Violence against shop workers grows in an epidemic of retail crime

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Violence against shop workers has more than doubled in a year, according to Usdaw’s latest annual survey, as official figures show that shoplifting has risen by over a third. Shoplifting is not a victimless crime; theft from shops has long been a major flashpoint for violence and abuse against shop workers.

Having to deal with repeated and persistent shoplifters can cause issues beyond the theft itself like anxiety, fear and, in some cases, physical harm to retail workers.

Photograph: Usdaw

The 37 per cent increase in shoplifting in 2023 is further evidence that we are facing an epidemic of retail crime, which is hugely concerning. Our members have reported that they are often faced with hardened career criminals and we know that retail workers are much more likely to be abused by those who are stealing to sell goods on. Our survey results show that seven in 10 retail workers suffered abuse from customers, nearly half were threatened and 18 per cent assaulted. Theft from shops and armed robbery were triggers for 60 per cent of these incidents.

Freedom from Fear

In 2003, Usdaw launched its Freedom From Fear Campaign in response to members’ concerns about increasing levels of violence and abuse. Since then, Usdaw has worked with the public, retail employers, the police and governments to protect retail workers. From 2007 to 2023 Usdaw surveyed between 1,500 and 8,000 shop workers each year to gather first-hand accounts on the extent of violence, threats and abuse against shop staff. This year’s survey was based on 5,884 responses received throughout 2023.

In 2016, half of retail workers reported abuse from customers. Shockingly, this has now risen to 70 per cent. Usdaw is clear that abuse is not part of the job and it is unacceptable that retail workers are being abused, threatened and assaulted on a regular basis. Usdaw continues to call for:

  • A protection of shop workers law
  • Increased neighbourhood policing in line with Labour’s commitment to provide an additional 13,000 police officers to patrol in town centres
  • An end to the £200 threshold for police investigating and prosecuting shop theft
  • Nationwide initiatives that support the complete rehabilitation of offenders
  • A properly funded justice system to tackle the backlog and deliver victims of violence and abuse the justice they deserve.

We were alarmed by 2023 figures obtained by the Co-op showing that on average 71 per cent of serious retail crime was not responded to by police. This includes incidents where serious violence has occurred and two in every five incidents where offenders have been detained by security guards. Anecdotally, our members frequently refer to the difficulty of getting police to respond to incidents. Alongside retailers we have called for urgent changes in police response and for police to target repeat and prolific offenders.

Usdaw general secretary Paddy Lillis: "Abuse is not part of the job and it is unacceptable that retail workers are being abused, threatened and assaulted on a regular basis."

No-one should feel afraid to go to work, but our evidence shows that too many retail workers are. It is shocking that nearly a fifth of our members working in retail are being assaulted for simply doing their job and serving the community. They provide an essential service and deserve our respect and the protection of the law. Violence and abuse are not an acceptable part of the job and much more needs to be done to protect shop workers.

Failure to legislate

The scale of assaults, abuse and threats towards shop workers and extent of the retail crime epidemic has been a disgrace for many years. This has been made worse by police cuts and a failure to legislate to protect retail staff. Usdaw has long called for action that includes a standalone offence for assaulting a shop worker and that has been vehemently opposed by the current government and their Conservative MPs on many occasions.

A long overdue U-turn by the government was recently performed as they finally accepted the need to legislate. This is the culmination of many years of sustained campaigning by Usdaw and others. Our members have had to wait too long for their voices to be heard and common sense to prevail. We will have to see the detail of what they are proposing and it must be at least what we won in Scotland three years ago.

The government’s dither and delay on this issue over many years has led to thousands of shop workers needlessly suffering physical and mental injury. We hope that whatever the government is proposing will be substantial and effective in giving shop workers, key workers in every community, the respect that they have long deserved and regrettably too often do not receive.

Voices from the frontline

These are some of the comments shop workers shared when responding to Usdaw’s survey:

  • “Man spat on me when I confronted him for trying to steal coffee from us. Get drunk people who try to steal, swearing at myself and other colleagues.”
  • “Regular shoplifter threatened me and another staff member, said not to try anything because he had a knife.”
  • “Shoplifter went to hit me and another said they were going to cut my throat. Had a band of shoplifters coming in being aggressive, rude and threatening.”
  • “Abuse from youths on a daily basis – threats and violence from shoplifters under the influence of drink and drugs.”
  • “Challenged a thief and was pushed and swung at. A shoplifter punched the window next to me and said it would be my face next time.”
  • “Involved in an armed robbery and attacked with a machete. Had items of stock thrown at me by customers.”

Paddy Lillis is general secretary of the Usdaw union.

The full report of Usdaw’s annual survey is available at:


For more information on Usdaw’s Freedom From Fear campaign see:



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