Dealing with antisocial behavior and abuse towards retail workers is back at the top of the priority list for many retailers. The British Retail Consortium (BRC) Retail Crime Survey reported a 40 percent increase in violence last year, and respondents said that violence and cyber crime were areas of most concern to their businesses. As if the job wasn’t hard enough.
We were reminded of the personal costs of violence earlier this month with the tragic shooting of a Lowe’s loss prevention associate in Texas at the Gulfgate Center Mall, then with the stabbing a week later of a loss prevention associate at a California Grocery Outlet store, allegedly just for “looking at” the shoplifting suspect.
While such tragedies are relatively rare, the impact of day-to-day hostility towards staff is substantial for people and businesses.
This post will consider some of the challenges experienced by retailers dealing with antisocial behavior incidents, why these are increasing, and what employers and sector bodies are doing about it.
Changing Nature and Extent of Behavior
Common flashpoints for retail conflict and violence include confronting suspected thieves, refusing sales, and dealing with antisocial behavior. Nothing new here, but the prevalence of each appears to be increasing. Theft across the industry and challenging or antisocial behavior are increasing issues for cafés and takeout and dine-in fast-food outlets.
Customer Theft. Many shops and cafés are experiencing increased theft. The link between theft and violence is clear, with roughly 70 percent of assaults on retail workers taking place when confronting suspected thieves. While the causes of crime are complex and much debated, a reduction in police resources is likely to be a contributing factor and should certainly be a constraint factored into violence-reduction strategies.
Refusing Sales. Tighter restrictions on age-related sales and drunkenness are inevitably increasing conflict flashpoints. Frontline workers and businesses face serious consequences for not complying with the law and risk abuse when they do the right thing. Add alcohol, drugs, and an “audience” to the mix, and skillful handling is required, often by staff with limited experience and training.
Challenging and Antisocial Behaviors. This is an ongoing problem for local shops—and an increasing one—for cafés and food outlets in urban areas. It can take various forms, including:
- Groups of children causing a nuisance after school and nuisance behavior involving groups of adolescents “hanging out” in and around premises—warmth and Wi-Fi being particularly appealing this time of year.
- Alcohol-fueled behavior experienced especially (but not exclusively) at outlets operating at night. According to research from the Cardiff Crime and Security Research Institute, alcohol is the most consistent factor present in acts of violence.
- A minority of the “street community” presenting challenges that can include panhandling on premises, overstaying, and engaging in substance misuse.
While these situations can become tedious to deal with when experienced on a regular basis, they need to be handled carefully to ensure safe and positive outcomes. Guidance and training should encourage managers and staff to address the behavior of concern; in other words, not to judge the person. An unintended consequence of initiatives dealing with antisocial behaviors is the way they can further stereotype and stigmatize groups of people (e.g., those experiencing homelessness).
The better we understand behavior, the easier it is to be tolerant and considered in addressing it and its causes. There is a time to confront behavior and to be firm, but if we talk down to, embarrass, shame, or in any other way disrespect someone, we are risking assault or reprisal.
Violence is a complex area, and positive outcomes require a combination of proactive and reactive strategies. When resources are scarce, as they are presently, we need to know which measures or combination of measures will deliver best results. We also need to collaborate and be creative.
Smarter Use of Security and LP Personnel
Retailers today are more knowledgeable and discerning in their approach to crime and safety. They are more targeted with their resources, whether in terms of training or use of security equipment and loss prevention personnel.
It wasn’t that long ago that the most influential key performance indicator (KPI) for security and loss prevention personnel in large stores was arrest figures. Catching thieves was the sexy part of the job, and store teams would openly compete on arrest stats. While arrest is still a tactical option, for some a strategy available, it can be a blunt instrument when it is the preferred one.
Arrest/detention also carries significant risks, especially where staff use force and restraint. Both the staff member and the suspect are vulnerable to harm, and the industry has seen death of colleagues and suspects in such circumstances, with a devastating impact on people and businesses.
Retailers should be clearer as to what they expect of managers, supervisors, sales assistants, and security personnel in foreseeable risk scenarios. Retail outlets in shopping centers, for example, benefit from center-based security, but they need to work through scenarios where their own staff and center security get involved in situations inside and outside a store. One area to watch if contracting security is how recently officers have refreshed their conflict management and (if relevant) physical intervention training.
Approaches to security and loss prevention are more considered as teams reduce both violence risks and shrink through prioritizing deterrence over arrests. Where detention of suspected thieves is a valid part of a strategy, it is essential to work through the substantial risks this can present for staff, suspects, and the business. Procedures, staff training, and facilities, such as safe holding areas, need to be considered.
Technology is helping deter criminals and prevent theft of goods, thereby reducing staff exposure to conflict. This extends beyond property tagging systems to staff protection, with personal alarm and remote monitoring technology being used more widely in all types of settings.
Similar approaches have been popular in lone worker safety for some time and allow staff to use fixed or body-worn devices that trigger central-station monitoring, recording, and two-way communication over the speaker system. This provides reassurance and “live” support for those dealing with an emergent situation in their store or restaurant. Law enforcement will be called if necessary.
Security functions in particular are realizing the benefits of body-worn cameras in the prevention and management of crime and violence. Body cams are not just for gathering evidence—they can be an effective inhibitor of behavior. People generally become more aware of their behavior when they know they are being filmed.
Another benefit is the impact on the behavior of the wearer, who is more encouraged to be professional, knowing that their voice is being recorded. Body cameras help show managers and police just how challenging and scary the situation was, which can be difficult to explain with such impact on a paper report.
As with any equipment purchase, the true costs of introduction need to be factored, including purchase, deployment, training, maintenance, and replacement. The downloading, sharing, and management of digital content from body cameras also needs careful thought.
Colleagues can help deter thieves through being observant and simply delivering good customer service. The “nosey sales assistant” or greeter was a stronger deterrent than CCTV, according to shoplifters interviewed by Professor Martin Gill at the University of Leicester. This can be as simple as greeting customers and offering help.
Training must equip staff and managers with the skills to respond professionally to potential conflicts ranging from customer dissatisfaction to suspected theft or antisocial behavior. The more specific and relevant the content is to the challenges staff face, the more impactful it will be and likely to translate to positive staff behaviors in the workplace.
Technology is also playing a bigger role in learning with interactive and engaging software programs available to support face-to-face training as part of a flexible, blended learning strategy.
In my experience, most large retailers have some form of induction training or e-learning in this subject area; fewer, however, have a robust training needs analysis (TNA) that underpins this. This lack of rigor in a critical area of health and safety makes it hard to show evidence it is “fit for purpose.” The organization may be wasting time and money and be left exposed should it be scrutinized.
The following steps will help ensure effective “risks and needs-based” training:
- Fully understand the risks faced within the business; in other words, review incident data and risk assessments and use staff surveys, focus groups, and local visits.
- Identify the key conflict and risk scenarios experienced.
- Establish desired outcomes and how progress will be evaluated.
- Ensure clear guidance and procedures are in place to be communicated during training.
- “Reality check” procedures with a cross-section of outlets as what is viable in a large outlet or superstore may be wholly unrealistic in a smaller outlet/convenience store.
- Establish the different job roles performed, expectations of these, and training needs.
- Record the above in a TNA with agreed content, delivery approach, and review points.
As we have seen, the nature of challenging behavior and risk changes, and we need to keep dancing. The ability to respond to local issues before they reach crisis point is essential. A comprehensive strategy is required to effectively address conflict and challenging behavior, embracing latest security technologies and training. This involves identifying key risk behaviors and putting in place controls and guidance for these, which are then communicated through scenario-based training.
Mark Whittle, head of security at McDonald’s Restaurants Ltd, takes a positive and proactive approach to dealing with antisocial behavior. “We have developed bespoke training delivered through a blend of online learning, practically based courses, and targeted local coaching inputs,” he said. “The training communicates safety and security guidance and builds personal skills and confidence to ensure a safe and welcoming environment for our colleagues and customers.”
The Best Strategies for Dealing with Antisocial Behavior
While large retailers have their own challenges in getting things done, they do have internal support functions to advise and develop controls and training. A key focus for the national violence reduction initiatives is support for small and independent retailers. This includes guidance on risk reduction and resources to develop staff awareness.
It is easy to understand why a shopkeeper tackles a person who is stealing their hard-earned cash or goods, or confronts those who scare away customers. This is especially hard for shopkeepers and their families who live locally. Local partnerships can help small businesses greatly through initiatives to reduce crime and address antisocial behavior.
The constantly evolving nature of retail brings new challenges, and we have seen delivery workers targeted for their vehicles, goods, and cash. While the challenges are considerable, violence is being taken seriously in the retail sector, and I am optimistic that through working together on proactive and reactive strategies, we can reduce risks to our customer-facing colleagues.
Organizations are moving away from the “reactive cycle”—throwing money at security devices or training every few years following nasty incidents. They are putting in place considered, multi-element strategies that are sustainable and responsive to changing demands and localized needs.
Check out “Positive Approaches to Challenging Behaviors” to read the full article, which was originally published in LP Magazine Europe in 2018. This excerpt was updated January 29, 2019.