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Retail crime — “a crisis that needs action”

Shoplifting incidents allied to the rise in violence impacting retail workers risks becoming a significant political issue for the Government

In a press release dated 14 February 2024, ahead of the publication of its annual Retail Crime Survey, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) released figures showing that incidents of violence and abuse perpetrated against retail workers had risen by 50% to an average of 1,300 incidents a day in the year to September 2023 — up from an average of 870 the year before.

The survey recorded that incidents included physical assaults, threats with weapons, racial abuse and sexual harassment as well as aggressive and abusive altercations. Allied to the rise in violence and abuse, the survey noted that customer thefts had increased to over 16 million incidents – up from 8 million the previous year, costing retailers £1.8 billion — up from £953 million the year before. In addition, 57% of retailers reported a rise in cyber-attacks, against a backdrop of rapid expansion of online retailing in the last five years.

Indeed, the top three threats identified by retailers are violence (highlighted by 87% of retailers including reports of retail staff being targeted outside retail premises or even on their way home), customer theft (74%) and fraud (46%). The causes of this apparent increase in violence and altercations are many and varied, including societal changes giving rise to a sense of ‘on demand’ entitlement, and the cost of living/economic pressures.

We have in previous articles examined in more detail the reasons fueling the increase and the 2023 launch of the Retail Crime Action Plan to include Project Pegasus. Primarily funded by retailers, it contains a commitment by police authorities to prioritise incidents of abuse and violence to retail workers and where CCTV evidence exists, to filter the evidence through the Police National Database. 

With the survey finding that 61% of retailers rated the police response as “poor” or “very poor” (up from 44% last year) and that only 8% of reported incidents of violence and abuse were prosecuted, it seems that the Government and police authorities still have significant ground to make up if they are to change retailers’ perceptions and encourage the reporting of incidents.

Both the BRC’s press release and a statement from USDAW, the Shopworkers Union, has increased the pressure on the Government to introduce specific legislation to protect retail workers, as is the case in Scotland, where they have the benefit of the Protection of Workers (Scotland) Act.

Paddy Hollis, General Secretary of USDAW, said :

“It is deeply disturbing that the level of incidents faced by retail workers is now
higher than ever. Violence and abuse are not an acceptable part of the job and
too many shop workers suffer all too often…a protection of shopworkers law is
also supported by the BRC and many other retails. It already exists in Scotland
and has secured over 500 convictions”.

Helen Dickinson, Chief Executive of the BRC, said :

“Criminals are being given a free pass to steel goods and abuse and assault retail
colleagues. No-one should go to work fearing for their own safety………(referring
to the Protection of Workers (Scotland) Act)…….Why should our hard working
colleagues south of the border be offered less protection?”


The scale of the increase of shoplifting incidents allied to the rise in violence and abuse impacting retail workers, is so sharp that it risks this becoming a significant political issue for the Government.

The opposition parties are seeking to place a clear dividing line between their pledges and the current governmental approach — stating that they will increase neighbourhood policing and abolish the current approach which treats the majority of shoplifting incidents as summary offences (where the theft is valued at £200 or less). Indeed, the BRC report highlights that Labour publicly support a standalone offence for violence against retailers.

The report will increase pressure on the Government to follow Scotland’s example in introducing a “Protection of Shopworkers” Act which has already resulted in 500 convictions since it was introduced in 2021.

Further, it should be remembered that this is not a problem confined to retail. Sectors like the entertainment industry report rising levels of abuse of staff and badly-behaved audiences — a survey by the Broadcasting Entertainment Communications and Theatre Union (BECTU) last year found that nearly one-third of respondents said they had been involved in or witnessed an incident where a venue had to call the police. 

Beyond a change in legislation, retailers and other employers can and must take reasonable steps to protect their employees, particularly those who interact with the public. Risk assessing foreseeable risks of violence is key to the employers’ duty and will give rise to a potential range of control measures depending on the type of premises. Such measures may include the obtaining and retention of CCTV footage, use of security staff, the visibility of staff circulating venues, the design and layout of premises, and tagging goods on display. Training also has a major role to play, with the BRC having worked with the Suzy Lamplugh trust on an animation to train staff how to defuse potentially violent situations. Equally, knowing when to withdraw and call the police is equally important.

However, as regards the challenges in retail specifically, with the overwhelming majority of financial funding for Project Pegasus having been met by retailers, with only a modest monetary contribution from the Government, it appears that retailers will need to fund both security and the advances in technology and AI heuristics which are increasingly necessary to reduce the scale of incidents.

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