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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Sarah Butler

Violence and abuse against UK retail staff rises to 1,300 incidents a day

A security guard in a yellow hi-vis jacket next to a line of trolleys at a supermarket in Winchester, Hampshire.
A security guard at a supermarket in Winchester, Hampshire. The rise in retail crime has coincided with rampant price inflation. Photograph: Peter Titmuss/Alamy

UK shop workers are facing 1,300 incidents of violence and abuse a day and a battle to control “brazen” acts of shoplifting, as pressure mounts on ministers to intervene to protect retail employees.

Retailers saw the number of incidents of racial abuse, sexual harassment, physical assaults and threats with weapons rise 50% last year, while thefts more than doubled to 16.7m incidents, according to the British Retail Consortium (BRC), the trade body which represents most major retailers.

The rise in retail crime has coincided with a period of rampant price inflation, with the cost of everyday goods from eggs to baby formula increasing over the past two years at a rate not seen since records began in the 1970s, leaving many families struggling to make ends meet.

Some experts argue that efforts to cut labour costs by using technology such as self-checkouts have contributed to the problems, while retailers are blaming a rise in organised crime and scarce police resources.

Helen Dickinson, the BRC’s chief executive, called for police to step up the number of arrests.

“Despite retailers investing huge sums in crime prevention, violence and abuse against retail workers is climbing,” said Dickinson. “Criminals are being given a free pass to steal goods and to abuse and assault retail colleagues. No one should have to go to work fearing for their safety.”

The number of thefts has quadrupled on pre-pandemic levels. Violence and abuse, which fell after a spike during the lockdowns of 2020, have jumped back up and are now three times higher than before the pandemic.

The latest figures come after almost 90 retail leaders, including the bosses of Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Boots and WH Smith, wrote to the government in October demanding action on rising retail crime, as they said violent criminals were “emptying stores”.

Retailers want the government to introduce a standalone offence of assaulting, threatening, or abusing a retail worker, arguing that this would enable police to understand the scale of the issue and send a message that such crimes are being taken seriously.

Under a similar law introduced in Scotland in 2021 retail crimes now carry tougher sentences and require police to record all incidents of retail crime and allow the allocation of more resources. Dickinson said: “Why should our hardworking colleagues south of the border be offered less protection?”


Katy Bourne, the Sussex police and crime commissioner who is the lead for business crime at the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, said the levels of retail crime being reported were “unprecedented”.

“Every day, retail staff are facing the consequences of shoplifters’ brazen behaviour and that’s why I have supported the call for a specific offence of assault on a shop worker.

“Our courts need to work more efficiently, and shoplifters need to be deterred from re-offending.”

The Co-op, which has more than 2,000 stores across the UK, said it was installing 200 secure till kiosks, locked cabinets for bottles of spirits and AI technology to monitor self-checkouts in its supermarkets after a 44% surge in retail crime last year. It has also doubled the amount it spends on security guards.

Last year, the fashion and homewares retailer Next’s boss, Simon Wolfson, also said he had seen a rise in shoplifting which had hit profit margins. That came after John Lewis said it suffered a £12m year-on-year increase in theft with its chair, Sharon White, calling shoplifting an “epidemic”.

Paul Gerrard from the Co-op said the majority of thefts were by people stealing to sell on goods in large volumes and could be accompanied by threats or abuse.

“People are being followed home from work. I know of one example where we had to move people for their own safety.”

He said violent theft happened in city centres and “leafy market towns” with professional criminals moving on to other stores if extra security measures were put in place at a favoured target.

Co-op stores in some areas were reporting more than two incidents a week where criminals had jumped over till kiosks to steal cigarettes, lottery cards and cash.

However, Gerrard said there had been “green shoots” in the past few months as a result of the government’s retail crime action plan published in October, which includes a police commitment to prioritise attending reports of shoplifting involving violence against a shop worker or where security guards have detained an offender.

The plan also involves the more controversial Project Pegasus under which 10 of the country’s biggest retailers, including Marks & Spencer, Boots and Primark, are handing CCTV images to police to be run through databases using facial recognition technology in an effort to identify prolific or potentially dangerous individuals.

Gerrard said police attendance at incidents at Co-op stores had shot up to 60% from 20% in October which was “a real step forward”.

“Until October there was no risk in engaging in that type of activity and now there is a real risk of being arrested and prosecuted.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The policing minister has been clear police must take a zero-tolerance approach to shoplifting. Violence against a retail worker is unacceptable, which is why we made it an aggravating offence to ensure tougher sentences for perpetrators.

“We continue to work closely with retailers. The police have committed to patrol more areas and attend more shoplifting incidents, especially where violence has occurred. Good progress has been made on these commitments, however we will continue working closely with police and the sector to catch more perpetrators.”

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