Violence against Co-op shop workers rose sharply in 2023 as shoplifting and abuse jumped, the supermarket has said.
Attacks on staff rose more than a third compared with 2022 as criminal groups targeted stores, the retailer said.
It called for violence against shop workers to be made a standalone offence in England and Wales, as it already is in Scotland.
The Home Office said police had made a commitment to attend violent shoplifting incidents.
In 2023 shop workers had to deal with attacks, including colleagues who had been stabbed in the face with needles, or threatened with sexual assault, Co-op campaigns and policy director Paul Gerrard told the BBC.
“We’ve had colleagues who have been followed home, and threatened at home, which is pretty terrifying,” he said.
There were 1,325 physical attacks on staff in 2023, up 34% compared with the previous year, and more than a third of a million incidents of shoplifting, abuse, violence and anti-social behaviour – which taken together were up 44%.
The main trigger for the violence is a rise in shoplifting.
This is mainly carried out by organised criminal groups, or vulnerable people such as drug addicts, those with mental health problems, or young people who are being paid by organised gangs, Mr Gerrard said.
Once the goods have been stolen, they are then sold in pubs and clubs, as well as in some local businesses and online. There was even a pop-up shop operating in a local Manchester pub selling stolen branded Co-op goods, he said.
In a cost-of-living crisis, people may be tempted to buy cheap food from such places, he said, but they should be aware that the gangs involved are also committing other crimes, such as child exploitation.
“When you buy a pretty cheap steak, just what else are you funding?” he said.
Large-scale shoplifting is not confined to big cities, but it also happens in leafy market towns, he added.
Part of the problem is that police resources are stretched, and they do not have the right tools to deal with the uptick in shoplifting and violence, he said.
The situation has improved somewhat since a retail crime plan was launched in the autumn, but two in five shoplifters detained by Co-op security guards still walk away because police do not attend the scene.
The Co-op believes the way to tackle this is to make abuse of retail workers a standalone offence.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We know crimes like shoplifting must be tackled in order to increase public confidence in policing.
“Progress is being made through a police commitment to prioritise attending the scene of shoplifting instances involving violence against a shop worker, which is an aggravating factor and carries tougher sentences for offenders.”
Neighbourhood crimes including burglary, robbery and theft were down 48% since 2010, the spokesperson added.