Alarming figures have revealed the number of cops being called to shops, with assaults on retailer workers emerging as the most common reason.
The research from Sonder, a tech company which provides support to companies like Woolworths, Big W, Hoyts and Universal Store, reported a 35 per cent rise in police being called to stores in the April to June quarter.
Other reasons police were called to stores included an attempted suicide by a customer, attempted suicide by a staff member, a customer death on site, and an armed robbery.
Sonder chief executive Craig Cowdrey said cost-of-living concerns, and social media challenges had contributed to the rise in customer aggression.
“ (Sonder clients) are telling us that community members are concerned about the rising cost of goods and services and are becoming frustrated and aggressive,” he said.
“They are also seeing a rise in social media trends encouraging young people to do a ‘challenge’ that is often aggressive and can escalate quickly.
“In these moments we work with our customers to keep their employees safe and de-escalate the situation.”
24-year-old retail worker, Sue, who asked for her name to be changed due to fears of retribution from her former employer, said an altercation with a customer earlier this year had left her with a 2.5cm scar across her forehead.
The woman spat in her face, which Sue took as a threat and attempted to push the customer away. The customer then tried to take Sue’s glasses, which left her with a deep scratch on her face.
“She thought she’d take my glasses and when I threatened to follow her out of the store if she didn’t return them,” said Sue.
“She then threw them back in the door and they smashed into a metal pole.
“It was literally over the price of a discount ladder. I told her I wasn’t able to do what she wished, I profusely apologised but she started screaming and abusing me for 10 minutes.”
Having worked on-and-off in retail since the age of 18, she believes people “lose their common sense” in a retail setting, but harsher punishments would help prevent incidents.
“It’s like they believe retail workers are machinery – that we make the prices and the rules,” she said.
“In the end, we’re the scapegoats.”
Abuse of retail workers also escalated during Covid-19, with staffing reporting incidents of violent flare-ups and abuse due to vaccine checks, mask mandates and product shortages.
A 2021 report from The McKell Institute found rates of intimidation, stalking and harassment sharply increased by 22 per cent in 2020-21, compared to figures reported before the pandemic between 2018-19.
In June, NSW introduced three new offences under the Crimes Act 1900, to deter violent behaviour directed at retail workers.
Assaulting, stalking, throwing a missile, harassing or intimidating a retail worker now attracts a maximum penalty of four years jail time even if no actual bodily harm is inflicted.
If actual bodily harm occurs, the maximum penalty increases to six year imprisonment.
Wounding, causing grievous bodily farm, or being reckless as to causing actual bodily harm to a worker, or another person now attracts a maximum sentence of 11 years imprisonment.
In 2022, South Australia increased penalties from three to seven years for people convicted of assault which causes harm against a shop worker.
People convicted of basic assault, like verbal threats, or apply force or physical contact which workers would reasonably object, now face up to five years jail time, instead of two.
Mr Cowdrey said that, while it was “disappointing” the legislative changes were required, they were clearly needed to ensure the protection of workers.
“Every person has the right to feel safe at work so they are able to perform at their best,” he said.
“These incidents can have a prolonged impact on employees who are often young people that need both mental and physical support after the incident.”