When the worst happens

You will I’m sure have been as shocked and appalled as me, our team here, and our members at the death of Vijay Patel, a retailer in Mill Hill, north London. First, the facts as we know them: late on Saturday night three teenagers tried to buy age restricted products, Mr Patel and a member of his team correctly refused the sale, and in response they were attacked. Mr Patel died as a result of the injuries he sustained, his colleague’s injuries are not life threatening.

How do we make sense of this? Is it symptomatic of wider issues or was it an horrific one off event? Should retailers and their colleagues feel less safe at work? As always, there’s a risk of responding in the wrong way or, worse, cynically exploiting events like this to push policy agendas. And by talking about the issues surrounding this attack, we are always in danger of excusing the actions taken and choices made by the perpetrators. 

All things considered, here’s what the tragedy says to me about crime in our sector. 

Firstly, it’s a tragic reminder that retailers are at the front line of enforcing the law. We agree with the age restrictions in place for the products Mr Patel refused to sell, but think about all of the grey areas and contentious laws that retailers have to enforce. How do you know if someone’s drunk, or if they’re buying alcohol on behalf of someone underage, or how they intend to use a solvent or a cleaning product containing acid? Too often this is seen as an inconvenient add on to policy discussions, but I think we should start by thinking about the practicalities of selling (or not selling) products and make sure that we give retailers the clarity and guidance they need. 

Secondly, are stores more dangerous as places to shop and work than they used to be? The official figures suggest a rise in retail crime and signs of an uptick in overall crime after decades of decline. The change that retailers I speak to refer to most is the increased levels of violence and threats that are used more often now: staff being threatened with syringes, more knives, nastier and more plausible verbal threats, and quicker escalation to violence. A cold analysis of the data confirms that you’re still unlikely to be the victim of a violent attack if you’re a retailer or shop worker, but for the minority who are victims, the violence used and the personal consequences may be greater now. 

Thirdly, there is an erosion of retailers’ trust in the criminal justice system. Maybe some of the reactions I’ve seen and heard this week are in response to the entirely unrelated John Worboys parole decision, and reflect wider public concerns with the proportionality of sentencing. But I think retailer concerns are also due to the long standing policy and practice of downgrading penalties for retail crime. Most instances of shop theft are either not investigated, or punished with a fixed penalty notice. There are some valid reasons to look at out of court disposals for first time offenders, but as I’ve written before, when they are issued to repeat offenders, or not paid at all, isn’t undermines any sense of an effective deterrent. Is this relevant to this violent crime for which the perpetrator will receive a custodial sentence if found guilty? Maybe not directly, but it all goes towards forming an impression of the criminal justice system and its treatment of people who commit crimes against retailers. 

This may be too soon to ask for a level-headed debate on these issues. Policy and legislation designed in memorium generally isn’t effective, and I’m not asking for that. What will make incidents like this less likely in the future, and make retailers and shop workers safer? Let us know your views. 

This entry was posted by Chris on Wed, 10/01/2018 - 15:17