We shouldn’t be afraid to go to work

There are some career choices that have inherent risk and danger associated with them. Working in retail shouldn’t be somewhere you’d expect to experience harm.

In the UK, a violent incident is experienced by retail workers roughly every 5 minutes. In fact, the British Retail Consortium Crime Survey 2021 found that during a typical trading day, staff experience abuse and violent incidents more than 50 times an hour.

Unfortunately, prosecutions for such events are incredibly rare with only 6% of incidents being pursued through to conviction. While this is a stark statistic, court’s sentencing guidelines recognise the public service element of retail jobs and so routinely recommend stiffer sentences for offenders. However the fact remains that those threatening or actually using violence against store staff are much more likely to walk away than be taken to court.

There are many reasons why prosecution rates are so low, but one of the most important is the difficulty of reporting an incident. In the UK, a recent Home Affairs Committee’s report discovered that most workers believe that violence and abuse is often considered part of the job to such an extent that they see no point bringing incidents to the attention of either employers or the police.

Retail suffers a similar reporting gap when it comes to shop theft. Only 4% of incidents of shoplifting are ever reported to the police - 325,000 out of an estimated 7 million events each year, according to the National Business Crime Centre (NBCC) in the UK.

Of course, those engaged in theft aim to hide what they are doing, while those offering abuse and violence are very obvious. The two cohorts are very closely linked, though. Arguably the most contentious event to deal with in store is attempting to prevent shoplifting. While some offenders will become passive and amenable when caught in the act, many others will do whatever they can to escape the situation.

Understandably, many retailers choose a zero-risk approach and implement policies that advise store staff not to approach or intervene with shoplifters under any circumstances. Whilst specialist store guards and security officers do approach and apprehend offenders, their services are often too expensive to be deployed to every location. In many cases this leaves front-line staff feeling isolated and unsettled, frustrated witnesses to criminal behaviour.

Working towards making safer spaces

At SAI, we have had great success in developing our AI and computer vision platform to help retailers detect and actively prevent stock loss in stores.

The challenge we have been set by our customers is to use our technology to look at ways of reducing losses while increasing the safety and wellbeing of store staff.

To solve this challenge, first we had to take a step back and evaluate the situation from first principles:

  • Store staff expect to come to work to sell products and provide good service in a safe environment
  • There should be zero tolerance of incidents of aggression and violence - these should be automatically detected and reported without further burdening the victim
  • Part of providing colleagues with a safe work environment is to detect, prevent and deter shoplifting, theft, and fraud

The result is the addition of SAI Safe to our in-store computer vision platform. This new component has been developed by analysing many thousands of hours of video provided by our customers and partners. Our technology teams then crafted models to interpret interactions between colleagues and customers.

  • The resulting algorithms accurately identify violence and aggression, triggering alerts to security officers or other responses such as audible alarms.
  • Evidence from each incident is automatically prepared for investigation by law enforcement agencies and to set in motion internal programs to provide care and support for affected colleagues.
  • Detection and prevention of theft and shoplifting with the SAI Alerts app helps to deter high-risk individuals from entering or returning to a store.

SAI Safe is part of our commitment to develop AI that puts people first. While this is an ongoing process for us, we understand that creating safe work places within the retail industry is about more than technology - it requires a willingness to pursue positive change.

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Paul Dennis

Paul Dennis