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 13 November 2023

  • Attacks on shop workers are worsening amidst the rise in retail crime, with two in five shouted at, spat on, threatened or hit every week, leaving half feeling unsafe at work, but one in four don’t report abuse
  • Shop staff speak out – ‘A shoplifter attacked me’ / ‘I was punched in the face’ / ‘It’s become part of my job’
  • The Retail Trust’s respect retail campaign, backed by major retailers, urges for scale of abusive incidents not to go unrecorded so staff get the support they need

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

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.

The Retail Trust’s survey of more than 1,600 retail workers* found:

  • Two in five (41%) are now shouted at, spat on, threatened or hit every week, and nearly half (47%) are left feeling unsafe at work.
  • 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%) want stricter penalties for customers who abuse shop workers and a third (33%) believe the police should be taking more action.

The Retail Trust, which runs a wellbeing helpline and provides counselling and financial aid for retail workers is urging for incidents not to go unrecorded as one in four (24%) admit they don’t report abuse. Of these, more than two thirds (38%) didn’t feel like it would help and nearly a quarter (23%) 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. Others supporting the campaign include trade body the British Retail Consortium and law firm Foot Anstey, as well as Peoplesafe, a provider of people protection technology, and think tank International Longevity Centre.

The Retail Trust’s shop worker survey also found:

  • 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%) said they’ve felt scared or intimidated in a shop due to the behaviour of others, but over half (53%) 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.”

Juliette Cavilla, group head of wellbeing at WHSmith, said: “Our people are our top priority and ensuring we can provide a safe and welcoming environment while at work is top of our agenda. We do this, primarily, through mandatory training, improved use of CCTV, and the use of wearable safety devices. But we know it’s also important to give our people the opportunity to talk and be listened to. Through our employee networks and working in partnership with charities, such as the Retail Trust, we can do this.

“The statistics from the Retail Trust’s latest polls are concerning and while we continue to explore further measures to support our teams, we know more needs to be done on a broader scale. Alongside the Retail Trust, the BRC, and other retailers, we’re therefore calling for more support.”

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 resources 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 two 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.”

Peoplesafe, a provider of people protection technology, has also seen a 34% rise in the number of retail-related incidents being reported compared to last year.

Naz Dossa, CEO of Peoplesafe, added: “The intolerance epidemic of customer abuse that the Retail Trust has highlighted is an issue close to our hearts. We have seen this aggression first-hand as we support retailers with technology that gets emergency help to them faster than 999. This is a problem we would like to see an end to and we are proud to support the Retail Trust’s efforts to push for change.”

Ailsa Forbes, health retail programme lead at International Longevity Centre, added: “Frontline retail staff are bearing the brunt of customers’ frustrations and anxieties. Technological advances that reduce access to ‘real people’ place more pressure on the remaining workforce and staff must be adequately supported by their employers.

“Our recent guidance on why a healthy workforce matters draws attention to the importance of workplace risk assessments and taking meaningful action to support staff well-being, for example going beyond well-being awareness days and providing access to counselling and ongoing support.”

Click here for more information or call the Retail Trust’s wellbeing helpline on 0808 801 0808 to speak to a trained advisor for in-the-moment support.

*Figures for the survey among UK retail workers are from the Retail Trust. Total response size was 1,639 people who have had previous contact with the Retail Trust. The survey took place online between 9 August and 25 August 2023 and due to the sensitive nature of the subject was carried out anonymously

** All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2,082 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 28th - 29th September 2023. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).