Retailers - in harm’s way? Practical steps to protect workers

Retail staff are front line workers who can sadly bear the brunt of customer frustrations. Historically these include confrontation over purchasing age-related or restricted products, theft, and even disagreements over incorrectly displayed pricing. Added to this are rising tensions relating to unavailability of products due to Brexit/haulage complications, and shortages caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, along with the current cost of living crisis. These factors lend themselves to a “pot of boiling water” bubbling over with tempers short and reactions quick.

Against this background, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) has released its 2023 annual crime survey highlighting that incidents of violence and abuse against retail workers have almost doubled on pre-pandemic levels. Such incidents often result in serious detrimental effects on staff leading to increased absenteeism, concerns over staff safety and the ability of employers to protect their employees. In turn, this can result in retention issues and reputational damage for businesses.

In this article, we consider the BRC’s findings and offer some practical considerations for businesses in terms of how to tackle and mitigate against this growing issue.

British Retail Consortium 2023 annual crime survey

The report shines the spotlight on a number of concerning statistics for 2021/2022, namely:

  • 867 violent or abusive incidents occurred towards retail staff every day.
  • £953 million was lost due to customer theft annually.
  • £1.76 billion was the overall cost of retail crime, including prevention.
  • Only 1/3 of incidents were reported to the police.

According to the BRC, pre-COVID-19 records provided for incidents of 450 per day in 2019/2020 involving racial and sexual abuse, physical assault, and threats with weapons against retail staff, compared to over 850 per day in 2021/2022. Further, over 300,000 staff suffered some sort of violence or abuse in the course of the year. Helen Dickinson, Chief Executive of the BRC, commented on these figures saying:

While a confrontation may be over in minutes, for many victims, their families and colleagues, the physical and emotional impact can last a lifetime.

These incidents are not victimless crimes and can have long-term and significant effects on staff, many of whom are expected to return to the scene soon after an incident. The impact on mental health cannot therefore be underestimated.

Whilst there has been a drastic increase in incidents, there has been a significant fall in the percentage of incidents reported to the police, with rates dropping from 57% to 32% over the last year. The most common reason for not reporting, given by 64% of retailers, was a belief that nothing would happen as a result, or that the reporting system was too difficult.

The total cost of retail crime stands at £1.76 billion in 2021/2022, with £953 million lost to customer theft across 8 million incidents, and retailers spending £722 million on crime prevention. The knock-on effect for consumers is higher prices which at the peak of a cost of living crisis is cause for concern.

What can retailers do?

Retailers, and all employers, have a legal duty to take reasonable steps to eliminate the foreseeable risk posed to its workforce in order to protect the health, safety and welfare of employees, under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. This duty includes all forms of work-related violence, which the Health and Safety Executive defines as: “Any incident in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work”.

Retailers can take a number of practical steps in order to protect their staff including:

  • Ensuring adequate systems are in place will provide some comfort to the staff who have been rightly classed as essential workers.
  • Investing in additional targeted training with ‘role play’ may assist in empowering staff in de-escalating and dealing with potentially volatile situations and understanding the potential warning signs when a situation is likely to deteriorate.
  • Providing clear access to alarm systems or ‘panic alarms’ in order to provide an additional safety net for staff who may feel under threat.
    At ‘high risk’ times, such as in the evening or where there are fewer staff or even lone workers, employers would be prudent to utilise a ‘check in’ system at regular intervals to reduce the risks associated at these times.
  • To encourage confidence, retailers should show solidarity with staff in streamlining the processes for reporting incidents and supporting them to report to the police.
  • Revisiting risk assessments to consider any other adequate control measures each time an incident of verbal or physical abuse occurs.
  • Finally, retailers should offer post-incident support to their workers and identify any knowledge gaps that need to be addressed via post-incident training.


Whilst not a separate crime, assaults on “a person who was providing a public service, performing a public duty, or providing a public service”, have been made an aggravating factor within Section 156 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022.

The Act explicitly states that “services to the public includes a reference to providing goods or facilities to the public”. Whether this legislation ultimately reduces the number of incidents remains to be seen.

In order to reduce the risk of harm to staff, and the consequent claims that may arise, retailers should take steps such as those highlighted above to reduce the risk of harm as far as practicable.

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Read other items in Personal Injury Brief – July 2023

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