Shoplifting rising hand in hand with customer abuse at supermarkets

Theft is often accompanied by abusive behaviour.

Theft is often accompanied by abusive behaviour.

Fears are growing that customer abuse of retail workers is becoming the norm, while supermarket giants have also reported spikes in shoplifting.

Coles’ full-year financial results released this week found total stock loss was up 20 per cent compared to last year due to a rise in “organised retail theft” and crime driven by cost-of-living pressures.

Similarly, Woolworths’ results showed a rise in stock loss partly driven by higher rates of theft.

Australian Retailers Association CEO Paul Zahra said an estimated $9 billion is lost by Australian retailers every year due to theft.

The billion-dollar profits of the larger chains might stem some sympathy from Australians, but Mr Zahra said the losses also severely affect small businesses who run on tighter margins.

“A 2 to 3 per cent loss in merchandise can lead to a 25 per cent drop in profit,” he said.

“If you’re a small retailer … [this can become] unsustainable and ultimately [you could have to] shut.

“We want people to understand that everyone’s doing it tough. If they’re in need, there’s other channels open to them and shoplifting is not the answer.”

Mr Zahra also warned increased stock losses could eventually result in even higher prices on shelves as retailers attempt to make up the lost profit from theft.

Shoplifting putting workers at risk

Accompanying the spike in shoplifting is a rise in abusive behaviour towards staff; Mr Zahra said one in four shoplifting attempts include abusive or aggressive behaviour towards frontline staff.

He said the soar of customer abuse was understandable, though not acceptable, during the early years of the pandemic amid constant stress and panic among shoppers.

But a continued increase in this behaviour has him worried that it is becoming the norm in Australian retail shopping culture.

Violence and abuse experienced by frontline retail staff is at record levels, but much of it – including verbal, physical and sexual assaults – is still going unreported.

“Women and culturally diverse people are more susceptible to be abused in a store, which is concerning for us,” Mr Zahra said.

“It can be anything from throwing a punch to using racist language.

“We’ve had a customer throw a hot cup of coffee at a staff member, a customer throw a trolley at a staff member, a stabbing, even deaths reported.”

In March, a 20-year-old employee was fatally stabbed while working at a Northern Territory BWS outlet.

Rising rates of abuse gave prompted retailers such as Woolworths, Target and Bunnings to trial body cameras worn by staff, which Mr Zahra said are showing signs of success at deterring abusive behaviour and helping police identify problem customers.

But the ultimate hope is that this wearable technology won’t have to become standard issue for retail workers.

“Shoppers should remember that retail workers are providing an essential service – ensuring you get the essentials of life to put food on the table and provide for your children,” SDA national secretary Gerard Dwyer said.

“They should not be subject to abuse and worse.

“Check your behaviour before you check out.”

He said state and territory governments should follow the example set by South Australia and New South Wales, and toughen up penalties for shoppers who abuse and threaten violence against retail workers.

Topics: Consumer
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