ChrisPrice-Freelancer

September 28, 2023

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Tackling the retail crime epidemic with technology – Are body-worn cameras the answer?

The retail sector, it seems, is under attack. Increasing levels of shoplifting and violence against staff have led to the increased deployment of body-worn cameras.

Chris Price provides an overview of the challenges facing retail security and examines how the technology is being used to mitigate the issue.


IFSEC Insider long read: Key takeaways…

  • Growing retail crime epidemic as reports from ONS and British Retail Consortium show rising levels of violence and shoplifting in retail environments
  • Police not equipped or not able to provide sufficient response, leading to levels of ‘lawlessness’
  • Many retail security teams are turning to body-cams as the answer
  • Technology has improved sufficiently to reduce bandwidth requirements to stream directly to security operation centres

In addition to a massive rise in shoplifting, we are also seeing abuse against shop staff hit record levels.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), in the 12 months to March 2023 the police recorded 339,206 shoplifting offences – a rise of a quarter on the previous year.

However, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) claims the figure was closer to eight million crimes, costing retailers nearly £1 billion annually. Of the shoplifting offences recorded, only 14% (48,218) were prosecuted, while in over half of cases (54%) no suspect was ever identified.

Worryingly, this rise in shoplifting is being accompanied by a corresponding increase in violence against staff.

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Earlier this year, findings by the BRC in its annual Crime Survey revealed that incidents, including racial and sexual abuse, physical assault and threats with weapons have doubled from 450 a day pre-Covid (2019/2020) to over 850 per day in 2021/2022.

In its 2020 Crime Report, the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) reported that a quarter of violent incidents resulted in injury, with a weapon used in almost 20% of cases. While a knife is the most common weapon used to threaten retail staff (43% cases), others include axes, hammers, and even syringes.

Emmeline Taylor, Professor of Criminology at London’s City University who works with retailers on strategies to prevent in store crime, says a large part of the problem is that the police are simply not responding to reports which are made to them.

“Often there’s violence and aggression, even threats to kill, in these reports and yet a freedom of information request from the Co-Op showed that the police respond in less than 30% of cases,” she told IFSEC Insider.

“I spoke to one shop worker who broke down in tears because she has been repeatedly threatened with sexual violence by the same person who says he is waiting for her to lock up the shop, but the police won’t intervene because nothing has happened yet.”

Increasing lawlessness – ‘They’re not even bothering to hide anymore’

Like other commentators we spoke to for this article, Ms Taylor describes increasing lawlessness on the high street, driven by the cost-of-living crisis, growing mental health problems, drug addiction as well as a perception in some parts of social media that shoplifting is ‘fair game’.

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Emmeline Taylor, Professor of Criminology at London’s City University

Though not all of this criminal activity spills over into abuse against staff, much of it does, with the vast majority of offenders knowing that little will be done to prevent them.

“Essentially what we’re seeing is the perfect storm where several factors have coalesced to create a lawless environment where offenders can commit shop theft with relatively little consequence,” says Ms Taylor.

“Nor is it shoplifting in the traditional sense, but organised looting. People are coming into shops with suitcases and wheelie bins and clearing entire shelves. They’re not even bothering to hide the fact they’re doing it anymore.”

Tom Holder, Head of Communications at the BRC agrees: “There is clearly a rise in organised crime on the high street.”

Graham Swallow, Retail Sector lead for network video and bodycam manufacturer Axis Communications, adds: “People are stealing to order to sell via platforms such as Facebook Marketplace or eBay.”

According to Ms Taylor, cafés and small business are also buying the products that are stolen from much larger businesses, though in some cases – such as the recent TikTok trend which saw London’s Oxford Street looted – it’s more about causing mayhem than the actual theft itself.

Nevertheless, perfectly innocent staff quite often caught unwittingly in the crossfire. “Even when staff are told not to intervene, they’re still on the receiving end of some shocking assaults and verbal abuse,” adds Taylor.

Nor is this just a UK problem.

According to National Retail Federation’s 2022 Retail Security Survey, US retailers saw a 26.5% increase in ORC (Organised Retail Crime) incidents over the past year representing $94.5 billion in losses. A New York Times article revealed that of the more than 2 million assaults reported to the FBI by law enforcement agencies across the country in 2020, more than 82,000 (about 4%) occurred in a retail store.

“Essentially what we’re seeing is the perfect storm where several factors have coalesced to create a lawless environment where offenders can commit shop theft with relatively little consequence.”

Body-worn cameras – the answer?

So what can be done to help prevent, or at least reduce, the spread of retail crime we are seeing in our high streets? One possible solution may be through the deployment of technology, particularly body-worn cameras or bodycams.

Whereas once these were only worn by security guards within the retail sector, they are increasingly being worn by all staff dealing with the general public.

In July, the Co-Op announced it was investing £70 million over three years on innovative technology as a result of a 140% year-on-year rise in store crime and over 1,350 attacks on shop staff in just the first six months of 2020.

Initially the new cameras – Motorola Solutions’ VT100 body-worn models – will be used in around 250 stores with real time audio and video footage monitored remotely by the Security Operations Centre of the Co-Op’s security partner, Mitie.


Further reading: Do body-worn cameras help or hinder de-escalation strategies?


“Shop workers play an essential role serving communities, yet have to contend with unprecedented levels of violence and abuse on a daily basis, Cheryl Houghton, Co-Op Retail Security Manager said in the July press statement.

“I have never seen such high levels of violence and abuse, it’s a societal issue that all retailers are concerned about and it’s having lasting effects on the lives of shop workers – both mentally and physically.”

In 2019, even before the Covid-19 pandemic which seems to have exacerbated the problem, the Co-Op funded research into retail crime which found that many shopworkers were showing signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSTD).

Every little helps – ‘Workers deserve to be safe at work’

Nor is the Co-Op the only big retailer to announce the rollout of body worn cameras.

HolmesGardenPhoto-AlamyStock-CoOpConvenienceRetailer-22In September, Tesco said it would offer one to every frontline member of staff a bodycam after admitting that more than 200 of its employees are victims of serious physical assaults each month.

Writing in The Daily Mail recently, Tesco Chief Executive Ken Murphy said the supermarket’s workers ‘deserve to be safe at work’, ‘but over the last couple of years, these unsung heroes are being made to feel less safe by the actions of some people: customers who will be verbally and physically abusive, or who will threaten and attack them when challenged.’

For Graham Swallow of Axis, which works which several major retailers, bodycams are best deployed at potential ‘flashpoints’ – areas where there could potentially be confrontation with a customer such as a help desk or at a checkout. “Anywhere staff members are in front of a customer and have to explain what the problem is.”

According to Mordor Intelligence Limited, the size of the wearable and body-worn cameras market is expected to grow from $6.47 billion in 2023 to $13.57 billion by 2028, at a CAGR of 15.96% during the forecast period (2023-2028).

While not all of that growth is attributable to the retail sector, it is clearly one of the fastest growing areas.

“Until around two years ago we never really deployed bodycams, at least in a retail setting,” Rory McGoldrick, CEO of Safe Crowds told IFSEC Insider. “They were mainly used in hospitality settings, particularly bars and nightclubs.”

However, Safe Crowds now uses them to provide ‘a visible deterrent to potential criminals’ as well as ‘helping to improve customer service by providing a record of interactions between customers and employees’.

The other main benefit, according to Mr McGoldrick, is to help in any legal disputes: “Many people who are stopped in store make allegations against the staff, so bodycams are a great way of having a record of events.”

Streaming footage & reducing bandwidth requirements

So how do body-worn cameras work? While it does vary considerably, typically audio and video footage from the built-in camera is recorded onto the device itself or streamed in real time via WiFi or cellular technology to a security control centre. Some models display the footage being recorded, while others (generally more compact models) exclude a front display.

Digital Barriers is one company that is working directly with telecoms operators (including AT&T in the US and Vodafone in the UK) to provide body worn cameras in several environments, including the retail sector.

Using video compression technology, it has developed a Codec that enables the user to live stream using 90% less bandwidth compared to traditional streaming.

“If the body worn camera wearer is feeling threatened, they can press a button on the camera and start streaming at 300kbit/s compared to the usual rate of around 3 Mbit/s,” explains Kunal Shukla, Digital Barriers’ Senior Vice President of Technology.

Mr Shukla claims this is achieved using ‘deep neural networks’ to compress less important parts of an image (such a tree in the background) without compressing important objects such as person’s face. One of the key advantages of this level of compression, argues Mr Shukla, is that it enables providers to manage the costs of video streaming over mobile more easily.

Like a dashcam, body-worn cameras constantly record footage on a loop so, if the record button is pressed in an emergency, video from before the incident happened is captured.

Many also come with an accelerometer built in so will detect if the wearer has been, say, knocked to the ground and will automatically record footage.

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Image credit: Shutterstock

Body-worn cameras acting as a deterrent?

There seems to be growing evidence that body worn cameras are helping to tackle retail crime.

While independent reports are hard to come by, in a recent whitepaper, entitled How body-worn cameras in retail increase accountability and reduce crime, BWC manufacturer Reveal claimed that results so far are very encouraging.

Based on before and after surveys with staff, its evidence showed that a UK health and beauty retailer had seen a 68% reduction in violent and aggressive incidents in stores where it had rolled out its body-worn cameras with a front facing display.

It also claimed similar benefits have been experienced in grocery settings with ‘a popular UK supermarket seeing a 41% decrease in violent crime in stores using its cameras’.

Anecdotally, there is also evidence to show that staff feel a lot safer when wearing them.

Whereas conventional CCTV footage only records video footage from fixed cameras and has blind spots, the advantage of body-worn cameras is that they far better for capturing specific incidents – complete with audio – that can be shown in court at a later date (with images of innocent bystanders redacted for GDPR purposes).

Used in conjunction with other forms of technology such as facial recognition, bodycams clearly have a role to play in tackling the rise in retail crime and violence on our high streets.

However, according to Professor Emmeline Taylor, technology is just one aspect of an overall strategy to create what she refers to as the ‘fortress store’.

By focusing on several strategic areas of risk mitigation, businesses can take steps to protect their staff, customers and stock from criminals.

“There’s growing recognition that joining forces with law enforcement, with other businesses and the community, retailers can help tackle crime and antisocial behaviour. It’s only by working together that we can create safer places to live, work and shop,” she concludes.


Further reading:

 

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