The technology keeping retail staff safe during the covid “crime epidemic”


“Thank you to the supermarket workers, as panicked people throng your stores, leaving your shelves in need of relentless replenishment, your checkouts requiring constant attention and disinfection.” – Guardian columnist Owen Jones said in March 


From nationwide applause, to Banksy murals, to personal thanks from the UK’s Prime Minister, “Grateful Britain” went out of its way to show appreciation to the UK’s key workers in the initial months of lockdown.

NHS staff, public transport workers, postmen, retail workers and many others were, likely for the first time in their careers, recognised and offered thanks for the work they do every day.

Yet as lockdown dragged on and the nation adjusted to this new normal, the applause gradually faded and the admiration directed towards the country’s retail workers turned into something far more sinister.

In the months since that start of lockdown a “crime epidemic” has swept through the UK, with shop workers once again spending their working days on the front lines.

Last month Co-op warned that violence towards its staff had skyrocketed 140 per cent, while  workers union USDAW said that violence and abuse towards retail workers has doubled since the start of the pandemic, while calling for new laws to protect staff.

“Customers can often forget that retail workers are part of the celebrated frontline,” VoCoVo’s chief commercial officer Martyn Jones told Charged.

“Sadly this can manifest in physical and verbal abuse that makes a sometimes challenging job even tougher. Our recent research revealed that almost a third (32 per cent) of retail teams have suffered from physical abuse from customers during the Covid-19 pandemic and nearly half (48 per cent) have experienced verbal abuse.”

While its troubling that the pandemic has driven a rise in abuse, it has also forced retailers to be more open minded about adopting new technologies, many of which can be used to help empower staff against this new phenomenon.

“Voice communication devices, such as headsets, can help protect retail teams and make them feel empowered by providing them with a fast and discreet means of summoning the help they need when they need it,” Jones added.

READ MORE: Usdaw starts petition to protect retail workers from crime & abuse

Headsets have been used in retail for years, but their ability to enable social distancing between staff and connect the high volumes of new employees to more experienced colleagues has driven a “spike in demand” during lockdown.

“Employees can notify all colleagues, contact the emergency services and ask for help immediately,” Jones continued.

“Similarly, just wearing the devices can act as a deterrent for people to commit crime or abuse, because customers don’t know who workers are communicating with.”

Creating a form of deterrent is a vital tactic in fighting abuse against retail staff, preventing potentially volatile situations from being exacerbated into something more dangerous.

Fujitsu’s retail business development director Paul Kirkland believes that the most effective deterrent is body worn cameras.

“Store staff who have witnessed a crime are often unable to challenge the perpetrator for fear of aggravating a situation which leaves them feeling disempowered, but body worn cameras take the responsibility away from in store staff and back to the highly trained security teams,” he explained.

“Put simply, it is a real deterrent for thieves and perpetrators who know their features are being captured on camera, and real-time software and analytics allows for alerts and messages to be shared with the relevant colleagues, security and legal bodies at the time of the incident.”

Body worn cameras have been rolled out extensively across the UK’s retail sector and now are now a “critical element” of many organisations security strategies, according to Motorola Solutions which recently equipped Co-op staff with over 1000 cameras.

These VT100 body worn cameras allow staff to stream video in real-time to the Security Operations Centre of Co-op security partner Mitie, and can be activated with a single button push when staff feel threatened.

READ MORE: Waitrose becomes latest to issue body-worn cameras to security staff

Live surveillance specialist Digital Barriers’ vice president Neil Hendry told Charged that these newer connected devices are vital for retailers to reduce incidents in “real-time”.

The older “record-only body cameras” can only provide help to staff after-the-fact and “do little to improve the safety of the individual ‘in the moment’,” he said.

Live streaming-enabled cameras however “give security officers heightened and real-time situational awareness, which they can use to make better informed decisions and take instant action, providing supermarket staff with greater assurance that help will quickly be at hand if required.”

According to research from the University of Cambridge, the presence of body worn cameras improves the behaviour of both the wearer and those shoppers due to the awareness of a ‘digital witness’.

Kirkland added: “One of our retail customers, for instance, had one armed robbery per week.

“That is staggering. The use of body worn camera technology saw the numbers drastically reduce and as a result, shrink and loss significantly improve.”

The visibility of cameras and the ‘digital witness’ factors are clearly effective tools in reducing crime and defusing situations, but more severe situations can often call for a more discreet method.

According to the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) 2020 Crime Report a quarter of violent incidents resulted in injury, with weapons including knives, axes and hammers used in almost 20 per cent of occurrences.

When situations are in danger of becoming violent, “hidden control pads behind tills can also be used by store staff to alert guards”, allowing shop workers to call for help without the suspect’s knowledge.

This technology can also be applied to reduce theft, enabling shop workers who suspect criminal activity to inform security staff discreetly and avoid possible confrontation.

“In the future, we expect so see technology being used to automatically ask customers for proof of age documents if they’re buying alcohol, which we hope will reduce the number of instances of a confrontation,” Kirkland explained.

“It is an especially useful piece of technology when utilised in tandem with body worn cameras and facial recognition technology. We are also seeing the use of wearable technology supplementing these solutions, allowing real time messaging and alerts if a problem breaks out. Multiple staff and even police can receive these real time alerts.

“The software that sits behind all of this is the critical mass that is the real point of differentiation – allowing real time data capture, alerts and monitoring.”

The pandemic has required retailers to adopt a range of new technologies to keep customers safe, from virtual queuing systems to hand washing stations and dramatically improved ecommerce services.

It is a cruel irony that retailers are now being forced to adopt new technologies to protect their staff from another threat, their customers.

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