Protecting staff from retail crime in New Zealand

'There needs to be really clear processes in place to understand what you're meant to do if someone engages in threatening behaviour', lawyer says

Protecting staff from retail crime in New Zealand

Earlier this month, Foodstuffs North Island revealed that retail crime across its more than 300 stores has more than doubled in two years.

The company experienced a record high of 5,124 incidents between the January-March quarter of this year. It marked a 9% increase from the 4,719 incidents in the October-November quarter of 2023, and a 46% spike from the 3,510 incidents recorded in the July-September quarter of 2023.

Thefts accounted for the majority of incidents reported, followed by trespass notices. However, offences involving violence and aggression increased the most. Assaults nearly doubled to 60 while harassment cases doubled to 26.

“For cases of assault and harassment in our co-op’s stores to now be double what they were in both of the previous two quarters is very worrying,” Foodstuffs North Island CEO Chris Quin said in a statement at the time.

“It is, of course, part of the bigger picture of an ongoing epidemic of retail crime. We’re seeing it, and other retailers are too. The stats showing crime in our co-op’s stores has doubled within two years speaks volumes. It mustn’t be allowed to continue.”

So what measures retailers do to better protect staff from retail crime?

The Health and Safety Act

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, the primary duty for employers is to ensure a safe and healthy workplace for staff as well as other people who walk in the door, Tess von Dadelszen​​​​, partner at JB Morrison Lawyers, said.

“That's where it all begins,” she told HRD New Zealand. “Everyone's aware now of this retail crime issue and the fact that it seems to be increasing and therefore employers are on notice of the risk. And when you're on notice of a risk to health and safety, you're obliged to either eliminate the risk or minimise it as much as you can.”

And there are a range of ways employers can be liable for health and safety issues, von Dadelszen added, from workplace injuries through to worst case scenarios such as fatalities.

But, to help protect their staff from retail crime in particular, she emphasised the need for employers to have policies and training in place for them.

“There needs to be really clear processes in place to understand what you're meant to do if someone engages in threatening behaviour,” von Dadelszen said. “What do you do? Do you reach out for help? Is there a room you go to?

“The key thing is that organisations are looking at the situation and saying, ‘What can we do in our environment?’ And then ‘How can we make sure all of our staff –  from the one who's there on their first day to the one who's been there for 20 years – understand our process in the event of any of these things?’ Whether it's observing potential theft, right through to whether there's actually an emergency happening. You're also mitigating your legal risk if you’re really clear with people on what you expect them to do and why,” she said.

von Dadelszen added that each staff member also has to think about protecting themselves.

“It's not just the employer that has the duty there and I think sometimes that is lost on people,” she said. “An employee or a contractor – whoever's coming in as a worker – needs to also be doing what they can to keep themselves safe and other people.”

Ways employers can keep staff safe

In terms of strategies that employers can use to keep staff safe from retail crime, von Dadelszen mentioned a variety of options such as bollards to stop vehicles coming through stores, security cameras, security staff at the door as well as safety screens which had been used during the COVID pandemic.

“Those are quite useful as well from a safety and security perspective, not just a health perspective,” she said.

In addition, Woolworths New Zealand announced the use of body worn cameras to ensure their safety, while Foodstuffs has been trialling facial recognition technology at some of its stores to identify repeat offenders.

von Dadelszen acknowledged that when major supermarkets do implement technology such as facial recognition software, they would have gone through a rigorous process of working through what the privacy act says and how they’re going to apply it.

But it was important that they’re careful that the information being collected is used for the reasons they say they are using it for, and they’re careful about who has access to it.”

“They’d have to be really rigorous in making sure that was the case,” she said. “And not using it [facial recognition technology] to accidentally or on purpose move into a discrimination space or a misuse space.”

Another factor for employers to consider is the psychological impact that retail crime can have on employees, von Dadelszen added.

“There’s a combination – there’s the abusive behaviour but even if they see someone walk out of a shop with something they haven't paid for it, an employee can sometimes feel that's their fault,” she said. “And so whatever you can do to prevent not just the physical issues, and obviously, the loss of product, it's the feelings that the people involved might be experiencing after that and what support you can be ramping around them as well.”

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