Shoplifting and customer abuse soar post-COVID, stores report

The retail sector is still feeling the effects of the pandemic years, with incidences of theft and customer aggression at far higher levels than before COVID-19.

This was confirmed by a survey of companies that operate more than 8900 stores across Australia and New Zealand.

The study, conducted by Griffith Criminology Institute for the Profit Protection Future Forum, shows the average reported crime-related losses for the period in 2021-22 amounted to $4.3 billion for the entire retail sector.

This represents a 28 per cent increase in crime-related loss since 2017–18, and is largely driven by customer theft, with the average “shoplifting incident” comprising between two and five items.

Employee theft was also found to be high, ranking second as a source of losses for retailers after customer theft.

The risks of theft

Although less frequent than customer theft, retailers deemed the average value of a theft by an employee to be higher than that of a customer, with 40 per cent of retailers reporting the average internal theft incident had a value of more than $500.

Abuse of staff discounts and unauthorised discounting for family and friends were included as forms of employee theft, ranking just behind theft of stock by individual employees.

Josh Cullinan, Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU) secretary, told The New Daily the idea that employee theft makes up 24 per cent of retail losses is “preposterous”, but admitted workers are facing the same economic pressures as customers.

“The same issues that are impacting on the broader Australian community are absolutely impacting on retail workers across Australia,” he said.

“And that includes in relation to being able to feed their families, and put roofs over their head.

“So I think it’d be fanciful for anyone to suggest that there isn’t some theft occurring by some workers, but … [it] pales into insignificance in terms of comparable issues that are impacting on retail fast food workers every day.”

Mr Cullinan said retail theft by customers “always” poses a risk to workers, who are often tasked with being on the lookout for thieves and checking bags.

“When I was working at Woolworths 30 years ago, all of the fit men would be required to come down the front and try and encircle an offender,” he said.

“Now, those days have gone for the major retailers, but they are still requiring things like bag checks and other systems which place workers in harm’s way.”

Abuse going unreported

Violence and abuse experienced by frontline retail staff is at record levels.

The study found that supermarkets, department and discount department stores are bearing the brunt of this increased abuse, but Mr Cullinan said retailers are more focused on loss prevention than employee protection.

“We have members who are threatened with physical violence, workers who’ve had their lives threatened by literal verbal threats … workers have had weapons pulled on them, workers have had offenders assault them – punching, kicking, spitting – workers have suffered verbal abuse and intimidation.

“All of those are the things that our members experience on a far too regular basis, and which are unlawful, but go unreported and unpunished.”

The study, along with historical research, suggests violence without injury and verbal abuse are likely to be under-reported by retail workers.

Mr Cullinan said workers are reporting these offences, but management and retailers ignore many of these reports.

For example, in one instance when a RAFFWU delegate reviewed safety reporting for Coles at Coburg North, the store had not included a single incident of customer abuse for the entire year in its report – yet workers told RAFFWU they had been reporting abuse to their management daily.

And when Mr Cullinan visited Woolworths at Moorabbin a few years ago, two young female workers came to him to report sexual assaults in the workplace by customers, which they had reported to management who had taken no action.

He said retail management don’t report assaults so they won’t be held to account when workers finally make a WorkCover claim or when work safety organisations come around.

Annual volume of violence and abuse experienced by ANZ retail sector employees. Source: Griffith Criminology Institute/ Profit Protection Future Forum/ 2022 ANZ Retail Crime Study

“It’s just preposterous that we’ve got workplaces where someone can have their life threatened – literally, a 15-year-old can be told they are going to be killed when they leave work – but that workplace doesn’t shut down,” he said.

“I can guarantee if someone went into one of [the corporate head offices] and said that they were going to kill someone there, the place would shut down, the cops would be called, and all heaven and earth would be moved to capture that person, hold them accountable and send them to jail.”

He said supermarkets and other large retailers could help protect workers by hiring security guards for every store, taking reports of customer abuse seriously by shutting the workplace and calling police in dangerous situations, and letting offenders know they won’t get away with abusive behaviour.

TND contacted Woolworths and Coles for comment, but they had not replied at time of publication.

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