees find work at other locations while their store remains closed during the investigation, Hargrove said. Counseling also being made available to staff.

It is too soon to say when or whether the store will reopen, highlighting another potential business risk — an extended or permanent shutdown.

A small number of restaurant and entertainment companies now include “active shooter” as a risk factor in their filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, a trend first reported by the Wall Street Journal. That designation usually speaks to natural disasters, rising labor or materials costs, and other events. Dave & Buster’s, for instance, noted in its most recent annual report that an “act of violence” at one of its stores, including “active shooter situations and terrorist activities,” could limit customers’ ability to visit stores. The Cheesecake Factory and Del Taco Restaurants used similar language in regulatory filings.

“Every time there’s a major incident, there is a significant and measurable decline in car traffic to these retailers,” said Maneesh Sagar, chief executive of RS Metrics, a company that analyzes satellite imagery and other data to spot trends for investors.

The Cheesecake Factory declined to comment on the disclosure. Dave & Buster’s and Del Taco did not respond to requests for comment.

One way that companies are bracing for the unpredictable costs is to purchase active-shooter insurance, a policy that can help to pay for repairs, medical services and legal costs that may arise after a shooting. The policies, which are a new but growing business for some insurance companies, are intended to close the gaps that may not be covered by more traditional insurance policies, according to Marsh, the insurance firm.