Shocking figures released by the BRC last month showed a steep increase in physical and verbal attacks on shop workers. Katie Kilgallen asks how retailers can tackle this worrying rise

Security guards, CCTV and panic buttons are pervasive and permanent fixtures on the high street. But the latest British Retail Consortium crime figures reveal significant reasons to be fearful. The statistics showed a 50 per cent increase in incidents of physical violence against shop workers and 100 per cent increase in verbal threats.

The figures represent a disappointing reversal of what has been a dying trend for some years. Retailers, like any employers, have a duty to provide a safe working environment. However this undoubtedly brings extra costs at a time when sales and margins are being squeezed from all directions. Can retailers protect their staff and their margins and work towards turning around this worrying trend?

Retail workers union Usdaw has been at the forefront of raising awareness of this issue for the past four years. Its Freedom from Fear campaign, launched in 2003, is still running. Usdaw health and safety officer Doug Russell says: “It’s extremely disappointing. Physical attacks were going down; it’s disappointing to see it go up again – but they are still lower than before.”

So, what is behind the upturn? BRC head of crime policy Catherine Bowen says: “It’s probably antisocial behaviour that the whole community is experiencing – just reflected in shops. And stricter restrictions in alcohol and tobacco has led to an increase in verbal threats, too.”

Another explanation for the rise is that smaller retailers are being left behind. Larger retailers have installed panic buttons, CCTV and security guards to curb shopfloor violence, but costs can be prohibitive for small and medium-sized businesses.

However, Russell points out that although larger retailers may have the resources and policies in place, their size can also be a hindrance. “I have held discussions with major retailers and they all have the right policies in place, but they all have so many stores. We encourage our reps to see if the policy plays out in reality,” he says.

Another view is that the latest figures mask what is not a uniformly bad picture. Supermarket chain Asda, which does not contribute to the BRC’s figures, says it has experienced a 21 per cent downturn in physical violence in stores over the past year, thanks to measures put in place since 2005.

Field Fisher Waterhouse solicitor Nicholas Thorpe says: “My clients have been reporting incidents of violence, but they didn’t recognise significant increases. Some clients say figures have been going down. I think the real picture may be that there has been a rise, but not such a dramatic one.”

However, these figures show that as an industry, there is scope for more to be done. Asda head of corporate security and loss prevention Sean Bowen says being “much more overt in letting our customers know we protect colleagues and products” has resulted in big improvements in security at stores. Implemented measures include increased protection of products and a higher security presence on the shopfloor.

Asda’s Bowen believes the link between the approach to alcohol sales and violence in stores is an important consideration. “We’ve taken a very strong line on Challenge 21 and that’s pushed some of that problem out of our stores – if people are thinking of trying it on, they will probably try it on somewhere other than Asda,” he says.

Asda says it has also taken a sensible stance following the tightening of licensing laws. The supermarket giant carried out separate risk assessments in every store and has chosen not to take up several opportunities to extend licensing laws that were deemed not to be right for the store staff – for example, where nightclubs are located close to stores.

Asda’s Bowen acknowledges there is still more that could be done. For continuous improvement, he says active monitoring and staying on top of trends is essential.

Thorpe points out that many retailers are not aware they can use the law in a more effective way. “ASBOs are part of sentencing and can’t be requested by retailers, but there is a civil route for serious and repeated incidents, which can lead to perpetrators being banned from the store. The Protection from Harassment Act can be used in these circumstances. With civil law, the burden of proof is less but in terms of costs you have to hire lawyers and it takes up management time,” he says.

Catherine Bowen says the biggest push for the BRC at the moment is working with the community. “Most retailers invest highly in security, but I would encourage retailers to look at alternative ways of working with the community.”

Russell agrees. “People want to improve the safety of the community as a whole. It’s a community issue, but can form around shopping centres and local high streets – gangs hanging out, kids trying to get hold of alcohol, for instance,” he says.

Where retailers have limited resources, partnership groups could help. Usdaw is working with the BRC and other groups that are keen to develop links between retailers and local communities and, in particular, links with local authorities and local police forces.

Catherine Bowen elaborates: “It’s about working with the community to highlight the problems and share evidence, best practice and support retailers – for example, working together to apply for curfews and exclusion notices.”

Asda is engaged with local police. The grocer has police stations in car parks at five of its stores, with seven more in the pipeline for the next few months and it also has a list of a further 36 possible locations.

Sean Bowen explains: “They are like a surgery, where people can drop in. In a number of locations, local police stations have closed down and it’s a way of getting police presence in local communities – it can work both ways.”

Small- and medium-sized businesses are at a clear disadvantage when it comes to protecting their staff effectively, but a concerted effort to establish a consistent and collaborative community-based approach could produce a viable solution to the problem. Russell says: “Despite the fact that it’s disappointing that there’s been an upturn, there is a lot going on at the moment and, if we can follow through with that, we should be able to see the figures come down again.”

Asda, which does not contribute to the BRC’s data, says that its crime statistics show a good news story and reflect the significant investment that the supermarket has made in security resources, equipment and people since 2005, as well as its overall approach to loss prevention.

In total, violence against colleagues has fallen 21 per cent, with 7 per cent fewer physical assaults. Shoplifting has decreased year on year and is down 18 per cent to£1.5 million for the year to date. The number of incidents has dropped to 42,000 – down 9.1 per cent and the number of offenders has fallen 8 per cent to 25,000.

1) A security restructure in 2005. This has led to a 28 per cent increase in security presence in stores in terms of hours and the use of in-house security in a greater proportion of stores than its competitors.

2) When extended licensing laws were introduced, Asda assessed stores for risk for extended beers, wines and spirits sales and, as a result, did not take up several sales opportunities. Refused sales and drunk customers are a prime cause of flash points, so Asda’s stance may have reduced this problem.

3) Targeted spending on stores that have the highest risk. This has meant providing additional CCTV, including sales floor CCTV podiums and extra product-protection solutions – all of which make products harder to steal and sell on. The retailer’s statistics clearly show that the flash point for violence is usually when an approach is made to a shoplifter. Active engagement with the police. Asda has part-funded police stations and kiosks in stores where the police has a gap in its community representation.