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Retail environment

From Halloween Chills to Jingle Tills

Retailers invest in a new 'kind' of courtesy.

From the first autumn leaves that fall to Christmas cheer shining much-needed light onto a bleak midwinter, retail’s peak season stretched from Halloween to Hark the Herald Angels Sing, where ghostly chills were replaced by the jingle tills of “the most wonderful time of the year.”

There has been a special resonance this year as the UK slowly emerges from the long tunnel of COVID-19 and all the issues that accompanied this unprecedented global disruption, including the increase in violence and aggression levelled against key store colleagues.

Providing advice to shoppers on how to be kind to each other and store colleagues is a way of trying to help everyone reboot and re-engage in a positive way, but it speaks volumes about what the pandemic has taken from us. Frustration and fear, as a result of respective lockdowns, have had a profound impact on everyday life and our well-being to the point that many of us have partially lost our sense of direction and dignity in the face of the crisis.

What starts as a rude exchange of words can quickly escalate to verbal and even physical violence levelled against store colleagues who are simply trying to do their jobs. They were tasked with the extra trimmings of having to ask customers to wear masks, socially distance, or queue outside to manage occupancy levels, all of which have, in some cases, created trigger or flash points, anger, and angst among the already anxious.

The #ShopKind Programme

#ShopKind, which manifests itself as reminders to customers to be kinder to these key workers, is a response to these fears and frictions. Supported this year by the UK’s biggest retailers, the independent charity Crimestoppers, and the Home Office, which provided some funding, #ShopKind was launched in April 2021 as both a physical in-store signage and digital awareness programme using social media to urge the public to do exactly that, after the re-opening of more stores and shops across the country following lockdown. #ShopKind is coordinated by the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS).

The programme, which included posters and animations for social media as well as shelf-level publicity signs, was launched when the scars caused by lock-downed Britain saw aggression and violence towards shopworkers reach new and frightening levels, with at least 400 shopworkers being abused every day. At the height of the pandemic, worrying incidents included spitting. 

The #ShopKind campaign, which urged the public to be mindful of shopworkers’ essential role in supporting people during what were difficult times, emphasised the fact that we should all treat workers and other customers with respect, kindness, and gratitude.

To that end, it had a lot of impact with the shopping public, according to Ed Woodall, Government relations director at ACS, one of the key partners involved in the programme.

“It had a lot of cut-through with a lot of businesses using the campaign materials to get the message across,” Ed said. “During COVID, we saw raised levels of abuse, largely because of the need to drive compliance with COVID restrictions. Shopworkers have had a lot to deal with in the last eighteen months, and Christmas is another challenging time, which is why we decided to relaunch the campaign with a focus on Christmas.” 

Post-Christmas, the ACS and other stakeholders are now looking towards a new spring offensive so that #ShopKind becomes a year-round campaign. Throughout the last twelve months, the campaign has also been backed by Usdaw, the shopworkers’ union. 

Violence Against Shopworkers

The ACS’ 2021 Crime Report, published earlier this year, showed that over the past year there have been over 1.2 million incidents of verbal abuse and around forty thousand incidents of violence against people working in convenience stores. Of these, more than a quarter involved a weapon, such as a knife, hammer, axe, or syringe. 

Two-thirds of retailers (65 per cent) had experienced COVID-related threats, with the most common causes of abuse being triggered after staff reminded customers to wear face coverings, maintain social distancing measures, and queue outside stores to manage safe occupancy levels, all of which were national guidelines designed to keep customers safe.

At the time of the ACS crime survey, Minister for Small Business, Consumers, and Labour Markets Paul Scully said, “Retail workers have played an essential role in supporting communities across the country during the pandemic and have worked tirelessly to put COVID-secure measures in place to keep us all safe.

“Staff in our great shops, pubs, hairdressers, and more should be treated with the utmost respect and gratitude. After such a difficult year, we all have a duty to treat each other with kindness.”

Mark Hallas, chief executive of the charity Crimestoppers, said, “It’s truly shocking to think that at a time when we are all so reliant on retail workers to survive during the pandemic, that so many of them are encountering verbal and physical abuse on a daily basis.” 

Mark added, “At a time of such national disruption due to COVID-19, shop staff should be appreciated by us all and thanked, not abused. Despite retailers’ vital role in the community at the frontline, there are a significant minority of people who believe that being courteous and polite isn’t important. Our message today is clear—despite what is going on in anyone’s life, no shopworker deserves to be treated badly, let alone verbally or physically abused. We’re asking everyone to take a step back and think about the true value of these workers—supporting individuals, families, and entire communities. So please be ShopKind.”

Kevin Tindall, managing director of Tesco Convenience, said,?“Our colleagues and those across retail work hard to serve customers every day, and?the vast majority of?customers are very appreciative. Our stores should be safe places to work and shop and any form of anti-social behaviour is unacceptable. New security measures, currently being rolled out to our stores, are already having a positive impact. We support the ShopKind campaign in reminding shoppers of the vital role that those working in retail have played during the pandemic and the amazing job they continue to do in keeping customers safe and feeding the nation.”

Graham Bell, chief executive of B&Q, said, “Home improvement and gardening has been an enormous source of well-being over the past twelve months, and our colleagues have done an outstanding job of keeping our stores open. They’ve given our customers access to the tools and products they need to not only adapt their homes to the new way of living and keep them warm, safe, and secure but also as a way of maintaining good well-being in the past year. While the vast majority of shopping trips to our stores are trouble-free, others are unfortunately not, which is why we’re supporting the ShopKind campaign. There is no place in retail for abuse and violence, and we stand together with the retail community.”

A spokesman for the Co-op, one of the biggest supporters of #ShopKind, said, “We know that it’s been a tough year for many of our members working as key workers keeping us in essential groceries, supporting bereaved families, and keeping us connected. The last thing you need is to receive abuse or violence at work. Yet sadly, in the last year, forty thousand shopworkers were victims of violence.”

The Co-op spokesman added, “Almost 90 per cent of colleagues working in local shops have experienced some form of abuse, with over 1.2 million incidents recorded over the last year alone. That’s why we’ve been backing the #ShopKind campaign, launched in a bid to curb the rise in violence and abuse against shop staff that has been seen during the pandemic.” 

Paul Gerrard, Co-op’s director of campaigns and public affairs, added, “No one should have to face violence and abuse just for doing their job, and nothing is more important to us than the safety and well-being of shopworkers who work tirelessly within communities—they deserve thanks, not abuse, threats, and violence. They also deserve for the law to better protect them as they go about their daily working lives. It does now in Scotland, but not in the rest of the United Kingdom, and so we continue to call for Government to show that it is listening and to send out a clear message that anti-social behaviour and attacks on shopworkers are not acceptable.”

Richard Parsons, director of retail sales at Signet Jewellers (H. Samuel, Ernest Jones), commented, “Whilst the COVID-19 pandemic has created a sense of community and continues to bring people together, it has also shone a light on the abuse that shopworkers face on a regular basis. No one should go to work fearing intimidation or violence, especially those who are providing support in local areas. The safety and well-being of our colleagues remains of utmost priority, and we are committed to ensuring that our shop floor team feel valued and safe during their time at work. We have been proud to support the ShopKind campaign and will continue to work closely on this initiative to improve the health and safety for those on the frontline. 

“Signet exists to celebrate life and express love, and our store team are fundamental in delivering that experience. We encourage all of our customers to embody this message and to please ShopKind,” Richard said.

James Lowman, chief executive at ACS, said, “Convenience stores have been open throughout the pandemic, keeping communities going and being first to adapt to keep customers and colleagues safe through COVID secure measures. While the majority of customers have been incredibly supportive and embody the messages of the #ShopKind campaign, there are still too many people being abusive and violent to retailers and their colleagues. ShopKind serves as an important reminder of the essential work that convenience stores have done over the last year and continue to do.”

Paddy Lillis, general secretary at Usdaw, said, “The final results of Usdaw’s 2020 survey show that nine in ten shopworkers had been abused last year. Usdaw is pleased that retailers, the trade union, Government, and Crimestoppers have come together to tackle this important issue through the #ShopKind campaign. It is clear that retail workers deserve to be treated with respect.”

He added, “Retail workers have been on the frontline throughout the coronavirus crisis, ensuring we can remain fed, despite the risks of contracting the virus themselves. We owe these workers a debt of gratitude for their hard work and commitment to our communities. All workers have the right to feel safe, and abuse should never be a part of the job. We hope that this campaign will highlight the incredible contributions of retail workers and promote the need for all customers to behave responsibly.”

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said, “#ShopKind is a really important campaign with a clear message for us all. Incidents of violence and abuse of people in customer-facing roles have been on the rise since the beginning of the pandemic, with colleagues being spat at, racially abused, and threatened with weapons by an increasing minority of people. Retail workers are playing a vital role in keeping customers and colleagues in stores safe and ensuring we have access to goods. So now, as non-essential shops re-open, we all need to play our part—be kind and ShopKind.”

Crimestoppers also urged anyone witnessing abuse towards shopworkers to step up and report incidents using an anonymous free phone—0800 555 111—or through an untraceable Anonymous Online Form at crimestoppers-uk.org. 

The Union of Shopworkers Distribution and Allied Workers (Usdaw), which has been running its Freedom from Fear Campaign since 2002, has carried out annual surveys ever since, all of which have highlighted a troubling increase in violence and abuse against retail workers in recent years—with another significant increase in 2020 during the coronavirus crisis. The Freedom from Fear campaign, which can be anything from a stall in a store canteen to a few simple conversations with colleagues, focuses upon three simple actions, including talking to colleagues about the campaign, encouraging all staff in store to report every incident of violence or abuse to store management and to the Police, if necessary, and asking them all to complete the Freedom from Fear survey to paint a true picture of the issue.

A Usdaw spokesman said, “We know our members suffer appalling abuse and violence while at work. However, the official retail crime figures don’t always reflect the true picture. This is because not all retail crime is reported.”

Scotland’s Response

#ShopKind has very much been an English response to the issue of increased violence and aggression directed at shopworkers. However, the devolved Parliament in Scotland has introduced a specific offence, the Protection of Workers Act, that came into effect in September this year. This move has so far been resisted by Westminster with members of Parliament looking at using the existing laws around criminal assault to eradicate the issue.

However, the issue of under-reporting, largely down to retail staff believing “It’s part of the job” or that Police will not respond even if it is reported, may mean that such an offence will never see a legislative seal of approval south of the border. 

The new legislation, the result of a bill by Labour MP Daniel Johnson, makes it a specific offence to assault, abuse, or threaten retail staff while engaged in their work. Committing this offence while a retail worker is enforcing a statutory age restriction, on alcohol, for example, also constitutes an aggravation. The offence can result in a fine, with penalties escalating to a prison sentence, with the aggravation adding the potential for a more significant sentence.

Union bosses at Usdaw in Scotland made the plea for people to report incidents as a survey revealed a fifth of retail workers who suffer such attacks do not inform their employers. Usdaw also revealed details of some of the “heartbreaking” testimonies it has received from staff as part of a survey into the problem.

A Usdaw survey, released during the union’s Freedom from Fear campaign, found that in the last twelve months, 92 per cent of retail staff have experienced verbal abuse, with 70 per cent being threatened by a customer. Some 14 per cent of shop staff have been physically assaulted in the last year, the UK-wide survey of almost two thousand workers revealed.

Shopworkers have complained to Usdaw about the impact coronavirus restrictions have had, with one union member in the Highlands and Islands saying, “Social distancing and mask wearing have resulted in confrontations that have got particularly aggressive.”

Although #ShopKind has been a stand-alone campaign, some retailers have used elements of it to support their own campaigns. Convenience store One Stop, a supporter of the programme, used its social media feeds during the campaign to complement what it was doing to support staff in its stores nationally. As part of the Tesco family, One Stop was running other campaigns across both brands as well as an increased use of body-worn cameras, which helped reduce incidents.

“We had our own campaign, Safe One Stop, running at the same time because we had a lot of absenteeism from our stores as a result of incidents of violence and aggression,” said Gary Davison, lead regional business security partner at One Stop Stores.

“#ShopKind was used in conjunction with these campaigns and worked well across our social media platforms including LinkedIn, Twitter, and Yammer, for our internal messaging. All helped to drive the right behaviours,” he added. 

#ShopKind therefore lives on into 2022 as part of the toolkit for dealing with violence, aggression, and anti-social behaviour and, depressing as it is, there is no doubt that such a campaign, where people have to be reminded to be kind and show respect for frontline retail staff, is still necessary in the twenty-first century. 

However, on the flip side of this argument, such largely preventative messages appeal to our sense of decency and, coupled with colleague conflict-resolution training and the greater use of body-worn cameras in stores, may be enough to make someone stop, take stock of the potentially incendiary situation, and de-escalate their actions.

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