Really angry man with steam coming out of his ears and the top of his head

Study reveals “appalling levels” of violence and abuse against service staff


Recent research reveals a worrying trend of retail staff being subjected to increasing levels of abuse and violence. 

24th Mar 2023

The findings of a recent survey have revealed that violence and abuse against people working in retail has almost doubled on pre-pandemic levels – with the signs suggesting that it will only continue to rise.

Published in the British Retail Consortium’s (BRC) Crime Survey, the figures show that for every 1000 workers there were 105 incidents of violence or abuse in 2021/22.

Whilst this is a drop from the 20/21 figures that were recorded at the height of the pandemic restrictions, it is almost double the amount of incidents that occurred in 2019/20, the last pre-pandemic year.

In total, incidents including racial and sexual abuse, physical assault, and threats with weapons, rose from the pre-covid high of over 450 per day in 2019/20, to over 850 per day in 2021/22.

Perhaps the most worrying revelation from the survey is that violent incidents actually increased from the 20/21 pandemic figures – rising from 125 a day to 145 a day.

The findings on violent incidents alongside recent results from the years preceding covid, would suggest that the pandemic has merely enhanced an already evident trend, rather than it being an anomaly.

Graph depicting the number of cases of retail staff abuse year on year

The above graph taken from the survey, highlights that since 2016 there has been a steady increase in violence and abuse towards retail staff.

Understanding that there is a clear pattern of rising cases of violence and abuse is a start, but what is actually being done to protect retailer workers?

Protecting your staff

Retail workers don’t need to see the results of a survey to understand that violence and abuse is increasing – they’re living through it.

Of those surveyed, 55% listed violence as their number one concern, with 96% reporting it as one of the top three threats that they face.

In an attempt to better protect retail staff, the BRC and others were successful in securing an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act – which may well have played a part in the increase in the number of prosecutions, which rose from less than 10,000 in 2019/20 and 19,000 in 2020/21, to 22,000 in 2021/22.

55% listed violence as their number one concern, with 96% reporting it as one of the top three threats that they face.

However, while an increase in prosecution numbers is a positive, with just 7% of incidents of violence and abuse actually prosecuted, the current system is clearly not working as well as it should.

Undoubtedly part of the problem is a lack of confidence in police response, which has led to a considerable decrease in the percentage of incidents reported to police, with only 32% being reported in 21/22, down from 57% in the previous year.

Indeed, this is an area that was outlined by the BRC in their list of requests that will help protect retail staff:

  1. Ensure courts and police act on new offences.

  2. More reporting by retailers – with better police follow up.

  3. Improved statistics for offences and prosecutions - especially new offences.

  4. Improved prosecution rate.

  5. Improved police response.

Why are customers getting angrier?

Another way in which companies could look to protect their retail workers, is by trying to figure out precisely what is causing this uptick in incidents.

Writing before the pandemic struck, MyCustomer’s own Neil Davey explored why customers are becoming angrier – in what he dubbed, “the age of rage”.

Research released this year revealed how call centre agents are being subjected to an increasing number of foul-mouthed tirades from frustrated customers – with damaging consequences.

“A review of more than 82 million calls undertaken by speech analytics software provider CallMiner found unprecedented levels of bad language is being aimed at agents, negatively impacting customer engagement as well as the working environment for staff.”

Neil surmised that there were a myriad reasons why society was getting angrier – some political, some social, some economic, some personal – and sadly a perceived sleight during a routine service interaction or transaction so often becomes the proverbial final straw.

There are myriad reasons why society is getting angrier – some political, some social, some economic, some personal.

Regarding how customer service agents can respond to angry consumers, a greater focus on understanding customer emotions and motivations is essential.

In particular, battling against the belief held by many that brands don’t have any influence over customer emotion. If the customer is already angry when they start the call, the die is cast.

Organisations that want to break away from the pack are putting greater emphasis on emotion in their service training and recruitment.

It is important to note, that first and foremost it is the responsibility of customers to treat service agents with respect and not subject them to abuse. Unfortunately, in the world we are currently living in it is almost impossible for agents to avoid some form of vitriol, and having some training and techniques to help de-escalate situations could be invaluable.

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