This article is provided by BRC Associate Member Womble Bond Dickinson


Along with NHS workers, retail staff were hailed as some of the frontline heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic, however it has been a very tough role to undertake, if recent research is anything to go by. 

According to a study carried out by UNI Global Union, a federation of worldwide unions, the pandemic led to a global rise in violence in retail stores. The study found that while violence towards those working in retail was not unheard of prior to the pandemic, in the UK it doubled during this time, with nine out of 10 workers reporting that they had been victims of abuse. The majority of complaints arose when asking customers to abide by COVID-19 restrictions such as social distancing and mask wearing. Now that restrictions have lifted, is the picture looking any brighter for retail workers? 

Sadly it would seem not. The Institute of Customer Services (a UK trade body) indicated, in a report published in June 2022, that 44% of frontline retail staff had experienced hostility from customers in the prior six months. This was an increase of 35% since February 2022. The workers reporting hostile customers blamed increased anxiety in shoppers, and 25% linked the behaviour specifically to price increases. 

With supply chains still facing pressures both locally and on a global scale, and the cost of living continuing to increase, it seems that the retail sector's frontline will carry on experiencing verbal abuse and, in some circumstances, physical violence. For retail employers, this is a worrying trend.

The impact 

According to May 2022 data from the British Retail Consortium, there are over 450 incidents of violence and abuse carried out on retail workers every day (and this doubled during 2020 to 2021). Consequently, retail employers will continue to see the adverse effects of aggression on their staff, including mental health issues, burnout and increased absence. 

In May of this year, the UK industry charity Retail Trust published research carried out with 1,500 workers. Eight out of 10 of those surveyed said that their mental health had deteriorated in the previous year. The Trust's research also showed the potential impact on staff turnover, with 21% of British retail workers considering leaving the sector because of the challenges they were facing. Interestingly, the percentage considering a departure increased to 31% for those individuals working for the UK's biggest retailers. The costs of high staff turnover are something that retailers will want to avoid at an already difficult time for the industry. Therefore it is critical that employers take action now to protect their people and their businesses. 

There are further risks for employers: aggrieved workers may bring discrimination claims against them if they believe, for example, they have not been provided with sufficient support for what may prove to be mental health disabilities. Alternatively, individuals could resign and bring a claim of constructive unfair dismissal if they think they have not been provided with sufficient protection from aggressive customers. There are also implications from a health and safety legislation perspective if workers feel that they have been put at risk by their employer, and personal injury claims are likely to increase.

What can employers do? 

The provisions under the Equality Act 2010 that made it possible for individuals to bring claims against third parties (e.g. customers, as opposed to employers) for discrimination and harassment were repealed some time ago. There have since been calls for them to be re-introduced, to deal with this growing issue. In fact, following a consultation on sexual harassment in the workplace last year, the Government proposed the introduction of specific workplace harassment protections under the equalities legislation. Any suggested changes will take time to be implemented, however, and it is not currently known when any such programme is likely to start. 

Of more practical use, new powers under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 came into force very recently, allowing larger penalties to be handed out to customers who harass and attack shop staff. This change follows campaigning from retail organisations to protect their staff better. This development is relatively new, although it follows the Scottish Government's lead in this area, and it is yet to be seen whether it works in practice, but it has been welcomed by the industry. 

Owing to the scale of the problem the union, USDAW, recently ran a weeklong UK campaign urging shopworkers to 'report it to sort it'. USDAW hoped this would raise awareness with staff, and encourage the high numbers who do not feel able to report incidents to do so in future. 

What else can be done on the ground to help workers and the sector in general? The Home Affairs Committee, when considering a change in the law, commented that many retail employees were not getting the support they needed from their employers. Steps employers could consider taking include increased in-store security and investment in technology such as body cameras, CCTV and headsets. Additionally, permanently banning offenders from shops ensures that employers are seen to be serious about employee protection. The old phrase "the customer is always right" has been brought firmly into question by the need for employers to prioritise employee health and safety. 

Training can be very effective. While retail managers are facing similar issues to shop floor staff, equipping them with the skills to support an employer's wider workforce is key. Mental health training, for example, will ensure staff feel supported when they have been the subject of abuse, and will increase managers' confidence in dealing with such issues. Training around workplace grievance processes will help managers deal effectively with workers' concerns before they become a bigger and potentially more expensive problem for employers. Ensuring that diversity, unconscious bias and discrimination training is up-to-date for all staff will help to minimise issues that can otherwise form the root of potential employment tribunal claims. 

Clear messaging in stores and raising awareness with the public should also be considered. Ensuring that customers know the repercussions of abuse towards workers is important. Many retailers have posters in-store to ensure that there are clear messages around this issue, and this also ensures that members of staff know the employer is taking matters seriously. The knock-on effect is that awareness is raised with the general public, many of whom are not aware of the magnitude of the problems facing the retail sector, and perhaps feel that the issue has improved following the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions. The British Retail Consortium has materials on its website that can be used in-store for these purposes. 

If your business would benefit from a confidential discussion regarding any of the topics above, or if you would like to speak to us about policy review and training programmes we can deliver, please do get in touch. 

Womble Bond Dickinson (UK) LLP is a top 20 UK law firm, with offices in London, Bristol, Plymouth, Southampton, Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh. Its full service Retail Sector comprises over 150 lawyers and represents many of the world's best-known retailers. For more information visit our Retail & Hospitality page.