Crime, Christmas and the cost of living: Will the peak period see retail abuse continue to climb?

It’s supposed to be a time of unbridled seasonal joy – according to the images of festive celebrations and happy families – but the pressures of creating a ‘perfect Christmas Day’ means it can also become an extremely stressful time for many.

This year, the pressure of finding the perfect presents or buying the last turkey in the shop is being exacerbated by rocketing inflation and soaring costs. For many, the price of essential items are increasingly becoming unaffordable, let alone festive staples such as pigs in blankets or brussels sprouts.

As supermarkets look to help shoppers by offering discounted and reduced items, the efforts to buy the cheapest products from supermarket shelves is heightening the emotions of stressed consumers as they look to buy as much as they can with a limited budget.

Last week, workers at the UK’s largest supermarket Tesco were pictured stacking reduced food shelves while surrounded by a yellow barrier labelled with the words ‘do not enter’. While these have been used for some time to give some extra space to staff, Tesco has also seen an increase in anti-social behaviour towards its colleagues in the last two years.

As financial pressures intensify and the run up to the peak period draws nearer, so does the added risk of retail crime. Will theft and abuse against retail workers get worse in the coming months or is this a long-standing issue when times get tougher?

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The rise in retail crime

With grocery price inflation hitting a record 14.7% – and adding a potential £682 to the average annual shopping bill – the rise in the cost-of-living is putting pressure on households across the country. At the same time, research from the Retail Trust has revealed an increase in the number of retail employees being abused by customers, with 70% of retail workers reporting the abuse had “gotten worse” in the last two years.

Of the 2,000 shoppers surveyed 62% of consumers said they are frustrated by rising prices, with a further 71% admitting to raising their voice or losing their temper with shop staff.

The survey of 1,000 retail staff also found that one in three said they are abused weekly, while a quarter don’t report difficult incidents to their employers. As a result, over two thirds admitted to being stressed or anxious about going into work and nearly half had considered quitting their jobs because of the incidents.

A spokesperson for the British Retail Consortium told Grocery Gazette that some of its members had said the level of abuse faced by retail staff in the pandemic has become the “new normal” of what is acceptable.

Director of business and regulation, Tom Ironside, says that shoplifting remains a “significant burden”, costing retailers £663 million in 2020/21.

“Ultimately, theft pushes up the cost of operating stores and results in higher prices for everyone. It’s not just the financial cost of theft which is important, customers and store staff can be left traumatised by such incidents, particularly where violence is involved.”

Chief executive Helen Dickinson adds: “We have seen violence and abuse against shop workers go up during the pandemic but instead of it alleviating since then, it’s getting worse.”

What measures are supermarkets taking?

Tesco’s security barriers were first introduced at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic to give staff more room to work safely. However, they have recently been pictured being used in stores to give staff room to work while putting out reduced – or ‘yellow sticker’ items.

While this is not considered a security measure by Tesco – and is not a move which they officially advise – the barriers do give staff some respite from bargain-hunting shoppers.

With reports showing that retail crime is on the rise, the BRC says that retailers concerned about the safety of their staff can help by increasing security personnel and introducing body worn cameras, as well as giving staff de-escalation training.

During the pandemic, body-worn cameras were rolled out across all Tesco stores for security officers, duty managers and other shop-floor colleagues. When used, these cameras contributed to a 15% reduction in physical assaults on Tesco colleagues.

Tesco also added remote-control door access systems across its convenience stores last year, giving colleagues the ability to control access into stores when assaults were most likely to occur; typically early in the morning or late at night.

According to the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) 2022 Crime Report, on average, each store in the convenience sector spent over £5,000 on crime prevention measures since the pandemic, including security staff, CCTV and intruder alarms.

In response to this, ACS has co-ordinated with over 100 retailers and trade bodies to launch the Home Office backed #ShopKind campaign, urging customers to be respectful of colleagues in stores.

Are price rises to blame for the rise in retail crime?

Trade union Usdaw has also seen the situation becoming more of a problem following recent price rises. General secretary, Paddy Lillis, says that its “members have long had real concerns, when marking up price reductions in store, about some customer behaviour.

“We know that in the current cost-of-living crisis, with prices skyrocketing, customers can be over-keen to get their hands on some bargains, things can boil over and shoppers can become abusive or worse.”

However, this in itself is not a new development. One former Tesco employee who worked on the sales floor says that incidents of customers being too keen to take items from reduced shelves while they are being stacked is “nothing new”.

They said: “99% of customers are amazing and super patient, just keen to get a deal. We used to go out into the warehouse to do the yellow tickets if it got too crazy.”

Lillis describes the incidents of violence, threats and abuse against shopworkers as being “worryingly high”. Usdaw’s most recent survey shows that nine in ten of our members working in retail suffered abuse from customers, with far too many experiencing threats and violence.

He adds that Usdaw is “working with retail employers to help protect staff”, asking customers “to ‘keep your cool’ and respect shopworkers.”

Will retail crime rise over the Christmas period?

Retail crime and abuse may well be a long-standing issue but it is increasingly worrying those for within the sector, particularly during the usually busy – and stressful – Christmas period and the cost-of-living crisis which has seen consumers struggling to put food on the table.

While some retailers are experiencing rising levels of retail crime, a Morrisons spokesperson told Grocery Gazette that it does “not have any plans to increase security levels in stores in the coming days/ weeks.”

However, the BRC says that it expects the rising levels seen recently to continue on into the Christmas period.

As tensions arise and emotions are heightened, it’s inevitable that retailers will need to do all they can to ensure their workers feel both safe and supported through a time of real uncertainty – even if that means letting them stand behind barriers.



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