Incidents of abuse and violent crime towards frontline retail workers trebled during the first year of the pandemic, despite vast swathes of bricks-and-mortar stores being closed.

Queue of people outside shop, socially distanced and wearing face masks

Requirements to social distance and wear masks led to more incidents of abuse during the pandemic

Retail shop workers reported 1,301 incidents of abuse and violent crime a day between March 2020 and March 2021, up from 455 incidents a day pre-pandemic, according to the latest Crime Survey from the British Retail Consortium (BRC). 

Broken down, there were 21 incidents a day of violence towards retail staff leading to an injury, 104 incidents of violence a day without injury and 1,176 abusive incidents a day.

For every 1,000 employees there were 155 incidents, meaning more than 15% of the workforce suffered some form of harassment.

Per 1,000 staff, 44 altercations were specifically attributed to spitting, coughing, social distancing and mask-wearing. 


Despite the “unacceptable” spike in abuse and violent crime during the period, the survey found that just 4% of incidents resulted in a successful prosecution. The BRC said this was why three in five respondents described the police response to incidents as ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’.

In the period, the survey found that incidents of theft cost the retail sector £786m, up from £663m the previous year. 

The total cost of retail crime stood at £1.5bn, with £663m lost to customer theft and £715m spent on crime prevention.

This spending, while critical to reduce losses and protect colleagues, nonetheless contributes to higher prices for customers by pushing up retailers’ operating costs.

At a time when all non-food retailers were also forced to shutter stores and operate purely online, the sector lost £76m to incidents of online crime and fraud. During the period, 44% of retailers reported an increase in online crime. 

After the period covered by the survey, the UK government introduced an amendment to its Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (now an Act), which created a statutory aggravating factor to assaults committed against those “providing a public service or performing a public duty”.

This announcement followed extensive lobbying by the BRC, Retail Trust and individual retailers. The BRC said it would “now work with police and crime commissioners across England and Wales to raise awareness of the new aggravated offence and to advocate for retail crime having a higher priority in local policing strategies”.

BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson said: “Despite retailers investing significantly in crime prevention, incidents of violence and abuse against colleagues are climbing. These figures make particularly grim reading as they came at the height of the pandemic when the ‘hidden heroes’ of retail were working tirelessly to look after customers, keep shelves stocked and ensure orders were fulfilled.

“It is shocking that this huge rise in incidents took place in a smaller pool of stores and other locations as much of the industry was in lockdown. As our colleagues implemented Covid safety measures to keep the public safe, too many were met with hostility, abuse, threats and assault.

“Violence must never be a part of the job. Those retail colleagues affected are our parents, our partners and our children, and they have suffered needlessly just for doing their job. They can bear the emotional scars and carry the trauma for the rest of their lives.

“It is vital that the amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill helps to deter perpetrators, but this will require the police to take action and improve their response to incidents.”

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