How to protect your retail staff in the face of Christmas abuse

It’s that dreaded moment on the shop floor every summer retail worker can relate to. One moment you’re humming along to Michael Buble’s Christmas album, the next you’re confronted with a foul-mouthed tirade from an irate customer.

Now the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association is fighting back, with a new national advertising campaign urging customers to stop their shouting at shop staff.

Launched last week, the campaign will feature television, radio, digital and outdoor ads, all aimed at putting a stop to what it says is increasingly prevalence of verbal and physical abuse of workers in the fast food and retail sectors.

And it’s not just the big end of town that bears the brunt of frustrated customers; small business owners are all too familiar with the problem.

“Sometimes we put the customer up as a God. And some consumers believe they are more important as human beings than the staff. In the end, we’re all equally important,” says Council of Small Business Australia chief executive Peter Strong.

The Union’s own figures paint a rather unfestive picture, with nearly nine in 10 retail staff copping abuse at work, according to an online survey completed between December 2016 and February 2017.

“Nobody should be abusing anybody — be it employees, customers, employers, regulators. It just shouldn’t happen,” Strong says.

And yet in the height of the Christmas shopping season, it’s a problem as common as the tinsel in the shopfronts. Australian Retailers’ Association Russell Zimmerman puts it down to the stress of the festive season.

“There’s a week to go before Christmas and they’ve got to get their presents quickly. They get agro, [asking] why aren’t they serving me quickly?,” he says.

Part of the problem is many businesses can’t.

“I was walking past a supermarket on the weekend. All the cash registers were going, people were lined up. You’re limited at your capacity,” Zimmerman says.

“If you’ve got a hundred staff and you’re trading 80 hours ïnstead of 60, you’ve got to spread those staff over the extra hours. You can’t just put extra people on — you have to train them. You can only put so many extra staff on.”

But Zimmerman says there are some measures that could help retailers better manage the crush.

“First thing when it’s fairly quiet — put limited staff on. Build that staff up later on in the day, so when you reach peak time you’ve got extra staff to handle it. You need all hands on deck until mid-January. Then you can look to give staff some breaks and some holidays at that stage.”

But in the meantime, to save some face when customers inevitably get angry, it could just be a matter of managing expectations.

“We just need to remind people that everybody’s human and we’re all doing our best,” says Zimmerman.

Peter Strong agrees, saying keeping the peace is paramount.

“Invite them out the back and have a cup of coffee — show empathy to the person. If they’re over the top and unmanageable, call the boss,” he says.

“Some business owners get angry. You’ve got to learn to say to your staff, ‘I need to walk around the block.'”

So perhaps it really is time to relax and turn back up Michael Buble’s Christmas — unless of course it’s that choice of music that made your customers so mad in the first place.

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