Want to know why the Retail Trust’s Respect Retail campaign is calling for urgent and collective action against customer abuse? Chris Brook-Carter explains.

Our latest research into the scale of abuse facing UK shop workers has once again uncovered distressing levels of often unreported and unrecorded aggression and violence that only appears to be worsening.

Take Jo from Northumberland, whose daily reality includes threats and verbal assaults; Moses from Essex, who faces weekly physical altercations; or Julie from Hampshire who told us: “I have worked in retail for 23 years and I have never known it so bad.

“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. 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.”

Their stories all reflect a rising and disturbing trend. Amid the well-reported increase in retail crime, we’ve found that being shouted at, spat on, threatened or physically assaulted are becoming ‘just part of the job’ for far too many people.

A quarter don’t report abuse

Ninety per cent of the more than 1,600 retail workers we surveyed for the Retail Trust’s Respect Retail campaign this year said they have endured this kind of abuse, with more than a third now experiencing it weekly.

Peoplesafe, a provider of people-protection technology and our partner in our Respect Retail campaign, has also seen a 34% rise in the number of retail-related incidents being reported compared with last year.

Almost half of those we polled say they now feel unsafe going into work as a result.

These are stark findings, but this is the grim reality for so many of the people we speak to at the Retail Trust every day. And it has broader implications for the future of our industry too, with more than a third of colleagues saying that retail abuse is making them consider leaving their jobs.

The causes are multifaceted but shoplifting, often driven by organised crime, is certainly a significant factor among the retailers we’ve spoken to, with our research also finding that nearly two thirds of retail workers have been verbally or physically abused by a shoplifter.

However, one of the most alarming findings from our survey is the underreporting of such incidents. One in four retail workers told us they do not report abuse now, mainly because they believe nothing will come of it or due to previously unhelpful responses from the police.

Industry action is needed

So, what can we as an industry do to tackle this? At the Retail Trust, we provide a 24-hour helpline and counselling to help people deal with difficult experiences like these. We also work with over 200 retailers to improve wellbeing, which includes advising on new measures to better protect and support their staff.

For example, we recommend strengthening policies related to workplace safety and harassment, putting in place training for dealing with difficult customers, and importantly, creating environments where employees feel supported to report every incident so that more action can be taken.

And it’s great to see so many retailers are taking action, such as Ann Summers which has assembled a dedicated task force to track incidents and create an open culture of reporting and supporting colleagues.

Meanwhile, Co-op is working closely with policing figures and the retailer invited 50 members of parliament into stores this autumn to discuss solutions.

At the same time, the Government has this year announced a new action plan bringing together police and retailers against shoplifting specifically, with a police commitment to attend crime scenes, pursue more evidence and use facial recognition to target prolific offenders.

We do need the police to prioritise and take any reports of this abuse more seriously and we’re also calling on the government to create a new UK-wide statutory offence of assaulting, threatening or abusing a retail worker.

And, of course, we need to ensure customers really understand the impact their behaviour can have. Tackling this issue is never going to be just about policy changes or more security measures alone, but ultimately fostering a culture of better respect and safety for shop staff.

Creating genuine, meaningful change

That is why we’re urging more individuals and businesses from across the industry to come together to create genuine, meaningful change.

At the Retail Trust, we’ve now joined forces with the British Retail Consortium, Usdaw, Foot Anstey LLP, Peoplesafe and leading retailers, including Co-op, Ann Summers, B&Q, BP, Primark and WHSmith, so that we can better protect and support the wellbeing of all our colleagues.

You can pledge your support and access resources for your organisation by joining the Retail Trust’s Respect Retail campaign here.

And in the midst of yet another busy festive period, help us give shop workers everywhere the kindness and respect that they deserve this Christmas.

If this is happening to you, please do report it to your manager or employer and call the Retail Trust helpline on 0808 801 0808 for 24-hour wellbeing support.

Chris Brook-Carter

Chris Brook-Carter is chief executive of the Retail Trust