Violent crime has never been higher up the agenda and shopworkers are on the front line. Charlotte Hardie asks what is being done to protect them from knife attacks

Store staff wanted. Must be able to offer outstanding customer service; work as part of a motivated team; be willing to be abused verbally and threatened every day; contend with violent members of the public and be aware of the risk of physical assault.

There is no such thing as a quiet day at work if you are employed in a retail store. It’s disturbing enough to read news stories about the torrent of violent crime that is sweeping the UK, but store staff have to experience it first-hand.

At the most extreme end of the scale, it involves serious assault and even death (see box). Less than two weeks ago, two Nike Town security guards were stabbed by teenage shoplifters at London’s Oxford Circus. A female member of the security staff was punched in the face. Two weeks earlier, a shopper was killed at Sainsbury’s Merton store in South London during a row in a supermarket queue.

No one knows the true extent of retail violence, because hundreds – if not thousands – of cases go unreported. Shopworkers’ union Usdaw’s general secretary John Hannett says that the union has “lots of examples that prove violence is a daily event”.

One thing is clear: the problem of violence is not getting any better. In fact, many retailers think the opposite. Sainsbury’s head of corporate security Phillip Hagon says: “If we’re suffering a downturn, that usually lends itself to increased crime and one could predict confidently that this is a problem that is going to intensify.”

HMV head of risk and loss prevention Colin Culleton agrees. “If you went for a cross section of retailers, I would think there are very few that would say it’s not getting worse,” he says.

Geoffrey Northcott left his role as Borders’ head of loss prevention a few weeks ago to set up outsourced field-management loss-prevention service TLPC. He says: “We live in an increasingly aggressive society and the general customer is also becoming more aggressive. We had our security staff threatened [at Borders] on a number of occasions. They’ve had broken toes, dislocated shoulders, fractured noses. For store staff, they’re affected to the point where they’re extremely upset or have minor injuries.”

Bill Fox, founder of conflict-resolution training company Maybo, says that over the past few years, he has come across increasing numbers of cases where store staff have been threatened or stabbed with syringes. Security guards are often being either deliberately or accidentally hit by thieves’ cars as the guards chase them.

Paradoxically, Northcott believes the problem of violence is exacerbated by the fact that technology makes it easier to control certain types of crime and catch those responsible. “It’s forcing those people who are still going to steal from us into a narrow corridor of having to be violent when they commit theft,” he says. “The majority of conversion theft [when goods are stolen with the intention of selling them on] is committed because of some sort of addiction. The last thing these people want to do is sit in a cell for hours on end, so they’re far more likely to be aggressive and violent.”

Retailers often voice concerns that the police do not take retail crime seriously enough. Last week, Retail Week reported on Iceland founder Malcolm Walker’s fury that one of his store managers had been arrested and later bailed after a shoplifter accused him of assaulting her when he detained her.

Hannett says: “There is some evidence that the police probably haven’t given retail crime the highest priority. There is still more work to be done. Retail crime is a crime and any reported offence should be taken seriously.”

Part of the problem is that dealing with cases of violence is not one of the police force’s key performance indicators (KPI). Although dealing with serious assault is a KPI in official police terms, it looks unlikely that cases of violence ever will be.

Metropolitan Police detective superintendent James Sirrett says he has spoken to business groups about this issue, but that many of his colleagues believe the fewer KPIs they have, the better. This is firstly because many feel that KPIs should reflect the specific concerns of local communities and, secondly, because violence takes many forms and so there can be problems with definition. “You start getting into the semantics of what violence actually constitutes,” he explains.

However, Sirrett is in charge of a new body set up two months ago by the Metropolitan Police – London Business Crime – that might help improve the situation for retailers, in the capital at least.

He says he is “very optimistic” about improving the outlook for businesses. “I’ve been given space and time to work towards developing a relationship with bodies in London, such as the GLA [Greater London Authority] and the LDA [London Development Agency], to provide businesses with focus,” he explains. His primary goals include working on business crime policy development and enabling the sharing of best practice. For instance, Sirrett’s plans include setting up a practical web site for businesses to network and find answers to commonly asked questions.

Business crime reduction partnerships are also proving useful for some. The membership groups, based around the UK, work to unite businesses, the community, local authorities and the police to tackle the problem of local crime and anti-social behaviour.

In most areas, there is a membership fee and an optional, additional cost of a two-way radio to help inform others of criminals’ physical descriptions and activity. The partnerships can also serve exclusion notices, under which people are banned from all participating stores if they have been violent, have been sent a warning letter previously or work as part of an organised-crime team.

Stephen Govier leads one of London’s 23 partnerships, Lambeth Business Against Crime (LBAC). Today he is due to present to New Scotland Yard to propose the creation of a framework in which data on crime in London that affects businesses can be shared across the whole of the capital.

LBAC will also be testing an online information-sharing system. At present, data-sharing is paper-based and thus slow and time-consuming. From next month, anyone with a PDA or laptop will be able to log on and submit vital information quickly. “If we make it easy to report, we can link that in with police stations and build up a clearer picture of exactly what is happening, when and where,” says Govier.

However, Northcott says the efficacy of business crime reduction partnerships varies enormously. He adds that another issue is the fact that retailers often find that their security guards are consistently helping out other stores in the neighbourhood that do not always pay to be part of the partnership. “If that continues to happen, eventually you’re going to pull the plug,” he warns.

Retailers cannot rely solely on the efforts of external bodies to improve the situation for their store staff. Hannett says there are good signs that employers are taking the problem seriously and that tackling in-store violence is becoming an integral part of the health and safety agenda. However, he admits that “not everyone is doing as much as they can”.

Govier agrees. “Our work doesn’t replace what individual businesses should be doing. We’re trying to reinforce what they should be doing,” he says.

So what, in practical terms, do they need to do?

Budgets may be especially tight at the moment, but retailers will have to accept that investment in training for their store staff will increase their safety. Fox says that all staff should be taught simple skills to diffuse potentially volatile situations. Once Borders invested in conflict-resolution training, the levels of violence fell dramatically, says Northcott.

Whether retail staff should arrest criminals is a contentious issue. HMV, for one, has invested a lot of time and resources into reviewing its policies and increasing staff training since a member of staff at an HMV store in Norwich was murdered by a 19-year-old shoplifter in December 2006.

“Our policy up to that point was that we would arrest in extreme circumstances, but that arrest had to be justified,” says Culleton. The retailer has operated a “deter first, arrest last” approach for some years, but this has now been extended and 65 per cent of stores are not permitted to make arrests in any circumstances. Encouragingly, shrinkage figures have not increased and levels of violence have gone down.

Culleton says: “I am genuinely surprised that some retailers measure the success of their loss-prevention staff by the number of arrests they make. It’s not always necessary and it can potentially put colleagues at risk.”

Sirrett agrees. “The first consideration has to be their safety. That’s much more important than the apprehension of a criminal,” he says.

Above all, says Fox, “staff in all roles need a very clear idea of what they should and shouldn’t take on. You need to decide whether you allow or encourage arrest as an option and, if so, what your position is on staff using force”.

Importantly, it is not just the risk to staff that retailers need to bear in mind. In the past three years, there have been three cases in the licensed retail sector in which violent aggressors have died because of unsafe methods of restraint – asphyxia being the most common cause. Retailers need to be aware of the litigation and reputational risks if a violent customer is injured in similar circumstances on their premises. The employer is likely to be found negligent and that could lead to substantial prosecution claims.

Incredibly, Sirrett says a huge number of staff forget to call 999 if they need help. “It’s amazing how many people say they called the number of the local police station and couldn’t get through. If you think it’s an emergency, call 999,” he urges.

He also advises retailers to engage with unions. “It’s part of their basic health and safety duty and a serious part of employers’ liability,” he says. Usdaw started its Freedom From Fear campaign in 2002 to tackle the problem of shopworker violence. Hannett says: “Before we started this campaign, people didn’t think they could speak out because they thought no one was listening.”

Another often overlooked way to address the problem of retail violence is to provide a simple, efficient way of recording incidents. Govier says he knows of one retailer whose policy is that all violent or aggressive incidents are written in a log book by the security guard and then reported to the store manager. The store manager then reports to head office “and, if I’m lucky, head office tells me”, he explains. Disorganised systems, involving pointless duplication, will rarely prove instrumental in catching quick-footed criminals.

Equally, encouraging staff to report each case of verbal abuse or violence can be a challenge in itself. Govier says this is one of his biggest problems. “Instances when [aggressors] say: ‘I’m going to get you when you come out of work’ is valuable information because you can build up a pattern’,” he explains.

Culleton agrees. “At some stores, if it’s happening day in, day out, violence or aggression can become like water off a duck’s back, but we can only look for trends and act on that if our colleagues report incidents consistently – whether verbal or actual violence,” he says.

Sadly, store workers are so accustomed to coping with the public’s aggression that many could be forgiven for thinking it comes with the turf. They may put up with a lot for a long time, but everyone has a breaking point. As Hagon says: “This is about partnership. It’s about working closer together with the Government, retailers and the police force to make sure there are protective mechanisms in place.”

Unless all parties act now to address the problem, retailers may find that their workforce starts to leave in droves. And who could blame them?

Extreme violence spirals in retail

September 2005: 22-year-old Clare Bernal was shot dead by Michael Pech at Harvey Nichols’ London store. Pech had been a security guard at the store where they both worked.

December 2006: 19-year-old shoplifter David Watson killed HMV security worker Paul Cavanagh in Norwich’s Chapelfield centre.

December 2006: William Otim Alikori stabbed TK Maxx co-worker Rina Panchal to death at the retailer’s Thurmaston store.

March 2008: assistant manager Jamie Simpson was knifed in the neck and killed as he was cashing up at Matalan in the Kingsland centre in Hackney, east London.

June 2008: shopper Kevin Tripp was punched and fell and died during a supermarket queue row at Sainsbury’s Merton store in south London. It is thought to be a case of mistaken identity.

July 2008: a gang of teenagers stabbed two Nike Town security guards in the arms, back and legs at London’s Oxford Circus. A female member of the security staff was punched in the face.