Retail is Britain’s largest private-sector employer with 3 million workers employed in the industry. Now more than ever we can appreciate the important role that our shops play in our communities. From the local corner shop to the out of town superstore, shop workers provide a vital role in ensuring that people have the supplies and goods that they need. Yet despite their importance, violence, verbal abuse and aggressive behaviour towards shop workers have become a major problem.
Home Office figures reveal 590,000 incidents of assaults and threats in 2018 (up from around 200,000 incidents in 2016) putting them at their highest level since 2012. The British Retail Consortium’s (BRC) Retail Crime Survey 2020 reports a shocking 424 violent or abusive incidents every single day.
Behind these statistics are people who have directly experienced violence while simply doing their jobs. The Co-op has supported research to highlight this important issue as part of their Safer Colleagues, Safer Communities campaign.
In the last 12 months, I know of colleagues who have been physically injured with axes, needles, machetes and knives in unprovoked attacks. I know of colleagues that have been dragged through their store, who have had knives held to their throats, or been made to kneel down with guns or other weapons held at their head. They have been screamed at, threatened, and left scared to travel home from work. The impact of these incidents last a lifetime, not just on those directly involved but it affects their colleagues, their families and their communities.
The findings from the research outlined in the report It’s not part of the job highlight four main scenarios in which violence and abuse are becoming prevalent: encountering thieves, enforcing the laws around selling certain items, hate crimes and robbery.
Encountering someone determined to steal is the number one trigger for violence and verbal abuse in the retail sector – accounting for 25% of incidents. According to the Home Office, there were 7.1m incidents of shop theft in 2018, roughly 19,000 incidents a day. And by all accounts, this alarming figure is a gross underestimate. Some sources calculate a more realistic figure to be 38m shop theft offences.
The Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 made theft of goods from a shop worth £200 or less an offence that would not be pursued by police. Instead, if caught, the offender can enter a plea via post. Shopworkers and offenders that I spoke to say that this downgrading of store theft in the eyes of the law gives people a “licence to steal”. The report recommends a post-implementation review of the Act.
The current lack of law enforcement due to an overstretched and under-resourced police force has created a fertile ground for shop theft to flourish. Thieves are becoming more brazen as they calculate the risk of formal apprehension and punishment to be virtually non-existent. Some estimates put the current average risk of being caught at around one in 500. Shopworkers described this current situation to me as “soul-destroying”.
More than 50 types of products have legal restrictions around selling them that shop workers must legally enforce. For example, the law dictates that shop workers must take “reasonable precautions and exercise due diligence” to test the age of individuals seeking to purchase age-restricted goods and services, such as tobacco, alcohol, knives and solvents.
This is often a source of abuse and threats. Enforcing age-restricted sales, dealing with people under the influence of alcohol or drugs and refusing to sell alcohol to someone who is drunk accounted for 43% of incidents in 2018. As a shop worker told me:
It’s the threats that can have the greatest impact. Like, ‘Wait until you finish work’. It can be terrifying.
In February 2020, the Prime Minister directly addressed the issue at Prime Minister’s Questions. Following this, in March, Alex Norris MP proposed legislation to protect shopworkers from violence, verbal and physical abuse in the House of Commons. He told the Guardian:
“If we give shop workers responsibilities to uphold the law on sales of a range of products which parliament has determined can only be sold to people above a certain age, then shop workers should be afforded protection in carrying out those public duties. Parliament should establish a new expectation by legislating for what is acceptable and the police given the resources to implement this new legislation.”
The Private Members’ Bill – Assaults on Retail Workers (Offences) Bill proposes to make certain offences of violence – such as malicious wounding, grievous or actual bodily harm and common assault – to be considered “aggravated” if they are directed at a shop floor staff member.
The research uncovered a number of reports from shop workers about incidents in which they, or their colleagues, had been on the receiving end of verbal abuse that targeted their membership (or perceived membership) of a certain social group or race. One store manager said:
One of the girls wore a hijab and [this group of young men] would come in and say to her: ‘I’m going to rip your hijab off you.’ They used to come back again and again and targeted her because of the hijab … She had been working there for a long time but she started to feel very unsafe and so she left the job.
This is seemingly part of a wider issue in the UK. There were 94,098 hate crimes recorded by the police in England and Wales in 2017-18, an increase of 17% compared with 2016-17.
Police recorded crime data shows that robbery of a business property has increased from 6,800 offences in the year to March 2012 to 7,700 offences in the year to March 2018. The prevalence of robbery has also increased, with 5% of premises experiencing this crime type in 2017 compared with 3% in 2012.
Most robbers are armed with some form of weapon, most commonly a knife, but also firearms, hammers and syringes. Robberies are particularly volatile situations, especially when offenders are under the influence of drugs or heavily intoxicated. One convicted armed robber that I spoke to said:
The way I used to look at it was: ‘I’m not leaving without the money.’ That’s the only option: ‘You either give me the money or I’ll attack you’.
In addition to these four key scenarios, many shop workers described experiencing everyday anti-social behaviour in and around their store.
Life-changing impacts on shop workers
The impact and consequences of violence and verbal abuse can result in life-changing injuries for staff. The reports of violence I encountered revealed instances where employees suffered broken bones, were stabbed with knives, been punched, lacerated with smashed bottles, and lost sight due to eye injuries.
Yet the impact of violence and verbal abuse stem far beyond physical symptoms; violent encounters can leave long-lasting and life-changing mental health issues. As one store manager told me:
The attack really affected me mentally. I’ve had two major anxiety attacks. I had a panic attack last Friday when I was in the shop. It just hit me like a wrecking ball – I could hardly stand up. I was dropping things … I didn’t know what was happening; it was extremely scary. Some colleagues thought I was joking about. One of the older ladies thought ‘He’s having a laugh’, but when I burst into tears she realised I wasn’t.
To break this growing cycle of violence, it is important to focus on the root causes, not just the symptoms. Just as other types of violence, such as knife crime, are being framed as public health crises, there are benefits to approaching violence towards shop workers this way.
This means looking at violence not as isolated incidents or solely as a police enforcement problem. Instead, this approach looks at violence as a preventable consequence of a range of factors, such as adverse early-life experiences and harmful social or community experiences and influences. Violence is preventable, but it is a complex issue that requires a multi-faceted approach and a commitment from government to support shop staff that work on the frontline of our communities.