Violence, verbal abuse and threats against shop floor staff is a growing problem.
At least 424 violent or abusive incidents were reported every day in the year to April 2019, up by almost a tenth on the previous 12 months, according to recent figures from trade association BRC. This compares to the year ending April 2018, when the BRC found that 115 staff were injured every day by unprovoked attacks.
The trade association reported three main triggers for violent behaviour: violence when stealing from a shop; violence as a response to age-related challenges (as required by law) for alcohol, cigarettes and knives; and violence when intoxicated by drugs or alcohol.
Meanwhile, the Centre for Retail Research’s 2019 Retail Crime Costs report found that of 264 retailers surveyed, retail sales had lost out on £5.5 billion from in-store crime.
Moreover, analysis of police data by Checkpoint Systems revealed that UK retailers recorded 359,156 incidents of shoplifting in 2019, which equated to almost 1000 per day.
At the beginning of the year and prior to Covid-19, the Home Office and Ministry of Justice were urged by MPs to take retail crime more seriously.
The BRC labelled crime against shopworkers a “worrying trend” due to an increased use of weapons, especially knives.
BRC business and regulation director Tom Ironside said retailers spent a record £1.2 billion on crime prevention in the year to April 2019, while their losses reached £1 billion, including over £770 million from customer theft.
“The thousands of attacks on retail workers are not merely statistics, they represent real people who needlessly bear the cost of retail crime,” he told Retail Gazette.
“From abuse, to threats, to violence, those affected carry those experiences with them for a lifetime.
“We need to see a specific criminal offence to protect retail employees from attacks at work.
“This would provide better protection for hardworking frontline staff while also sending a clear message that government will not tolerate these abuses.
“We also need an improved police response to tackle these crimes and partnerships between retailers and community policing to identify better ways to report crimes.”
Undoubtedly, retailers would want to see retail crime treated more seriously with greater deterrents for perpetrators, but ultimately this is dependant on the government’s actions. Not that the sector hasn’t been calling on the government to act – they have.
Fujitsu UK head of retail Nigel Naylor-Smith said crime against shop workers could deter employment prospects, and consequently affect the economy.
“As the BRC report shows, there’s been a huge increase in incidents of violence and abuse against store colleagues,” he said.
“Amongst other things, this discourages would-be employees to apply for a role in store in the knowledge that they could be at risk.”
James Batham, head of retail at law firm Eversheds Sutherland, agreed with Naylor-Smith.
“There’s very few well-paid individuals. Millions of people work at low wage, long hours, and then to be abused as they have been in the last few months is horrific,” he said.
“Retailers need to look at ‘is my business model viable?’.
“Confidence is such a huge factor in retail. If the confidence of shop visitors is in any way affected, then retailers will lose out on footfall. Retailers need to show that they’ve got this under control.
“Retailers want consumers back in the shops. Retail is the backbone of the economy.”
“We need to see a specific criminal offence to protect retail employees”
The Charity Retail Association (CRA) told Retail Gazette that the workforce has done “an incredible job” in helping keep people safe during the pandemic, but now “more needs to be done to keep the retail workforce safe”. CRA chief executive Robin Osterley said that over the past few years, there have been increasing levels of abuse and violence towards charity shop staff and volunteers.
In March, The Telegraph reported that shoplifters were deliberately targeting charity shops because there is less CCTV and security than at other stores. Volunteers working in charity shops across the UK also reported being subjected to rising levels of abuse at the time.
“We are calling on the police to prioritise tackling retail crime as well as pressing the government to take action to ensure that tougher sentencing powers are introduced to tackle violence and abuse towards retail staff and volunteers,” Osterley said.
“The theft of stock from charity shops has a direct impact on the most vulnerable in society as it means less money is available to deliver charitable services to those in need.”
As the coronavirus pandemic gripped the country and prompted a nationwide lockdown, Central England Co-op reported a rising trend of verbal abuse and threats from customers, including a rise in violent offences and people threatening to cough and spit in the faces of staff.
The grocery chain labelled it as “totally unacceptable” and was forced to reiterate a plea for its teams to be treated with “care, compassion and respect” and to abide by the social distancing measures in place to keep staff and customers safe.
“For anyone who does not support us, we will continue to work closely with local police forces to showcase that we have a zero tolerance approach to any violent or threatening behaviour towards our colleagues,” Central England Co-op chief executive Debbie Robinson said in May.
Meanwhile just last week, the Co-op – not to be confused with Central England Co-op – revealed that crime had increased by more than 140 per cent in its stores so far this year.
The grocery giant said the number of violent incidents have hit record levels, with 1350 attacks reported.
“This is not a Co-op problem, it’s a societal one that all retailers are concerned about,” Co-op Food chief executive Jo Whitfield said.
“So I’m calling upon MPs to support their constituents in backing Alex Norris’ bill and I will also be asking my peers at other retailers to do the same. Enough is enough.”
“The potential to record crime in action is an active deterrent”
Liz Cotton, employment partner at UK law firm TLT, said the figures from the Co-op were “extremely concerning”, and that there needed to be more serious sentences for those who abused shop workers.
“This will not only acknowledge the important role that shopworkers play in our communities but will hopefully act as a deterrent to would-be perpetrators,” she explained.
“With so much focus on the customer’s experience, failing to address this is likely to have a knock on effect on a retailer’s ability to deliver the personal touch that is so often expected in order to stay competitive.”
Co-op had launched its Safer Colleague, Safer Community campaign in April 2019 to support colleague safety, and one of its first initiatives included removing the sale of kitchen knives in stores in response to the knife crime epidemic in the UK at the time.
In September 2019, Co-op joined forces with criminologist Dr Emmeline Taylor from City, University of London, to urge the government to protect store employees as part of its campaign.
Naylor-Smith said that for retailers to effectively prevent crime against shop workers is to invest in body-worn cameras.
“These are an effective tool in reducing theft and abuse against staff and are already being trialled in stores by a handful of retailers,” he said.
“The potential to record crime in action is an active deterrent to perpetrators; whereas previously, store colleagues who have witnessed a crime are often unable to challenge the perpetrator for fear of aggravating a situation, they can be left feeling disempowered.
“Then there’s the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to evolve retailers’ existing, legacy CCTV systems,” Naylor-Smith continued.
“As the BRC report rightly points out, there’s been a huge increase of crimes in stores and CCTV has historically been passive at alerting to security incidents and the extent of real time video surveillance footage can overwhelm security operations teams.”
Consumer behaviour during the pandemic and going forward has undoubtedly changed. While the capacity of the policing to investigate incidents of retail crime has come under increased pressure in recent years, many incidents of retail crime go unreported as store colleagues may believe that little or no action would be taken.
In the immediate term, retailers will need to make a point of reporting incidents of crime to the authorities. While this can be a time-consuming process, the retail industry as a whole should be seeking better incident-reporting resources so that they can alert the government to the real number of crimes happening in stores every day.