IT’S four years since the first Covid lockdown and in some respects, it feels a distant memory. Back then, Scotland’s retailers spent millions of pounds on implementing social distancing measures and changing the way we shop. However, there is now a very different epidemic plaguing our high streets.

Violence and abuse towards shopworkers, anti-social behaviour in and outside stores, and shoplifting are all significantly up on pre-Covid levels and rising fast. Official data shows a 21% annual increase in shoplifting.

New recorded crime figures show 37 per cent increase in shoplifting

This isn’t just affecting convenience stores but chemists, garden centres, fashion stores, and retailers more widely. The impact is being felt across all retail destinations.

Thieves are becoming more brazen and aggressive. This is contributing to the torrent of utterly unacceptable violence, abuse, and intimidation. British Retail Consortium’s latest Crime Survey shows there were 1,300 incidents of violence or abuse every single day last year across the UK, double the number prior to the pandemic.

We owe retail workers more. These are the people who ensured we got the goods we needed and wanted during the pandemic. The people who still serve us every single day. The same people who are subject to racist and sexist slurs, threats, and physical assaults. Teenagers taking on their first job, carers in part-time work, parents working around childcare.

While the violence can be momentary, victims can carry these experiences with them. It can affect their colleagues and the family they go home to.

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Retail theft affects us in other ways, too. Shoplifting cost retailers £1.8 billion last year, not to mention a record £1.2bn spent on crime prevention – from CCTV to body-worn cameras and tagging of products on shelves. This vast cost is money that would ideally be spent reducing shop prices, improving stores, or supporting colleagues.

The good news is that new legal protections are on the statute books. The Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Act 2021, initiated by Daniel Johnson MSP, has also brought improved visibility of the levels of assaults and abuse retailer workers face. By requiring police and courts to record incidents, it allows for better allocation of resources to fighting retail crime.

However, despite better legal protections and record spending by retailers on crime prevention, much more needs to be done to protect the skilled and passionate colleagues who help make retail such a vibrant place to work – and to bear down on thefts.

So, what’s the solution? The first step is much greater prioritisation of retail crime by government and law enforcement. Scottish ministers should ensure retail crime is a priority in their strategic police priorities and the Chief Constable should do likewise in her annual policing plan.

Retailers have 'no faith that shoplifters will be caught'

The police and courts must be given the direction and resources they need to tackle this blight and ensure those responsible are prosecuted and face the consequences. The Scottish Budget’s 5% uplift in police funding should help if a portion is directed towards combating retail crime.

With much theft and violence perpetrated by prolific shoplifters, it’s essential police investigate all reported incidents, and find and charge the perpetrators. Retailers themselves need to do better at reporting incidents. This ensures police have a fuller picture of offences and should mean more police resource is allocated. A new app being trialled should make this simpler.

Common triggers for intimidation or violence come when shopworkers do what the state increasingly asks of them: enforcing age-restriction rules on the sale of certain products or refusing to serve intoxicated customers.

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A swathe of new mandated rules is set to come into effect which may lead to more potential flashpoints in stores, and underline the need for further action. These include September’s rise in alcohol minimum unit pricing; upcoming restrictions on the sale of vapes and tobacco; proposed new rules on the location in-store of alcohol and products high in sugar and salt; and a disposable cup levy.

It’s vital government puts in place public communications which explains why these measures are coming in and that poor behaviour won’t be tolerated. Store workers, retailers, consumers, and society lose out from retail crime. Tackling it demands attention and action, surely something we can all get behind.

David Lonsdale is director, Scottish Retail Consortium