I was on shift in a shop when a man wandered in and groped me

As I was working a late shift in a retail shop located in a city centre – with my back turned to the door – a tall man with dark hair and a camera slung around his neck approached me from behind.

In an unplaceable accent, he asked me if we sold beer. Assuming he was a confused tourist, I politely responded that we did not.

He smiled, leaned in close, and asked if I knew where he could find some. While he spoke, his hand began to slowly trace its way down my arm.

Not registering what was happening, I replied that there was a shop nearby where he could purchase alcohol. Before I knew it, his hand had found its way past my waist and around my buttocks.

He gripped. I froze. He swiftly exited the store.

In shock, I contacted the police and gave a description of the culprit – his face was a blur, but I pointed out key features as best I could. An hour later, police officers arrived and informed me that they were unable to find the man who had fled the scene.

Knowing there was no CCTV footage of the assault and with my attacker nowhere to be found, I reluctantly chose not to take the incident any further.

I feel an underlying irritation – an unscratchable itch – that I did not try to pursue a conviction. That this man, whoever he is and wherever he is now, got away with it.

How many more women has he done this to since me? How many more women has he made to feel violated, intimidated, humiliated, and downright gross? 

The right to a safe work environment is no big ask. However, retail companies are continuing to fail to provide this, particularly when it comes to their female employees.

My experience is certainly not unique.

A former colleague once locked herself in a bathroom to escape a sexually violent man; another has been threatened with rape for politely asking a man not to steal from her shop; another was punched in the face for not having an item in stock. While police reports were filed, nothing came of it. 

Countless more women in retail that I know have been shouted at, shoved, spat at, and – like me – groped.

Thanks to the cost-of-living crisis, it is no surprise that violence against retail staff has almost doubled from pre-pandemic levels.

The 2023 British Retail Consortium (BRC) annual crime survey found that violent incidents rose from a high of 455 a day in 2019/20 to a worrying 867 a day in 2021/22. That’s now 316,000 incidents a year in total.

While violence has increased against all retail staff, the majority of these attacks are against women.

According to a TUC poll, almost two out of three women aged 25 to 34 have experienced sexual harassment at work. 

According to the Home Affairs Committee’s report, women make up close to three out of five of all retail staff (58%), with BRC reporting that almost a third are under 24 years old (28%).

These are more than simple statistics or objective facts. 

Each number is an individual who has not only suffered abuse or violence while at work, but lasting trauma too. Unlike a street incident, a retail worker must return to the scene day after day to do their job.

In the aftermath of the groping I was subjected to, I informed my company and – in feeble fashion – the most I was offered was a brief 30-minute telephone call with a counsellor. 

There were no CCTV cameras in the store, no panic button, no radios connected to the police (none of which are mandatory for shops), and I was alone. 

I spent months scanning the faces of every customer entering my store, fearful that he would return. To this day, the sight of any man with a camera will trigger unwelcome memories.

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The sad truth is that consumer confidence is at an all-time low, while operational costs are soaring, tempting high-street retail companies to prioritise cost-cutting procedures over staff safety.

The practice of lone-working – when one employee is expected to manage the shopfloor alone for hours on end – was once often used only in times of emergency but is now becoming common practice in the industry.

Employees are frequently expected to keep their mobile phones off the shopfloor, which means far from easy access in times of urgent need. 

Last year, BRC successfully lobbied for an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act which specified ‘new aggravating factors’ for convicting people of violence against retail workers. 

But prosecutions still remain depressingly low at a measly 7%.

While the amendment to the law is a start, the impetus must come from the companies themselves.

Since threats and assaults are commonplace, there seems to be an ingrained and problematic attitude in the industry from top executives, managers, and shop workers alike, that violence and abuse is simply ‘part of the job’. 

This must change. No one should have to go to work anticipating an attack.

Deterrents can only go so far to help; prevention is key. For the sake of all retail employees – whether male or female – keep lone-working to a minimum, make CCTV mandatory, install those panic buttons, and provide staff with police radios.

If this was in place, perhaps my attacker would have been prosecuted. Perhaps it would never have happened in the first place.

But retail companies themselves can and should do more. The bottom line: violence is never acceptable and more needs to be done to prevent it.

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