Shop workers have suffered an epidemic of abuse from customers over the past two years. But the industry, with the help of the justice system, is taking concerted countermeasures
For a brief period, when the first wave of Covid struck the UK, the nation held retail workers in almost the same high esteem as it did NHS staff. After the first lockdown was imposed in March 2020, these previously unsung key workers – many of whom weren’t equipped with adequate personal protective equipment – were lauded for keeping everyone fed, watered and stocked up with loo roll.
But the goodwill was short-lived. The public’s initial gratitude turned into frustration as the government’s social distancing regime forced shoppers to queue up outside stores and wear masks inside them. In far too many cases, that frustration turned into aggression.
The British Retail Consortium (BRC) Crime Survey 2022 Report reveals that incidents of verbal and physical abuse targeting retail workers in the UK nearly tripled in number year on year during the 12 months ended 31 March 2021 to 1,300 every day.
Dealing with violence against staff became the number-one concern for retailers during the depths of the Covid crisis, according to the BRC’s research. The report concludes that the “response from the police has failed to meet the challenge”, given that 60% of the survey respondents described this as either poor or very poor. Only 4% of cases resulted in prosecutions, compared with 6% the previous year.
The enactment of more stringent legislation to protect public service workers – including retail staff – from abuse in their jobs has come not a moment too soon, then. Under the amended Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which has been in effect since 28 June, a common assault on anyone working in a retail store will be classed as an aggravated offence and therefore attract tougher penalties.
While experts in the field agree that this is a welcome development, many believe that more should be done to protect retail workers, as the cost-of-living crisis causes further tension for millions of cash-strapped shoppers.
An enquiry by the Commons home affairs select committee last year uncovered just how dire the situation had become. Its report concluded: “It is completely unacceptable that violence and abuse towards retail workers is becoming endemic in British society,” adding that there was “overwhelming evidence that the police response is simply failing to match” the escalation in hostilities.
Tougher sentencing was one of the committee’s many recommendations. These ranged from ensuring that police and crime commissioners (PCCs) prioritise tackling such crimes to establishing more effective reporting systems.
Chris Brook-Carter is CEO of the Retail Trust, a charity promoting the welfare of all those who work in the industry. He says: “The problem with this aggression is that it’s become a social norm. Abuse is one of the top issues affecting staff wellbeing. Combined with deteriorating mental health from the pandemic and concerns about the cost of living, it’s prompting many people to consider leaving their jobs in retail for good.”
He continues: “The new legislation sends out a much clearer message that this kind of behaviour will not be tolerated. It’s also important that retail employers unite to provide the right protection for colleagues facing unacceptable threats.”
Jason Birks, national president of the Federation of Independent Retailers, agrees that stronger legal protection should be just the start.
“The important thing is that the police and the Crown Prosecution Service cooperate to ensure that this new law is an effective deterrent, not just a piece of paper,” he says. “It’s essential that retailers report all incidents to highlight the scale of the problem. And, if retail crime is to be tackled head on, the police response must improve.”
One constabulary that’s leading the way in this respect is Sussex Police. Katy Bourne has been elected three times as the force’s PCC since commissioners replaced police authorities in 2012.
“When I was first elected, I was the only commissioner in the country to include business crime in their police and crime plan,” claims the Conservative politician and former owner of a leisure business. “I do understand there are huge demands on police time, but we know that 20% of offenders create 80% of crimes. They cause so much misery, yet nobody was targeting them.”
When Bourne set up the Safer Sussex Business Partnership – involving retailers, crime experts and police – in early 2020, a crucial issue came to light.
“While the police, who are driven by evidence, were telling me that everything was fine, businesses were saying that it was terrible,” she says. “We found that retailers were reporting about 8% of incidents and saying: ‘The police don’t show up. They don’t do anything, so what’s the point?’ But, if 92% of crimes in stores weren’t being reported, how could the police ever respond to them? It just needed someone to bring the two sides together. We all recognised that the situation couldn’t continue.”
The introduction of an innovative ‘one touch’ system slashed the time it took to report crimes from half an hour to two minutes. Meanwhile, Sussex Police set up a dedicated business crime unit to respond to such reports.
“Focusing on business crime means that we’re getting a higher ‘solved’ rate. This has taken a while, but we’ve built up the confidence with our business community and it’s already making a difference,” Bourne says. “My colleagues around the country have since started setting up their own business partnerships.”
And, with specialist bodies such as the National Business Crime Centre and the National Retail Crime Steering Group growing in influence, further initiatives are coming thick and fast. They include the provision of body-worn cameras for workers and the production of videos offering guidance on how to stay safe while managing risky situations – for instance, when asking customers for proof of age.
Naz Dossa is CEO of Peoplesafe, a provider of personal security devices used by enterprises such as the Co-op. He says that a feature of its cameras is that “they have front-facing screens, so that members of the public can see that their actions are being recorded. This serves as a deterrent to potential offenders, as anyone can clearly see that, if they were to commit verbal and/or physical abuse, the camera would collect evidence of that.”
The Association of Convenience Stores is asking PCCs to sign a pledge to make tackling retail crime a priority. And the Retail Trust has joined forces with law firm Foot Anstey to set up a certification programme designed to “showcase the retail businesses that are taking the appropriate steps to protect their staff while giving retail workers… the clarity they deserve”.
Perhaps the simplest initiative of all is a movement urging customers to be nicer to retail workers. The national #ShopKind campaign aims to encourage courteous behaviour in shops, highlight the vital role of retail workers in the community and raise awareness of the scale and impact of abuse against them.
“Just those two words – ‘shop’ and ‘kind’ – say everything you need to, don’t they?” says Bourne, who launched the inaugural Keeping Christmas Kind campaign in Sussex in 2020.
Brook-Carter agrees: “We have so much to thank retail workers for. The very least they deserve is the ability to do their jobs without fear of being abused or assaulted.”