Retail workers are reporting worsening mental health as the tide of crime continues to rise. What more needs to be done to help staff?

I hope you get cancer and die.” That was the abuse directed at Jo, team leader for a convenience store in Northumberland, after she told a customer an item was out of stock.

“I once had a customer threaten me after I asked him to leave because he was barred,” adds the 58-year-old. “He told me: ‘we know where you live’.”

Two days later, she stepped outside her house to find that her front gate and car had been spray-painted with abuse. “It’s absolutely vile,” she says. “I don’t think the majority of the general public realise what retail staff have to put up with.”

Jo’s experience is symptomatic of the verbal abuse, threats and assaults encountered by the three million people working in UK retail on a daily basis.

There were more than 1,300 incidents of violence and abuse per day in shops in 2023, according to the BRC’s latest crime survey. Staff have been spat on, threatened, and punched. They’ve told The Grocer of being held at knifepoint, of having boiling drinks thrown over them, and facing off shoplifters with HIV-infected needles.

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BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson says the police response has ‘historically been poor’

Such is the gravity of the problem that, earlier this month, the government agreed to introduce a specific standalone offence for those who attack shopworkers. But as welcome as that change of law is, it’s by no means a panacea for the epidemic of violence and abuse that continues to sweep UK stores – leaving thousands suffering stress, anxiety and even PTSD simply as a result of doing their job.

So, what’s it really like for retail staff in 2024? What’s the impact of this abuse – at both an individual and organisational level? And, aside from hauling offenders to court, what can be done to help staff feel safe?

“We’re hearing daily from people who have been shouted at, spat on, or hit at work, sometimes several times a week”

Chris Brook-Carter, Retail Trust CEO

Though abuse of shopworkers isn’t a new phenomenon, it is getting much worse. Nearly half a million incidents were recorded last year, according to the BRC. That’s an increase of 50% on 2022, and nearly treble the figure pre-pandemic.

Grocery retailers are themselves reporting similar rises. Co-op suffered a 35% increase in acts of violence against in-store colleagues in 2023 and a 38% rise in threats and abuse, according to campaign and public affairs director Paul Gerrard. At Tesco, violent incidents against staff were up a third year on year in October 2023. Sainsbury’s CEO Simon Roberts similarly reported incidents had “escalated through last year”.

Many incidents are linked to a spike in shoplifting, which often goes alongside abuse, the use of weapons or assaults on security staff. Thefts have more than doubled in the past three years, costing retailers £953m annually, says the BRC.


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Rishi Sunak announced assaulting retail workers would become a standalone offence

How Sunak rolled out his ‘retail crime crackdown’

“To the shoplifters and those abusing shopworkers, enough is enough,” said PM Rishi Sunak as he announced a standalone offence for those that assault retail workers this month.

The change in law means perpetrators will face prison sentences of up to six months, unlimited fines and Criminal Behaviour Orders banning them from stores.

The announcement follows a long campaign by trade groups, retailers, politicians, and charities for better police protection against prolific offenders. As such, it was welcomed by many in the industry. “This announcement sends a clear message that this abusive behaviour will not be tolerated,” said BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson. “It will improve the police response, which has historically been poor.”

For others, though, the announcement was greeted with more caution. “The big question we are left with today is: Is this enough?” said Retail Trust chief executive Chris Brook-Carter. “And the simple answer is: On its own, probably not. Which is why there needs to be a cross-industry and societal push to face into this worrying trend.”

Although somewhat related to the cost of living crisis, much of it is carried out by organised gangs – and police often fail to attend or investigate incidents.

“Many thieves think they have a licence to steal,” says Tom Holder, head of comms at the BRC. “The police don’t attend many events. There is little in the way of repercussions and very few prosecutions.”

Many people view these incidents as petty or victimless crimes, says criminology expert Emmeline Taylor, who was commissioned by Co-op to create its ‘Stealing with Impunity’ report, published in February. “However, when you look at verbal abuse and violence, which often go hand in hand with theft, it can have a huge impact on the person on the receiving end.”

David Brook, a Co-op store manager in Leeds, can testify to that impact. He says levels of theft and abuse are “far and away the worst I’ve ever seen” in his 20 years of working in retail. Although his staff are trained not to intervene directly in thefts, they’ve still been threatened with weapons and faced aggression.

Many of his team are students from the area. “You’ve got a 19-year-old girl who’s working in our shop 16 hours a week and going to university five days, and then she’s got to worry if it’s going to be safe coming to work that night,” he says. “That’s not what I, as a manager, want my colleagues to be worrying about.”

Yet these are real worries for many retail workers. For Jane, a checkout supervisor at a supermarket in Flintshire, the abuse leaves her anxious and angry.

“On many occasions I’ve had things thrown at me, been called names, and been threatened,” she says. “On one occasion, I refused to serve an energy drink to a young person and a group of them said they were going to wait outside for me after work.” So normalised has it become for the 51-year-old that she sees abuse as “part of the job”.


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Retail Trust CEO Chris Brook-Carter has heard from many people like Jane. “We’re hearing daily from people who have been shouted at, spat on, or hit at work, sometimes several times a week,” he says. “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. This is having a substantial impact on retail workers in the UK.”

Two-thirds of workers surveyed by the Retail Trust said the abuse they faced left them feeling anxious and stressed. Nearly half (47%) said they didn’t feel safe at work.

The cumulative exposure to abuse is driving rising levels of frustration, helplessness, and depression, found Taylor in her report, leaving many at risk of mental health conditions including PTSD.

“Workers have described to me the serious and debilitating mental health issues they’ve developed from experiencing ongoing criminal threat,” she says. “It’s not right that a hard-working mum develops anxiety and depression from working in a convenience store.”

Research by the Violence and Aggression Research Network (VARN) at the Alliance Manchester Business School has consistently shown workplace aggression and staff mistreatment is “really damaging to mental and physical health”, says one of its lead experts, Kara Ng, a presidential fellow in organisational psychology.

Though physical acts of violence often grab headlines, she says the “drip effect” of cumulative verbal and psychological abuse – incidents that are even less likely to be taken seriously – can have the biggest effect. “People end up questioning themselves and asking: Is this part of the job?”

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Studies show the shopworkers on the receiving end of crime and abuse are at risk of developing mental health issues

Staff exodus

Worryingly for retail bosses, more and more staff are deciding it simply isn’t worth it. Forty-two per cent are considering quitting their jobs or leaving retail entirely, according to research by the Retail Trust.

It’s a risk store owners are all too aware of. “You’re always considering the impact of things like this on both morale and retention,” says Matthew Hunt, director at Filco supermarkets. He says local youths have sworn at customers and staff and blocked entrances, while organised gangs target stores with shopping lists.

“I know of two examples where security staff actually left the whole industry due to the harassment they were receiving,” Hunt says.

In terms of retail recruitment, “you’ve got quite an uncomfortable situation starting to emerge”, points out Beth Worrall, co-CEO at retail comms provider VoCoVo. “Creating a safe working environment is critical to any colleague being their most productive and most engaged,” she adds. “There’s a very direct line between the safety, wellbeing, morale and productivity of retail workers and the ability for them to create a great customer experience.”

To tackle the issue, major retailers have been investing billions in measures designed to boost security and surveillance (see box, above). But for retail workers, that’s not always the support they want.

In Usdaw’s 2023 survey of more than 5,000 retail workers, the most common request – ahead of store bans, security staff and police involvement – was better support from managers.

“Too often I hear of staff being abused by a customer for enforcing company policy, only for the manager to come along, undermine the member of staff, apologise to the customer and, in some cases, even offer vouchers,” says Dave Williams, spokesperson for Usdaw. “Our members tell me the aftercare for a shopworker who has just been abused or even assaulted can be poor or non-existent, and it makes them feel like their managers just don’t care.”

Management could consider soft skills training, suggests David Liddle, founder and CEO of employee relations expert The TCM Group. “Employers must invest in what I call ‘essential skills’, which relate to influencing and negotiation, problem solving, communication and conflict resolution.”

This includes recognising that “violence and aggression can cause trauma, [so there’s a need to] provide a safe space for people to discuss their experiences. Store managers should be trained in trauma-informed approaches to management.”

Encouraging staff to report incidents is another critical measure, says the Retail Trust’s Brook-Carter. Some retailers, for example, have rolled out dedicated taskforces to track incidents and create a more open culture of reporting and supporting colleagues.

“One in four retail workers told us they do not report abuse now, mainly because they believe nothing will come of it or due to previously unhelpful responses from the police,” he says. “This just underlines the importance of creating workplaces where employees feel more supported.

“Alongside any formal measures for dealing with violence, aggression and crime, managers should always check in with their team before the end of every shift,” Brook-Carter adds.

Because though we may be some way off ensuring every one of the three million people working in retail feels completely safe from abuse at work, “no one should go home without feeling supported”.

Five in-store tools used by retailers to deter offenders

sainsburys alcohol aisle

AI security cabinets

In an effort to deter shoplifters in the booze aisle, Sainsbury’s installed new AI-powered security cabinets in February.

Created by tech firm Freedom Case, the cabinets have only been trialled in a handful of stores so far. They require customers to go through a four-step touchscreen process to access alcohol behind the cabinet door, with built-in sensors used to track dodgy activity and identify thefts before they happen.

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Body cams

Last year, Morrisons became the latest retailer to trial the use of body-worn cameras for staff.

In September, the supermarket revealed a trial across 25 stores with the potential for UK-wide rollout if it successfully deterred criminals.

Already deployed by the likes of Tesco, Sainsbury’s and The Co-op, the cameras typically capture real-time audio and video feeds, which are remotely monitored by security staff and can be used as evidence.

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CCTV sharing

A collaborative project between police and retail was rolled out last year, pooling CCTV data to track offenders.

Project Pegasus will see CCTV stills cross-checked against the Police National Database, giving police a “national picture of where shoplifting gangs are operating and the shops they are targeting”.

The initiative is reportedly set to cost retailers, including Tesco, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s, around £600k.

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Facial recognition

A number of retailers have deployed facial recognition technologies in stores, using discreet cameras to scan shopper features and check them against a criminal database.

Dubbed ‘Orwellian’ by some, the tech most recently came under fire from a privacy rights group. It claimed the Facewatch live recognition cameras deployed by Southern Co-op disproportionately targeted stores located in its poorest communities.

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Source: Getty Images

Undercover security

As crime rises, major grocery chains continue to up their investment in security staff.

Last year, Co-op even introduced undercover guards, who are trained to confront and hold thieves at the store until the police arrive.

Many independent store owners are also now being forced to invest in additional manpower. Queries from independent stores have doubled, according to leading provider Kingdom Security.