Violence toward retail workers spikes during pandemic

28 May 2021 3 min. read
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Data released by the representative body of the UK’s retail sector has shown that shopworkers were subjected to a sharp increase in abuse during the Covid-19 pandemic. One leading business even reported close to 1,000 incidents of assaults on staff in the days following face masks becoming compulsory in British shops.

According to one particular survey at the turn of the year, retail workers serving customers are five-times more likely to test positive for Covid-19 than colleagues who do not interact with the public. Published by the BMJ, the study looked at 104 employees from one grocery store in Boston, Massachusetts, and indicated that overall there were higher rates of the virus among retail workers than in the general population.

Add to that the huge pressures placed on retail staff during the pandemic, and uncertainty around pay and conditions, and staff in shops already seemed a thankless task. That’s even before taking into account the announcement from the British Retail Consortium (BRC), that a huge number of retail staff faced violence and abuse when simply doing their job during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Violence toward retail workers spikes during pandemic

According to the release, such incidents were already on the rise, having jumped up by 7% over the 12 months leading up to March 2020. There were at least 455 violent or abusive attacks on retail workers every day between March 2019 and March 2020, the BRC claimed, including a shocking rise in the number of customers threatening staff with hypodermic needles.

During the pandemic, though, despite consistent messaging giving thanks for the commitment of shopworkers on behalf of the public, the situation got even worse. One leading retailer reported 990 incidents of violence in the first week after face coverings became compulsory in shops. Cases of the public lashing out at staff enforcing the rule included incidents of deliberate coughing and spitting.

While comprehensive data for the past year is not available yet, the BRC also added that all of the essential retailers it surveyed in February 2021 had seen an increase in verbal abuse. This included two-thirds of respondents reporting an increase in the number of incidents of physical violence against staff amid England’s third lockdown. The data prompted calls from industry representatives to boost the protections offered to store employees.

Helen Dickinson, Chief Executive of the British Retail Consortium, said, “Despite clear evidence showing the escalation of violence and abuse against retail workers, the government has time and time again chosen not to act… Many incidents arise as staff carry out their legal duties, including age verification and more recently, implementing Covid-19 safety measures.”

At the same time, the BRC focuses on retail crimes, such as thefts, as the main reasons for violence and abuse by customers – but that may slightly over-simplify the problem. Academic research has also regularly linked customer abuse to the promotion of a service culture, in which “the customer is always right.”

To that end, a recent study from the shopworkers union Usdaw found that two-fifths of employees wanted more support from management, implying that bosses were still reluctant to publicly call out customers on their behaviour. Similarly, a quarter wanted businesses to ban offenders from the store, while 14% wanted more security staff – suggesting employers also need to look at tackling the issue.