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Company Profile

The Ever-Changing British Aisles

Supermarket Sweep as Sainsbury’s Manages Risk and the Lessons Accelerated by a Global Pandemic

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

So flows the somewhat paradoxical and contradictory opening lines of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. This story of parallels, set against the backdrop of London and revolutionary Paris at the time of the French Revolution, offers up the ultimate vision that human prosperity cannot be matched with human despair.

These parallels can be drawn with our own best and worst of times as witnessed by the retail sector during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in the supermarket sector. One of the essential worker sectors that remained open throughout, this retail category took the strain and the blame in equal measure—whether dealing with panic-buying of pasta and toilet roll during the first lockdown, to promoting the narrative of retail and logistics employees being elevated to key workers for their role in helping feed the nation and keeping the wheels of industry turning.

This “best of times” narrative was seen by many retailers as a double-edged and hollow gesture sharply contrasting with the reality of increased violence and abuse against store colleagues. Add to that a chronic driver shortage, compounded by Brexit, which caused stock deficiencies in many stores and fuelled further frustration and anxiety on the shop floor. In addition, smaller retailers and hospitality providers that remained open also became the targets of often overzealous local environmental health officers (EHO) monitoring health, safety, and social distancing protocols. Many retailers were on the receiving end of threats of action for even the most minor transgressions. In one incident, a takeaway shop was prosecuted after a customer took a bite out of a baguette on the threshold of leaving the premises, an issue that was later successfully challenged by the business’s Primary Authority. 

In all, the retail and hospitality sectors have seen and experienced the worst of times during the worst of times, prompting one hundred of the UK’s biggest retailers to call on the prime minister to tackle the “shocking” levels of violence and abuse against shopworkers.

With 455 abusive attacks on retail staff every day, executives at Tesco and Sainsbury’s are among those to write to Boris Johnson. They are calling for an amendment to policing laws after a surge in incidents they say have been exacerbated by shop-floor staff having to enforce rules on social distancing and face masks.

The Association of Convenience Stores (ACS), which represents smaller convenience businesses, estimates there have been 50,000 incidents of violence against shopworkers since the pandemic began. In fact, one of its member businesses cites more than 1,000 violent incidents in a single week after face coverings were made compulsory in stores. The ACS is vocal in its lobbying campaign to make it a statutory offence to assault, threaten, or abuse a shopworker in England or Wales, a move that has become law in Scotland.

Also, in a strongly worded letter co-ordinated by the British Retail Consortium (BRC), industry leaders argued that a proposed amendment to the forthcoming Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill will help tackle escalating violence and abuse against retail staff.

It reads: “One business reports a 76 per cent increase in abuse and a 10 per cent increase in violent attacks during COVID-19, of which over half involved a weapon, and many of our colleagues have been coughed at or spat on.

“This was a very serious issue for retailers long before the pandemic and the situation cannot be allowed to get any worse. There is a clear need now for better protection in law for retail workers.”

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the BRC, said, “Retail workers are facing violence and abuse every day just for doing their jobs—keeping customers safe during the pandemic, checking ID, and confronting shoplifters.

“Behind each of these statistics is a person, a family, colleagues, and communities that have to cope with this trauma.

“No-one should go to work fearing for their safety, yet many retail workers have come to see it as part of the job. This can’t go on,” she added.

The most recent crime survey of retailers revealed a 7 per cent year-on-year increase in violence and abuse to 455 cases each day.

Retailers are spending record amounts on crime prevention and have invested £1.2 billion in the past year, the BRC said. This includes a range of measures, such as body-worn cameras, personal attack alarms, and increased security personnel.

The call for action was taken one stage further in the June report entitled Violence and Abuse Towards Retail Workers from The Home Affairs Select Committee. The report’s summary was damning and called for urgent action. It read in part:

 “Shopworkers are the lifeblood of local high streets and communities. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic those in essential retail continued to work and kept our communities going. So, it is appalling that abuse and assaults against shopworkers went up during the pandemic, and staff faced abuse for enforcing COVID restrictions. It is completely unacceptable that violence and abuse towards retail workers is becoming endemic in British society. 

“The committee has heard repeatedly that the policing response to retail crime is failing to match the rising tide of violence and abuse against shopworkers. On far too many occasions, retail workers are being left alone to manage dangerous situations that put both their physical and mental well-being at risk. When the Police fail to attend or follow-up serious incidents it undermines trust and confidence in them, discouraging reporting and weakening the deterrent for repeat offenders, leaving shopworkers more vulnerable. 

“Improvements in reporting and responding to violence and assaults against shopworkers are urgently needed. We welcome the Government’s work to provide better guidance on reporting retail crime. We agree that you cannot manage what you do not measure. However, we also need a much stronger and more serious response from the Police when these incidents are reported. We recommend that it is made mandatory for the Police formally to flag offences committed in a retail environment, including assaults on retail workers, to give a consistent indication of the scale of the problem to help improve the Police response and to allow Police forces better to understand patterns of local crime. 

“Local Police leadership on this issue is also urgently required. As local representatives, Police and Crime Commissioners are well placed to understand the specific issues facing the retail community in their area. We call on them to work with local retailers to establish or strengthen Business Crime Reduction Partnerships in every area. Chief Constables need to ensure that all forces are taking violence against shopworkers much more seriously and improve their response to retail crime. 

“The lack of capacity in neighbourhood policing teams to build relationships with retailers, identify prolific offenders, and respond swiftly to incidents of retail crime has damaged the confidence of retail workers. We call on Chief Constables to ring-fence a proportion of their additional policing capacity to expand neighbourhood teams.

“As well as improving the response to retail crimes when they do occur, there must also be renewed focus and action on the causes of retail crime. Drugs play a significant role in a large number of these crimes and fuel a cycle of prolific offending. Sustainable increased funding is urgently needed for local drug rehabilitation services. 

“Retail workers are placed at an increased risk of violence and abuse compared to members of the general public. They are responsible for enforcing laws with regard to age-restricted sales and restricted goods, and conflict over these types of sales is a key trigger for violence and abuse. Other categories of workers, such as emergency workers and customs officers, have rightly been afforded extra protection by the law in recognition of the service they provide to the public and the responsibility placed upon them by Parliament. We believe that retail workers must also be recognised, and that offences against them must be treated with additional seriousness, with extra protection from the law.”

Sainsbury’s Pandemic Experience

With 16 per cent of the grocery market share, Sainsbury’s is Britain’s second-largest supermarket and has arguably seen both the best and the worst of times and many of the instances outlined in the Home Affairs Select Committee’s report.

This year Sainsbury’s, which took over the Home Retail Group that included the purchase of Argos and Habitat as part of the £1.4 billion deal in 2016, reported a strong operating performance, with grocery sales up 7.8 per cent, general merchandise sales increasing by 8.3 per cent, and digital sales shooting up by a staggering 102 per cent as a result of customers switching to online purchases. 

But, on the flip side, the business reported a £261m loss for the year. The decline was due to falling fuel sales when home working became the norm. In addition, COVID-19 measures cost the business £485 million in covering staff absences as well as installing screens, sanitiser stations, and other protocols to make stores safe for customers and staff.

In the annual report, Chief Executive Simon Roberts said, “This year’s financial results have been heavily influenced by the pandemic. Food and Argos sales are significantly higher, but the cost of keeping colleagues and customers safe during the pandemic has been high.

“Like our customers, we are all looking forward to things feeling more normal over the coming months and getting excited about a summer of celebration, but we are also cautious about the economic outlook.”

During the summer of celebration, including Great Britain’s “gold rush” at the Tokyo Olympics, shoppers responded positively to supermarket calls for patience over stock and staff shortages caused by lorry driver shortages. The “pingdemic”—triggered by the NHS COVID app that forced many colleagues to self-isolate even when they had tested negative—has also been a problem. 

Across the supermarket sector, such issues served to raise the temperature in stores, but according to Helen Clayton, Sainsbury’s senior crime and security manager, the business roll-out of technology such as body-worn cameras has had a positive impact on colleague morale.

 “I see green shoots of hope here,” said Helen, who has worked in the field of loss and security for the last nineteen years. “Verbal abuse is massively up since the start of the pandemic, particularly in the first wave with all the panic buying.”

She added, “We were obviously one of the businesses that remained open throughout, and as lockdown started and verbal abuse increased, we quickly made it easier for colleagues to report this incident type. We use a simple tool for colleagues to report incidents of theft, anti-social behaviour, and verbal abuse.”

Sainsbury’s is one of many retail businesses harnessing the power of innovative technology to keep their workers safe. Both security and store colleagues have been equipped with technology across Sainsbury’s supermarkets, convenience stores, and petrol stations, which has worked to de-escalate confrontations at the doors and in the aisles.

“On the positive side, we have seen that physical assaults are decreasing, although there are still high levels of verbal threats,” said Helen, who was the joint winner of the Woman of the Year accolade at the 2020 Retail Fraud Awards, which had been delayed for almost a year because of the pandemic. 

“We wanted to loop in every store, and we now have 6,500 body-worn cameras across our estate, which I am extremely proud of. It offers us protection and flexibility for both security officers and colleagues.

“Since we started the roll-out two years ago, we have seen a significant reduction in cases involving harm and aggression. The cameras not only provide a visual deterrent but also link to the remote support from an alarm receiving centre, who can see and hear incidents in real time, can call the Police on the store’s behalf, and provide an incredible evidence trail,” she said. 

“It’s a great tool that supports colleagues, especially in Scotland, where the evidence will help to support the new law that specifically protects shopworkers,” Helen added. 

Likewise, the supermarket has introduced a GEO-Alerting programme identifying crime incidents happening at one store that are automatically triggered at nearby Sainsbury’s outlets by advance warning of the type of criminal behaviours, along with suggested actions and approaches for the stores to take. 

“Our security teams have been amazingly supportive throughout the pandemic, going above and beyond, particularly as they were identified as a vulnerable group during the first lockdown. We are trying to support a coherent policing approach to stop incidents happening in the first place, so we only contact Police where there is a need to,” said Helen.

Helen Clayton’s Career

Helen began her career with Sainsbury’s as a student twenty-six years ago at the age of eighteen. At twenty-one, she enrolled in the Sainsbury’s graduate programme before becoming a department manager. She left the business in 2002 to join Boots’ loss prevention team in her native Nottingham, before returning to take on her current role four years ago this month (September 2021).

She has developed a linear team structure of security services managers looking after contracts, projects, and technology, including Sainsbury’s new Security Operation Centre (SOC), built and managed by its security partner, as well as the crime response managers troubleshooting and learning from day-to-day incidents and managing the corporate security agenda. 

An experienced loss prevention professional who has held numerous field roles investigating theft, fraud, and process loss to reduce stock loss, Helen has represented the retail sector through the BRC, the National Business Crime Centre (NBCC), the Home Office, National Business Crime Solution (NBCS), and ORIS Forums. She was also invited to sit on the Home Office’s National Retail Crime Steering Group led by Kit Malthouse, the minister for crime and policing.

Sainsbury’s Approach to Safety

A boon for Sainsbury’s strategic approach was endorsement from UK consumer champion organisation Which? While the supermarket sector has spent millions of pounds on coronavirus safety measures, the watchdog’s February 2021 survey reported some were doing a better job of making shoppers feel safe than others. 

The report said: “Perspex screens, floor markings, and masks are all par for the course when it comes to grocery shopping. Yet, even with these protections in place, only one quarter (26 per cent) of people in the UK have felt safe when shopping during the current lockdown. 

“While every grocery chain has taken similar steps to hinder the spread of coronavirus in their stores, our survey found that customers think some shops feel safer than others.

“While safety measures at supermarkets may seem similar on the surface, there were some clear winners when we asked Which? members how they rated supermarkets’ in-store safety measures. Sainsbury’s came out on top, with 81 per cent saying the grocer’s COVID measures were good or excellent. M&S (79 per cent) and Waitrose (78 per cent) followed close behind. Iceland and Lidl came at the bottom of the bunch, with each being rated good or excellent by 66 per cent of their customers.” 

Sainsbury’s also focused on the growing need for physical security for delivery drivers servicing the more than 100 per cent increase in internet sales. Here, all Argos drivers were equipped with personal safety devices following an increase in crime incidents.

In addition, one of Sainsbury’s security partners also garnered a 2020 OSPA (Outstanding Security Performance Award) for its partnership store detective blitz team programme.

Sainsbury’s new secret weapon is mobile detection units, technology-enabled monitoring vans that are heavily liveried to act as physical deterrents for incidents. The units are moved around various high-risk stores as part of a prevention strategy. Sainsbury’s is gathering intelligence on the risks involved with the units and the need to deploy the other security technology contained within the vehicle. 

Apart from “putting a collective arm” around colleagues experiencing daily criminality, Helen’s broader lobbying portfolio at Government level has also uncovered practical guides for stores to raise concerns and provide victim support.

“Not many people realise that the ministry of justice website is a real help here. If you enter the postcode of your store or where you live, it also provides you with a menu of support for victims, all of which is funded by the PCC,” Helen said.

All in all, Helen and her team have remained focused on ensuring Sainsbury’s, one of the UK’s biggest supermarkets, continues to take a multi-level and award-winning approach to crime reduction, colleague support, and strategic collaboration in a bid to convert the worst of times into the best of times. 

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