‘Attacks on shop staff are worsening’

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    Attacks on shop staff are worsening amidst rising levels of in-store crime, a new research by the charity for UK retail workers Retail Trust has revealed.

    Staff from over 200 retailers, including Tesco, H&M, Co-op and John Lewis, have spoken out against the shocking wave of assaults and theft that is making them feel unsafe, anxious and likely to quit the industry.

    The Retail Trust’s respect retail campaign is being launched during the annual Respect for Shopworkers Week (13-19 November) this year, which was founded by the shopworkers’ trade union Usdaw and is now supported by a wide range of retail stakeholders.

    According to the survey results, two in five (41 per cent) are now shouted at, spat on, threatened or hit every week, and nearly half (47 per cent) are left feeling unsafe at work.

    While 64 per cent said confronting a shoplifter had caused the abuse, and think incidents have increased in the last two years, and 56 per cent thought the rising cost-of-living was to blame for shoppers taking out their frustrations on them.

    Another two thirds (67 per cent) want stricter penalties for customers who abuse shop workers and a third (33 per cent) believe the police should be taking more action.

    The Retail Trust, which runs a wellbeing helpline and provides counselling and financial aid for retail worker is urging for incidents not to go unrecorded as one in four (24 per cent) admit they don’t report abuse. Of these, more than two thirds (38 per cent) didn’t feel like it would help and nearly a quarter (23 per cent) said they had been put off by a previously unhelpful response from the police.

    A further 28 per cent said they didn’t know how to respond to or report abusive incidents

    The Retail Trust’s respect retail campaign, backed by major retailers such as Co-op, bp and Ann Summers, is also calling on shoppers to better respect Britain’s retail staff in the run up to their busiest time of the year.

    The Retail Trust’s shop worker survey also found that nine in 10 retail workers have faced abuse at work, with 84 per cent shouted at, a third threatened with violence, 14 per cent physically assaulted and 10 per cent spat on.

    66 per cent said the incidents had left them feeling stressed or anxious about going into work and 42 per cent are considering quitting their jobs or leaving retail.

    Rates of abuse have risen from last year, when 34 per cent told the Retail Trust that they experienced it weekly compared to 41 per cent this year.

    The rising intolerance epidemic is backed-up by a new YouGov public poll for the Retail Trust*, which found 68 per cent of shoppers admit to having got annoyed with a shopworker, delivery driver or somebody working in customer services.  Of these, 20 per cent admitted to raising their voice or losing their temper.

    More than one in five shoppers (22 per cent) said they’ve felt scared or intimidated in a shop due to the behaviour of others, but over half (53 per cent) said they would speak up on behalf of a retail worker or confront the perpetrator if they witnessed abusive behaviour.

    ‘I was punched in the face’

    “In-store abuse happens to us daily,” revealed a 34-year-old customer advisor from Essex who spoke out on the condition of anonymity. “One customer…started threatening me saying, ‘Give me what I want or I will slam your face through the desk.’ Then he punched me in the face.

    “I am looking to leave retail because it doesn’t seem worth it. I suffer with panic attacks and often need to leave the shop floor because I can’t function. Unfortunately, customers have learnt that if they yell, scream or get abusive, they often get exactly what they want. If we employed a zero-aggression policy it might help, but police need to take assaults seriously.”

    ‘A shoplifter attacked me’

    “The pandemic really accelerated things but it’s been getting worse since,” added Moses, a 42-year-old department store manager from Essex. “I have a different physical altercation every week over absolutely nothing.

    “I made the decision to move to a department store from a supermarket because I read that it had more security guards. It was a decision I made while sitting in A&E, waiting for stitches in my forehead after a banned shoplifter attacked me. I’ve been physically attacked 20 or 30 times in the last two decades.”

    ‘It’s become part of my job’

    Others told the Retail Trust they had been spat on or followed home and Julie, a 61-year-old store manager from Hampshire said: “I have worked in retail for 23 years and I have never known it so bad. In town, there are groups of between eight and 14 teens who come in every day and cause havoc. They run through stores, pushing over floor stands and hitting passers-by or store workers with sticks.

    “I was threatened by a guy five months ago who said, ‘I will flob down your throat then kill you.’ That was because he was trying to return an item that he had stolen 15 minutes previously for cash. We have incidents like this two to five times every day. I’m quite thick-skinned, I’ve been around a long time, and I go home and my other half says you shouldn’t have to put up with that, but it’s become part of my job.”

    ‘Thousands of shop workers are contacting us’

    “Thousands of shop workers are contacting us to say they now fear for their safety, and this is simply unacceptable,” said Chris Brook Carter, chief executive of the Retail Trust.

    “Every day we’re hearing from people who have been shouted at, spat on, threatened or hit at work, sometimes several times a week, so we’re very concerned. One person told us they were hit around the head by a shoplifter with a metal basket, another was knocked out cold by an angry customer, and this is on top of the vile insults and threats handed out on an all-too-regular basis.

    “As a country and a society, we must get better at bringing an end to this terrible behaviour, making sure every incident is recorded and acted upon, and above all, ensuring that our colleagues across the country get the protection and support they need.

    “Our message at the Retail Trust is clear. Abuse is never part of anyone’s job and if you’re a retail worker encountering abuse, threats or violence, please do report this to your manager and call the Retail Trust’s wellbeing helpline if you need any support dealing with your experiences.”

    Paul Gerrard, the director of public affairs at Co-op,said: “Crime in many communities is increasing, and it is known that repeat and prolific offenders and local organised criminal gangs are driving serious incidents of brazen and violent theft in stores. It is an ongoing challenge for all retailers, and often a flashpoint for the unacceptable attacks and abuse towards colleagues.

    “Co-op continues to invest significantly in keeping colleagues and stores safe, as we know this isn’t a victimless crime, as my store colleagues who have been verbally abused and had knives and syringes pulled on them can vouch for. Respecting the shop workers who are just doing their job, serving our communities every day, is a simple but extremely important common courtesy.”

    Elaine Cooney, people partner at Ann Summers, said: “Ann Summers supports the Retail Trust’s respect retail campaign by encouraging our colleagues to report all incidents in store so that the business can offer better support. This is why we assembled a dedicated task force with direct communication to head office when reporting an incident. Keeping colleagues and customers safe is a big responsibility and we will continue to make improvements by listening to our retail colleagues.”

    Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said:  “It is simply unacceptable that there are hundreds of incidents of violence or abuse aimed at our colleagues every single day.

    “We need the government to introduce a standalone offence to send a clear message that this behaviour will not be tolerated, and to help police allocate appropriate resource to challenge and deter potential offenders. And we need the police to prioritise investigating these offences. We also call on customers to show colleagues the respect they deserve when doing their jobs. We must all work together to stamp out this scourge of crime.” 

    Paddy Lillis – Usdaw General Secretary said: “We very much welcome the support of the Retail Trust on this issue. Their shocking survey findings confirm that we do need to continue with our campaigning and this week Usdaw members will out in their workplaces and in shopping centres promoting a culture of respect to the shopping public, as well as urging retail staff not to suffer in silence with the key message of ‘report it to sort it’.

    “Usdaw runs the annual Respect for Shopworkers Week in November at the beginning of the Christmas shopping period, because our members tell us that this is the time of year when issues of customer abuse can be at their worst. In the run-up to the festive period, when shops are busier, customers can be stressed and things can boil over. We are saying loud and clear that abuse is not a part of the job.

    24-year-old Holly Laing from Northampton has gained more than 2 million followers on TikTok sharing her experiences working in different high street stores including Poundland, Wilko and Sports Direct. But she said: “I previously worked in retail since I was 16. I know the hardships that retail workers face on a daily basis due to rude customers while still putting on a smile for the nice ones.

    “An experience that I’ll never forget while working in retail was a male customer asking me for help, following me down the aisle, looking at my body from behind and then saying “you’re very slim, your body’s better than my wife’s. I laughed it off at the time because I didn’t know how to react but I felt violated in that moment.

    “I always wondered how people can expect retail workers to carry on with their day like nothing happened and continue to help a customer who just made you feel uncomfortable. This is one of the reasons why I’m so passionate about the Retail Trust and their values. I am happy to support the Retail Trust’s respect retail campaign to highlight how attitudes need to change and retail workers need to be supported against customer abuse.”


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