Written by: Emmeline Taylor, Reader in Criminology, City, University of London
Violence and verbal abuse towards shop workers is on the rise. Home Office figures show 590,000 incidents of assaults and threats in 2018 (up from around 200,000 incidents in 2016) putting them at their highest level since 2012.
Behind these statistics are people who have directly experienced violence while simply doing their jobs. As someone at the Co-op supermarket told me:
In the last 12 months I know of colleagues who have been physically injured with axes, needles, machetes and knives in unprovoked attacks.
I know of colleagues that have been dragged through their store, who have had knives held to their throats, or been made to kneel down with guns or other weapons held at their head. They have been screamed at, threatened, and left scared to travel home from work.
The impact of these incidents last a lifetime, not just on those directly involved but it affects their colleagues, their families and their communities.
This was one of many interviews I conducted as part of research into this rising issue of abuse faced by shop workers. Commissioned by the Co-op, I spoke to both victims and perpetrators of attacks in shops. There are four main scenarios in which attacks are becoming prevalent: shoplifting, enforcing the laws around selling certain items, hate crimes and robbery.
‘Licence to steal’
Being challenged or stopped for shop theft is the number one trigger for violence and verbal abuse in the retail sector – accounting for 25% of incidents. According to the Home Office, there were 7.1m incidents of shop theft in 2018, roughly 19,000 incidents a day. And by all accounts, this alarming figure is a gross underestimate. Some sources calculate a more realistic figure to be 38m shop theft offences.
The Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 made theft of goods from a shop worth £200 or less an offence that would not be pursued by police. Instead, if caught, the offender can enter a plea via post.
Shop workers and offenders that I spoke to say that this downgrading of store theft in the eyes of the law gives people a “licence to steal”. The current lack of law enforcement has created fertile ground for shop theft to flourish. Thieves are becoming more brazen as they calculate the risk of formal apprehension and punishment to be virtually non-existent.
Some estimates put the current average risk of being caught at around one in 500. Shop workers have described this current situation to me as “soul destroying”. As one store manager told me:
I had an incident just a couple of days ago. A woman was filling her handbag up with meat and went to walk out with it. I asked her to put it back and she said: ‘I’ve got needles on me. I’ve got hepatitis; I’m going to stab you. Come any closer and I’ll bite you.’
When the manager grabbed the meat that was in the shoplifter’s hand, they slapped him in the face before running out of the store.
We called the police and gave them a description and said it was all on CCTV. They didn’t come out. It’s awful but we have come to expect that as normal because the majority of times they don’t come out – these incidents are so common now and the police are overstretched.
Shop workers feel thieves can brazenly steal and threaten staff without risk of recourse.
More than 50 types of products have legal restrictions around selling them that shop workers must legally enforce. For example, the law dictates that shop workers must take “reasonable precautions and exercise due diligence” to test the age of individuals seeking to purchase age-restricted goods and services, such as tobacco, alcohol, knives and solvents.
This is often a source of abuse and threats. Enforcing age-restricted sales, dealing with people under the influence of alcohol or drugs and refusing to sell alcohol to someone who is drunk accounted for 43% of incidents in 2018. As a shop worker told me:
It’s the threats that can have the greatest impact. Like, ‘Wait until you finish work’. It can be terrifying.
A recent survey of the general public revealed that 85% of respondents believe that the government owes a duty of care to shop workers who enforce important laws restricting the sale of certain items like alcohol, acid and knives.
At a minimum, the government should work with industry to raise public awareness of the expectation that identification is required for age-restricted goods and that shop workers are legally responsible for enforcing this. The government should also change the law around offences perpetrated against shop workers in exercise of their duty so that they are treated more seriously.
My study uncovered a number of reports from shop workers about incidents in which they, or their colleagues, had been on the receiving end of verbal abuse that targeted their membership (or perceived membership) of a certain social group or race. One store manager said:
One of the girls wore a hijab and [this group of young men] would come in and say to her: ‘I’m going to rip your hijab off you.’ They used to come back again and again and targeted her because of the hijab … She had been working there for a long time but she started to feel very unsafe and so she left the job.
This is seemingly part of a wider issue in the UK. There were 94,098 hate crimes recorded by the police in England and Wales in 2017-18, an increase of 17% compared with 2016-17.
Police recorded crime data shows that robbery of a business property has increased from 6,800 offences in the year to March 2012 to 7,700 offences in the year to March 2018. The prevalence of robbery has also increased, with 5% of premises experiencing this crime type in 2017 compared with 3% in 2012.
Most robbers are armed with some form of weapon, most commonly a knife, but also firearms, hammers and syringes. Robberies are particularly volatile situations, especially when offenders are under the influence of drugs or heavily intoxicated. One convicted armed robber that I spoke to said:
The way I used to look at it was: ‘I’m not leaving without the money.’ That’s the only option: ‘You either give me the money or I’ll attack you’.
The impact and consequences of violence can result in life-changing injuries for staff. The reports of violence I encountered revealed instances where employees suffered broken bones, were stabbed with knives, lacerated with smashed bottles, lost sight due to eye injuries and been punched.
Yet the impact of violence and verbal abuse stem far beyond physical symptoms; violent encounters can leave long-lasting and life-changing mental health issues. As one store manager told me:
The attack really affected me mentally. I’ve had two major anxiety attacks. I had a panic attack last Friday when I was in the shop. It just hit me like a wrecking ball – I could hardly stand up. I was dropping things … I didn’t know what was happening; it was extremely scary.
Some colleagues thought I was joking about. One of the older ladies thought ‘He’s having a laugh’, but when I burst into tears she realised I wasn’t.
To break this growing cycle of violence, it is important to focus on the root causes, not just the symptoms. Just as other types of violence, such as knife crime, are being framed as public health crises, there are benefits to approaching violence towards shop workers this way.
This means looking at violence not as isolated incidents or solely as a police enforcement problem. Instead, this approach looks at violence as a preventable consequence of a range of factors, such as adverse early-life experiences and harmful social or community experiences and influences. Violence is preventable, but it is a complex issue that requires a multi-faceted approach.
The research was funded by the Co-op.