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How communication can combat retail crime and improve staff well-being

The retail landscape is witnessing a concerning rise in violent and abusive incidents towards staff, presenting significant challenges for retailers.

Olivia Robinson, head of UK & EU at VoCoVo, a company specialising in retail communication solutions, provides insights into these developments and discusses strategies to enhance safety in retail environments.

VoCoVo’s role in retail communication

“VoCoVo provide communications solutions to tier-one retailers across the globe, connecting the store and empowering colleagues all through the push of a button,” explains Robinson.

“That’s used in the form of headsets, which you might have seen in some stores. So, when I’m a colleague, and I put the headset on, I’m connected to everyone else in store, I’m connected to customers through other hardware that we sell and connected to head office through our system management portal.”

Robinson leads VoCoVo’s efforts in the UK and EU, having been with the company for more than five years.

The escalating retail crime problem

The British Retail Consortium’s crime survey in February 2024 revealed a disturbing rise in violence and abuse against retail workers in the UK. 

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Incidents soared 50% to 1,300 per day in 2022-23, up from approximately 870 per day the previous year.  

“The current state of crime in retail is appalling. We know, from our experience, that retailers are aware of the problem, and they do all that they can to empower the workforce, but there’s obviously a balance to be struck off, empowering teams, but also keeping them safe,” says Robinson.

Several factors contribute to the increase in retail crime.

Robinson points to economic pressures and post-Covid-19 challenges as significant drivers.

“A lot of it comes from post-Covid and inflation. I know Covid seems like a world away now but, if you really strip it back, it’s been rising for a while, but it took a very big jump at that point,” she explains.

Crime impacts various retail sectors differently. According to Robinson, convenience stores and small-format high street shops face the brunt of violent and aggressive incidents.

“Generally speaking, if you look at the worst of it, it’s your convenience stores, your small formats, your high street stores. It typically would be those that probably get the worst of it,” she notes.

A survey by the British Independent Retailers Association (Bira), conducted in March 2024, revealed a persistent problem of crime plaguing independent shops across Britain.

The survey found a concerning trend of violence and abuse towards shop staff.

While there was a slight decrease in verbal abuse incidents compared to six months ago (35.5% in 2024 versus 43% previously), the numbers remain alarming.

Effect on retail staff

The rise in crime significantly affects the mental and emotional well-being of retail staff.

“No one wakes up and wants to go to work scared and that is the reality of what retail can be at times,” says Robinson.

“I think, with that comes a very anxious feeling and if you get that feeling, especially in the retail industry which is known to be more of an entry-level world, it does put you off going that way. Why would you choose to do that when you can sit in an office and avoid that?”

Notably, according to the Bira’s survey, 66% of those who experienced abuse did not report it, citing a lack of faith in the police response.

Communication and technology as deterrents

Robinson emphasises the role of communication and technology in creating a safer environment.

“I see a lot of innovation going on at the moment. Headsets being one of them, but you see a lot of bodycams. The in-store technology is getting so smart. What cameras can do at the moment is pretty incredible,” notes Robinson.

“If you can give them (workers) the power to act quickly when they need to, and respond to something in a safe and secure way, that’s the best tool you could give them.”

The visible presence of these technologies acts as a deterrent, making potential offenders think twice before committing a crime.

Training is essential, but it must be coupled with engagement to be effective.

Robinson explains: “I think the best thing you can do training-wise is engagement. How can you engage the store to feel a part of the retailer that will help them A) want to come to work and B) stay at work, if anything does happen.”

Retailers can enhance safety by collaborating more with other retailers to create a safer environment for employees.

“We see retailers not discussing what they’re doing, because it’s a competitive advantage, or they want to be first to market or be seen to be leading innovation,” says Robinson.

“But what I have always seen in my role here is collaboration when it comes to safety of shop-floor colleagues. I’ve seen groups, I’ve seen committees, I’ve seen retailers collaborate in front of us about these problems. I think that’s only going to get better.”

Technological innovations

The impact of smart technology in stores is substantial.

“The impact of smart technology in store, used to detect or alert colleagues, can get so much smarter,” highlights Robinson.

“Just to give you some examples of what we see and what we connect to: cameras in store can detect things from idleness of colleagues to unusual activity, big movements, shelf edge monitoring, they can do everything.”

“The headset is a deterrent, the camera is a deterrent, the visual body camera is a deterrent,” emphasises Robinson.

“If you’re going to commit some sort of crime, you don’t know where that headset is linked to. It could just be linked to a colleague, but it could be one push away from the police.”

Morale and productivity

The decline in morale and productivity due to fear is evident.

Robinson reflects: “Retail is not the place that it used to be. If you do still find long-serving colleagues and speak to them, they will happily tell you that 20 years ago, they had a hairdresser in the store, and they got cooked two cooked meals a day. It used to be the place to work.”

However, VoCoVo’s studies show that communication tools like its headsets can improve staff morale.

“If you’re looking to do headsets with a store, VoCoVo with a store, we make a point of surveying and managing the colleague morale, we do that from getting how engaged they feel, how happy, how safe and supportive they are without VoCoVo. We get a moment in time glimpse,” explains Robinson.

“Then once they’ve had VoCoVo for four weeks, we do it again. We try to see if there’s a step change and I think every single time we do because when you’re connecting people. They might not feel it for every single point but if you can make them feel 1% safer, or 1% happier, that’s a massive improvement in this kind of world.”

Retail crime presents a multifaceted challenge that requires innovative solutions and collaboration. 

VoCoVo’s communication technology plays a pivotal role in empowering and protecting retail staff, contributing to a safer and more supportive working environment.

The retail industry must continue to adapt and innovate to address the evolving landscape of retail crime.


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