For a brief period when the first wave of Covid hit the UK, the country held retail workers in almost the same high regard as NHS staff. After the imposition of the first lockdown in March 2020, these previously unrecognized key workers – many of whom lacked adequate personal protective equipment – were praised for feeding, watering and supplying everyone with toilet paper .
But the goodwill was short-lived. Initial public gratitude turned to frustration as the government’s social distancing regime forced shoppers to line up outside shops and wear masks inside. In far too many cases, this frustration has turned into aggression.
The British Retail Consortium (BRC) Crime Survey Report 2022 reveals that incidents of verbal and physical abuse targeting retail workers in the UK nearly tripled in number year on year in the 12 months to March 31, 2021 to reach 1,300 a day.
Managing violence against staff has become the number one concern for retailers in the depths of the Covid crisis, according to BRC research. The report concludes that “the police response has failed to meet the challenge”, as 60% of survey respondents rated it as poor or very poor. Only 4% of cases resulted in prosecution, compared to 6% the previous year.
The enactment of tougher legislation to protect public service workers – including retail workers – from abuse in their jobs is therefore not too soon. Under the amended Policing, Crime, Punishment and Courts Act 2022, which came into force on June 28, a simple assault on anyone working in a retail store will be considered an aggravated offense and will result in therefore harsher penalties.
While experts in the field agree this is a welcome development, many believe more should be done to protect retail workers as the cost of living crisis causes additional strains for millions of cash-strapped shoppers.
An investigation by the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee last year revealed 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 simply does not match not” to the escalation of hostilities.
Tougher sentencing was one of the committee’s many recommendations. These ranged from ensuring that police and crime commissioners (CCPs) prioritize tackling these crimes to establishing more effective reporting systems.
Chris Brook-Carter is CEO of Retail Trust, a charity that promotes the well-being of all who work in the industry. He says: “The problem with this aggression is that it has become a social norm. Abuse is one of the main issues affecting staff well-being. Combined with deteriorating mental health due to the pandemic and concerns about the cost of living, this has many people considering quitting their retail jobs for good.
He continues: “The new legislation sends a much clearer message that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated. It’s also important that retail employers come together to provide the right protection for colleagues facing unacceptable threats.
Jason Birks, national president of the Federation of Independent Retailers, agrees stronger legal protection should be just the start.
“The important thing is that the police and the Crown Prosecution Service work together to ensure this new law is an effective deterrent, not just a piece of paper,” he says. “It is essential that retailers report all incidents to highlight the extent of the problem. And, if retail crime is to be tackled head-on, the police response must improve.
One force leading the way in this regard is Sussex Police. Katy Bourne has been elected to the post of PCC of the force three times 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 his policing and crime plan,” says the Conservative politician and former owner of a leisure business. “I understand that police time is enormous, but we know that 20% of offenders create 80% of crimes. They cause so much misery, yet no one was targeting them.
When Bourne set up the Safer Sussex Business Partnership – involving retailers, crime experts and the police – in early 2020, a crucial problem emerged.
“While the police, driven by the evidence, told me everything was fine, the companies said 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 committed in stores went unreported, how could the police respond? It just needed someone to bring the two parties together. We all recognized that the situation could not continue.
The introduction of an innovative “one-touch” system has reduced the time needed to report crimes from half an hour to two minutes. Meanwhile, Sussex Police have set up a dedicated Commercial Crime Unit to respond to these reports.
“By focusing on business crime, we get a higher ‘solved’ rate. It took time, but we’ve built trust with our business community and it’s already making a difference,” says Bourne. “My colleagues across the country have since begun to establish their own business partnerships.”
And, with specialist bodies such as the National Business Crime Center and the National Retail Crime Steering Group gaining influence, other initiatives are growing and multiplying. They include providing body-worn cameras for workers and producing videos offering advice on how to stay safe while managing risky situations – for example, when asking customers for proof of age .
Naz Dossa is CEO of Peoplesafe, a provider of personal safety devices used by companies such as the cooperative. He says one of the features of his cameras is that “they have forward-facing screens, so audience members can see that their actions are being recorded. This has a deterrent effect on potential offenders, as anyone can clearly see that if they committed verbal and/or physical abuse, the camera would collect the evidence.
The Association of Convenience Stores is asking PCCs to sign a pledge to make tackling retail crime a priority. And the Retail Trust has partnered with law firm Foot Anstey to set up a certification program designed to “showcase retail businesses that are taking the right 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 behavior in stores, highlight the vital role of retail workers in the community, and raise awareness of the extent and impact of abuse against them.
“Just those two words – ’boutique’ and ‘nice’ – say all you need, don’t they?” says Bourne, who launched the first Keeping Christmas Kind campaign in Sussex in 2020.
Brook-Carter agrees: “We have so much to thank retail workers. The least they deserve is the ability to do their job without fear of being abused or assaulted.