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Only 4% of the incidents experienced by shopworkers resulted in a prosecution, according to the BRC

Shopworkers across the UK battled a rising tide of retail crime as incidents of violence and abuse almost tripled in the year to March 2021, according to the BRC’s latest crime survey.

Just over 1,300 incidents occurred each day during the 12-month period, which was up from 455 a day the previous year. The trade body said that given many shops were closed during lockdown, the huge spike in violence and abuse was concentrated in fewer shops.

“It is shocking that this huge rise in incidents took place in a smaller pool of stores and other locations as much of the industry was in lockdown,” said BRC CEO Helen Dickinson. “As our colleagues implemented Covid safety measures to keep the public safe, too many were met with hostility, abuse, threats and assault.”

The rise was mainly accounted for by incidents of abuse, the BRC said. However, out of the 1,301 incidents that occurred each day, there were still 125 that were violent, including 21 incidents that left shopworkers with an injury.

The findings also showed that for every 1,000 employees, there were 155 incidents. This means over 15% of the retail workforce suffered some form of harassment. Forty-four altercations per 1,000 employees were specifically attributed to spitting, coughing, social distancing and mask wearing.

The total cost of retail crime stood at £1.5bn during the time period, with £663m lost to customer theft and £715m spent on crime prevention.

“Despite retailers investing significantly in crime prevention, incidents of violence and abuse against colleagues are climbing,” added Dickinson. “These figures make particularly grim reading as they came at the height of the pandemic, when the ‘hidden heroes’ of retail were working tirelessly to look after customers, keep shelves stocked, and ensure orders were fulfilled.”

While there was a slight rise in the percentage of incidents of violence and abuse reported to police at 57%, only 4% of the incidents experienced by shopworkers resulted in a prosecution, a lower rate than the previous year’s 6%. In other words, 96 out of every 100 victims were potentially failed by the justice and police system or from failure to report the incident, according to the BRC. 

Earlier this year, after extensive lobbying by the BRC, its members and other trade bodies, the government introduced an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which created a statutory aggravating factor to assaults committed against those “providing a public service or performing a public duty”. Similarly, Scotland introduced a specific offence for violence and abuse against retail workers last year.

The BRC said it would now work with police and crime commissioners across England and Wales to raise awareness of the new aggravated offence and to advocate for retail crime having a higher priority in local policing strategies. It added, however, that retailers must also play their part by ensuring more incidents are reported to police.