Retail staff face increasing violence on the frontline

New research shows that retail staff are increasingly having to deal with both violence and threatening behaviour. Even those organisations thought immune to crime are becoming victims. Daniel Thomas investigates

According to British Retail Consortium (BRC) figures, violence against retail staff rose by 17 per cent in 2003, with threats to employees up by 109 per cent.

BRC director general Kevin Hawkins said: “The hidden cost of crime – the emotional and business viability impact of violence towards staff – has shown a serious and worrying rise. Retail crime is not victimless. Reducing these figures and the terrible unseen cost of this type of crime is a priority for the industry.”

But what can organisations do? Even staff in charity shops, previously afforded some protection, are victims of crime now.

Lesley Hutton, the head of retail at St. Barnabas Hospice – which runs 11 charity shops to help raise funds – highlighted the problems many organisations now face.

“We have to deal daily with drug addicts stealing to support their addiction and our staff have had to deal with serious confrontations, on one occasion having to barricade themselves in the rear of the shop,” she said.

“We have to consider the safety of our mainly older staff and, in a new departure for us, we have installed CCTV to protect and reassure them. Some of our shops have been burgled repeatedly and we have been obliged to install concertina grilles.”

As well as investing in physical security – at a cost of over £4,000 – St Barnabas has introduced new staff policies.

Good practice includes ensuring that no member of staff is ever left alone in the shop and guidance is provided to help staff deal appropriately with possible difficulties that may arise.

Jonathan Clarke, owner of a large convenience store in Cheadle near Manchester, faces similar problems, with regular violent behaviour proving a plague on the business.

In recent months, Clarke has seen two members of staff assaulted, 10 threatened with violence and almost daily abuse and rudeness towards them.

“The main problem is young men under the age of 25. We had a reputation as a soft touch before I took over the business and it was a nightmare to sort out,” he explained.

“I think we are a fairly average shop, but I have had to train my staff on how to deal with violence and aggression, what to look out for in potential thieves, and to make them realise that their safety must come first.”

According to Clarke, calling the police is rarely an option: “They can take over 30 minutes to turn up, and if you have an agitated thief it is best to just get the goods back and let them go.”

Kevin Hawkins said responsibility for tackling the problem lies with both the retail industry and the Government.

“The way forward is to ensure that the Government and police take retail crime seriously and for the industry to continue to play a substantial role in a wide range of initiatives to fight crime and make our communities safer and better places,” he said.

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