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Utilizing Body-Worn Cameras to Respond to Retail Violence and Verbal Abuse

Concerns about retail staff being the victims of violence and verbal abuse have long dogged the industry. Indeed, I completed a study over 30 years ago for a large UK-based apparel retailer that unearthed shocking levels of abuse. Based on interviews with nearly 500 retail staff, it showed that one in nine had been physically assaulted in the last 12 months, nearly 50 percent had been verbally abused, and 66 percent of all incidents were related to incidents of shop theft. Fast forward to the current climate and recent studies paint a similar grim picture. Nearly one-third of self-checkout supervisors said they were victims of violence and verbal abuse every week, while another study found that 70 percent of retail workers had witnessed or experienced such incidents in the past 12 months.

Of course, most retailers are deeply concerned about this issue and have invested in a wide range of approaches to try and reduce the scale and extent of the problem. This has included: thinking about the design and layout of their stores; deploying security guards; investing in staff training to help identify and avoid risky situations; reviewing staff guidance on responding to incidents, discouraging them from taking any reactive role; and using technologies, in particular video.

Using Video to Tackle Violence and Verbal Abuse

While video technologies in general have long been installed in retail stores to act as a form of reassurance to retail staff and a deterrent to would-be offenders, evidence published by ECR Retail Loss is mostly mixed on its overall effect. Offenders are typically not deterred by the presence of a camera on a store ceiling, often drawing the usually correct conclusion that it will not have any immediate and direct impact on their present intended behavior. In other words, it has largely been a rather passive player in managing the problem of violence and verbal abuse in retail stores.

Making Video Active: Using Body-Worn Cameras

While the use of body-worn cameras (BWC) is now relatively common within the law enforcement community in many countries, their use in the retail environment is still a recent development. However, certainly within the UK, a number of companies have been exploring their use, the results of which were captured in a recent ECR study.

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The study found that retailers were using them for five reasons:

  • Generate Deterrence: Show the offender—usually using a body-mounted screen—that their behavior (including what they say) is being recorded, with a view to this encouraging them to desist from what they are doing.
  • Support Prosecution/Punishment: Provide video evidence of miscreant behavior which can then be used as part of a prosecution/banning order/disciplinary action. In addition, some retailers used them to provide video evidence of banning orders being served on known shop thieves.
  • Moderate Staff Responses: Act as a control on staff behavior when dealing with miscreant behavior—deter wearers from stepping outside agreed boundaries of acceptable behavior, such as using inappropriate language, using excessive force, or pursuing offenders beyond agreed zones of engagement. This in turn can reduce the likelihood that the business may be subject to legal redress later.
  • Offer Reassurance: Provide reassurance to wearers and other staff in their proximity through increasing their perception that there is an increased likelihood miscreants will be identified and prosecuted/banned.
  • Inform Staff Training: Enable video images to be captured, which can then be used for training purposes, to improve the way in which retail employees recognize, avoid, and respond to challenging customers and incidents.

For all the companies that had carried out a trial, the study found that the use of BWCs was associated with a reduction in the number of incidents of violence and verbal abuse; the lowest reduction was recorded at 30 percent while the highest was an 80 percent reduction in these types of incidents. Overall, when averaging across this data, the use of BWCs was associated with a reduction in the number of violent and verbal abuse incidents by about 45 percent.

There are some potential challenges to the use of BWCs, including privacy concerns, data management, and costs. Retailers will need to ensure they have policies in place to address these issues, including guidelines on when and how BWCs should be used, how footage should be stored and managed, and how privacy concerns should be addressed. In addition, retailers will need to ensure that employees are properly trained in the use of BWCs, including how to activate and deactivate the cameras, how to manage footage, and how to address privacy concerns.

While much more research is required, limited evidence to date suggests that BWCs, through being a much more ‘active’ video technology, have the potential to improve the safety and wellbeing of retail staff and above all, help to begin to turn the tide on a stubborn and damaging problem that has scarred retailing for too many years.

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Adrian Beck
Adrian Beck

Video Watch is a monthly column written by Professor Adrian Beck sharing insights on the proactive use and impact of video technologies in retail. It reflects the latest research and monthly discussions of the Video Working Group of ECR Retail Loss, the leading global think tank on retail loss. The research commissioned by ECR Retail Loss is supported by independent research grants provided by Genetec and other leaders in retail loss prevention. 

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