The last few weeks have seen yet another spate of violence and abuse towards retailers, as well as at least one mortality. But what is causing the apparent spike in retail crime and what can be done about it?
By Liz Wells
For as long as SLR has been published – well over two decades now – the problem of retail crime has been endemic. Experienced retailers have largely resigned themselves to the fact that violence, abuse and even death are just part of the everyday risks of the job. And the rest of the world seems to agree. From politicians and police to the proverbial man on the street, nobody seems to particularly care when another retailer gets threatened, battered, racially abused, spat at or worse. At best, incidents like these make it into a small article in a regional newspaper and are quickly forgotten.
How has it been allowed to come to the point where the world simply shrugs its shoulders at senseless, mindless violence – as long as it happens in a convenience store? They wouldn’t put up with it in any other walk of life – so why do they seem prepared to accept it in stores?
The latest Scottish Grocers’ Federation (SGF) Crime Report shows that violence and abuse of retailers is literally a daily occurrence. It happens 365 days a year. And if all this wasn’t shocking enough, it looks like the problem is actually getting worse with Scotland’s independent convenience stores coming under attack more often from increasingly brazen criminals.
If you flicked through last month’s papers you would have seen reports of retailers being faced with balaclava-wearing criminals armed with knives, guns, and even one with a blow torch.
And that’s just the ones hitting the headlines, there are obviously many others that are not reported.
The coverage peaked when Best-One retailer Bashir Ahmed, 69, was reportedly pronounced dead on Friday 18 August after emergency services were called to the Main Street store in Newtongrange at around 7pm after concerns were raised. Police Scotland says the incident is being treated as “unexplained” and that an investigation is underway to uncover the circumstances around his death.
However, reports suggest that a female youth has been reported in connection with shoplifting and assault, following a disturbance at the same premises prior to officers being called.
The girl has been reported to the Procurator Fiscal and Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration following the incident, according to the report. However, she has not been reported in connection with Bashir’s death and was not arrested.
The retailer, who was known locally as Bash, ran the shop with his daughter.
Dawood Pervez, Managing Director at Bestway Wholesale, said: “Bashir was at the heart of his community and loved by all. We were shocked and deeply saddened to hear of his passing.”
He added: “We would like to extend our deepest condolences to Bashir’s family and friends at this very difficult time”.
Protection of workers
Also highlighting the extent of the problem were new figures that Scotland’s shopworker protection law has been used 7,056 times in less than two years to report retail-specific cases of abuse or assault of staff and retailers.
The Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Act, which creates an offence of assaulting, threatening or abusing retail workers and provides for a statutory aggravation of that offence where the retail worker is enforcing a statutory age restriction, came into force in August 2021.
The latest figures provided by Police Scotland show that up to July 2023, reports included serious assaults (37), common assaults (3,066), and threats and abuse (3,953).
SGF says it has approached Police Scotland, the Scottish government, the Crown Office and the Procurator Fiscal’s Office to ensure these figures are reported frequently and provide additional data on referrals and convictions relating to the act. The trade body says this is essential information to show the act is a working deterrent.
Pete Cheema, SGF Chief Executive, said: “While we welcome the figures on the Protection of Workers Act provided by Police Scotland, we really need to know how many of those cases are being brought to justice. That would encourage more retailers to report the crimes happening in-store, daily, and could be an effective way of making potential perpetrators think twice.”
The force says it needs to make more than £50m of savings to ensure a “balanced budget” and it is required to reduce the number of police officers it has from 17,234 to around 16,600.
Deputy Chief Constable Designate Fiona Taylor said: “Hard choices are being taken now to maintain effective policing within the funding available to us. Action is being taken to achieve savings and deliver a balanced budget for 2023-24.
“Areas which encounter the greatest demand and which carry the greatest risk are being prioritised to ensure we continue to effectively reduce harm and protect the vulnerable.”
She added: “As part of this urgent action we have paused police staff recruitment other than for reform or externally funded posts; for roles based in our Contact, Command and Control Division or Resource Deployment Unit; for Police Custody and Security Officers; and for Public Enquiry and Support Assistants.
“Recruitment of Probationary Constables will continue and our commitment to no compulsory redundancies for police staff remains.”
In addition, DCCD Taylor said funding challenges underlined the need to accelerate changes that made savings or supported operational policing, including the successful transformation of the police estate.
DCCD Taylor said: “This work will shape our Service and define core policing. It seeks to reduce demand and increase capacity, and accelerate those changes which save money and provide benefits to operational policing. This includes the ongoing transformation of our estate. We will also review support services and our command structures.
“Consequently, some of the things that we do may need to be done differently or take us longer. The level of service we provide in some areas will reduce.”
Out of control
Retailer Dan Brown, of Pinkie Farm Convenience Store in Musselburgh has recently been attacked, not once, but twice. He says the problem of retail crime is spiralling out of control. “The problem is there is no deterrent – they are getting off with it,” he said.
“The police are under-resourced. We used to have five local police officers, but now we only have one, and there used to be Shopwatch but that’s gone too.”
Saleem Sadiq, Managing Director of Spar Renfrew, agrees: “To be honest we have almost given up, we never report any low-level crime, even when we do we’re lucky if an officer turns up a week later.
“I think if there was an online portal where crime could be recorded that would help, maybe there is one but I am not aware.”
The cost-of-living crisis is frequently blamed for the increase in crime, but Dan says it is only part of the problem. “They think it’s a victimless crime and they are getting one up on shops that are charging too much in their eyes. But retailers are suffering. We are finding ourselves in dangerous positions, with knives being pulled, and the police response is shocking.”
Dan says he is seeing kids acting like professional shoplifters. “Since Covid teenagers are not going to school, locally 15-20% of kids aren’t going to school, they hang around in large groups and vandalise the store, harass my staff, and shoplift,” he added.
Dan has invested in top-of-the-range CCTV, screens around the store, and radios for the staff. He is also trialling body cams.
He said: “We need the Scottish government to acknowledge it is a problem and we need retailers to keep reporting every crime.”
And it’s not just independents that are being affected by rising levels of crime. Co-op recently reported a 35% year-on-year in crime, shoplifting, and anti-social behaviour, with more than 175,000 incidents recorded in the first six months of this year – almost 1,000 incidents every day.
The retailer is warning that this level of out-of-control crime is unsustainable and could even see some communities become no-go areas for local stores. The convenience retailer calls on all police forces and crime commissioners to target prolific offenders and local organised criminal gangs to reverse the existing environment in many cities where they operate without fear of being caught or charged.
Reports show that almost two-thirds (63%) of crime is driven by repeat and prolific offenders, with drug or alcohol addictions and, local organised criminal gangs, among the main drivers of offending. Yet a Freedom of Information request by Co-op has highlighted that police failed to respond in 71% of serious retail crimes reported. With some, according to their own data, not responding to nine in 10 serious incidents reported.
With crime often the flashpoint for attacks, assault, abuse and anti-social behaviour, Co-op also revealed that front-line store workers had seen physical assaults increase year-on-year by almost one-third (30%) and anti-social behaviour and verbal abuse rising by a fifth (20%).
Matt Hood, Co-op Food Managing Director, said: “We know retail crime is driven by repeat and prolific offenders and, organised criminal gangs. It is an ongoing challenge for all retailers, and in the worst instances can even be described as ‘looting’. I have seen some horrific incidents of brazen and violent theft in our stores, where my store colleagues feel scared and threatened.
“I see first-hand how this criminal behaviour also erodes the very fabric of our communities – it’s hard to over-emphasise how important urgent change is. Co-op has invested significantly in keeping colleagues and stores safe, but we need the police to play their part. Too often, forces fail to respond to desperate calls by our store teams, and criminals are operating in communities without any fear of consequences.”
Meanwhile, Waitrose and John Lewis are offering free hot drinks to on-duty police officers in a bid to deter shoplifters.
John Lewis Partnership has written to the Police Federation to say officers can make the most of the offer – as long as they bring a reusable cup.
In Waitrose, police officers and community support officers will be able to get drinks from the in-store coffee machines. Nicki Juniper, Head of Security for the John Lewis Partnership, told the BBC: “Retail crime is a national problem and requires a national solution.
“Just having a police car parked outside can make people think twice about shoplifting from our branches or becoming aggressive towards our [staff].”
There is no doubt that retail crime is a continuing problem. How we solve the problem is less clear, but it seems the sector’s best bet is getting everyone to work together to bring numbers down.