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Retail Reflections: A dagger through the heart of every worker on the frontline

Alan Monahan writes: Knife crime in Britain is now so commonplace that when I heard a retailer had been stabbed to death while opening his shop, and the till stolen, my first thought was, ‘Okay, the BBC say that this happened in North-West London. I could swear that Pinner was in Middlesex when I was a boy.’

How shocking. I am ashamed of myself. A man is murdered and I have taken this in my stride, treating him as just another statistic. What’s more, I suspect that what stunned the locals who were subsequently interviewed by the media was not that such a thing should happen, but that it should happen in leafy Pinner.

This tragedy occurred a few days after the British Retail Consortium (BRC) published its annual Retail Crime Survey, which revealed that the total cost of crime and crime prevention for retailers was £1.9 billion in 2018, up 12% from the previous year.

The human cost of criminal enterprise was also laid bare as the survey revealed that 115 retail employees were attacked at work every day. The use of knives by assailants was seen as an issue of ‘significant concern’.

Helen Dickinson, the BRC’s chief executive, hopes that the report will act as a catalyst for police and crime commissioners around the country to take action. She thinks retail crime should be ‘explicitly addressed’ by them and that parliament must play its part in stemming this tide of crime by creating a specific criminal offence to protect retail employees from assault at work, as has been done for emergency workers.

‘Such crimes harm not just hardworking employees, but also their families and communities,’ she says. ‘No one should go to work fearing threats and abuse.’

Of course they shouldn’t. But the reality is that police are woefully underfunded. It is difficult to imagine how matters will improve, unless there is a major recruitment campaign and resources are better used. I can’t see either happening.

You will have your own thoughts on how the police spend their time at work. I last saw a constable in my village a couple of years ago when he came into the pub to check its CCTV, hoping to find evidence of a motoring offence. The young copper was in full uniform and I asked George the landlord: ’Is that what a policeman looks like?’ A cheap shot at getting a laugh, and worthy of joining others you will be familiar with: ‘Surely they must have better things to do’ (often used by bigots when police are investigating hate crime) and, ‘You should be out catching burglars’ (a favourite of motorists stopped for speeding).

By the way, it’s a myth that the police receive the money from speeding fines. It goes into the Government’s coffers for general expenditure and is then distributed by the Department of Transport through grants. So, in theory, it should make no difference to police funding if speed limiting technology is fitted on all new vehicles sold in Europe from 2022. Irrespective of Brexit, this would also apply in the UK.

But back to that BRC survey. Around 70% of those who took part described the police response to retail crime as poor or very poor. And while opinions showed it was generally better for violent incidents, compared to theft by customers or fraud, only 20% of those questioned considered the response good or excellent.

Helen Dickinson is correct when she says that violence against employees remains one of the most pressing issues retailers face. And she is right to point out that once again we have seen an increase in the overall number of incidents. But there will be no improvement unless more money for the police is forthcoming.

The direct costs of crime included a £700 million loss arising from customer theft, a 31% rise on the previous year. This is so frustrating for retailers and unless the courts get tough with repeat offenders I can only see this figure soaring. There has to be a real deterrent. A slap on the wrist obviously has no effect on those who time and time again set out to steal.

These days, it takes a lot to surprise me. But I was taken aback to read that the total cost of crime, at £1.9 billion, is equivalent to approximately 20% of the estimated profits of the entire retail industry!

And what of cyber-crime? Well, retailers are spending 17% more on cyber-security than the previous year – some £162 million. Even so, most of those surveyed saw an increase in the number of cyber-attacks. The British Retail Consortium has worked with the National Cyber Security Centre to produce the BRC Cyber Security Toolkit for retailers, which you can download from its website.

Finally, if you’re a mum and/or a retailer, I do hope that you managed to share in the £1.6 billion bonanza that GlobalData suggested would be the UK’s Mother’s Day spend – that’s a rise of 0.8% on last year. Apparently, cards and gift wrap were expected to be the big sellers.

Hopefully the fine weather in most places persuaded Brits to forsake a tired bouquet of flowers from the garage forecourt and head for the shops in search of a decent present for mum.