Home / Business / UK shop workers ‘targets’ as abuse and attacks soar

UK shop workers ‘targets’ as abuse and attacks soar

Shop workers feel like “targets” the BBC has heard, as reports of violence and abuse have soared.

Shop assistant John from Dundee said: “It’s almost a daily occurrence now where you are shouted at or sworn at”.

Violence and abuse against shop workers rose to 1,300 incidents a day last year, according to a trade body.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) criticised the “woefully inadequate” action taken by the government to address the “crisis”.

The government said it had already made it clear police must take a “zero-tolerance” approach to shoplifting.

New figures from the retail trade body found that incidents against staff were up by 50% in the year to September 2023, up from 870 incidents a day the year before.

The amount lost to shoplifting in the past year was the highest on record, its survey also found.

John, who has worked at an electrical store for 10 years, said that he sees shoplifting on a daily basis.

“Customers have been more aggressive and abusive since Covid.

“We are a target and thieves see it as a small business – they steal even big items so that they can sell them on.”

He said he was “sure” the police would attend if anything “turns violent” but said that his firm now factors in the daily losses.
‘I’m scared to go back to work’

Several business leaders have called for violence against shop workers to be made a standalone offence in England and Wales, as it already is in Scotland.

The BRC said incidents against retail staff ranged from racial abuse and sexual harassment to physical assault and threats with weapons.

It said about 8,800 of the total incidents across the year resulted in injury.

In one of the most extreme cases of violence against a shop worker that the BBC heard, one customer assistant said that she was punched in the face and her jaw was broken in an apparently random attack by young customers.

The incident, which happened in the last week, has left her in fear of returning to work.

“I hid the fact I had an injury until they left, I couldn’t risk them thinking I was injured because they might hit me again.

“I’ve had to have a plate in [my jaw]. It’s really shaken me up, I’m scared to go back to work.”

She described abuse an an “increasing problem”.

The BRC survey also found that theft by customers had doubled to 16.7 million incidents a year, up from eight million.

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the BRC said that “despite retailers investing huge sums in crime prevention, violence and abuse against retail workers is climbing.

“No one should have to go to work fearing for their safety. This is a crisis that demands action now.”

Not everyone agrees attacks on shop workers should be a treated as a standalone crime, however.

Transform Justice, a charity campaigning for a better justice system, said creating a new offence of assault shop worker would not help.

Director Penelope Gibbs said: short prison sentences “drive increased reoffending” because “no rehabilitative work can be done with prisoners on short sentences.”

“The most effective response for low level assaults is for the police to apprehend whoever did it and deal with the crime out of court,” she added.

Retailers lost £1.8bn in the latest year due to shoplifting, the BRC said, which is the highest amount on record.

Some retailers surveyed said the cost-of-living crisis had changed how shoplifters operated, from taking one or two items to many.

Incidents against staff tripled during the Covid-19 pandemic and have remained much higher since then.

The BRC said the government’s Retail Crime Action Plan provided “hope” as it pledged a police commitment to prioritise crime scenes where there has been violence against a shop worker.

On Wednesday Home Office said violence against retail workers was unacceptable.

“The police have committed to patrol more areas and attend more shoplifting incidents, especially where violence has occurred.

“Good progress has been made on these commitments, however we will continue working closely with police and the sector to catch more perpetrators,” it added.

In an open letter organised by the Institute of Customer Service in November, more than 50 businesses including John Lewis and the Post Office, as well as several MPs, urged the government to ensure assaults on shop workers were better recorded.

This would include recording such crimes separately in police statistics, they said.

In September, the boss of John Lewis said shoplifting had become an “epidemic” in the past year.