Retail

Study shows nearly half of Aussie retail workers cop customer abuse: How to prepare your staff for conflict

Dominic Powell /

A recent survey of 5,500 retail workers reveals nearly half have been abused physically or verbally by customers while on the job.

The survey, undertaken by the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA), will have its full results published on Monday, but a preliminary release has uncovered some worrying insights.

Fairfax reports 44.4% of those surveyed said they had experienced customer violence or abuse. Eighty percent of those who reported abuse were women.

Read more: Workers sexually harassed by customers unlikely to tell their boss: research

“Thousands of retail and fast food workers are regularly subjected to customer abuse and violence while they are at work, and it’s not acceptable,” SDA National Secretary Gerard Dwyer said in a statement.

“Customers need to be reminded that shops are also workplaces, all retail workers and fast food workers should feel safe at work, and protected from any form of violence or abuse perpetrated by customers.”

In a statement provided to SmartCompany, Dwyer says the SDA’s research has revealed a broad range of harassment.

“We know these range from constant verbal abuse with its detrimental impacts to violent assaults. Additionally, we are aware that customer abuse happens in the smallest country towns, regional centres and across our major cities,” he says.

The SDA research is based on responses from its members, which includes workers from large organisations such as Woolworths and Wesfarmers. However, director at Workplace Law Shane Koelmeyer believes small businesses suffer equally.

“When it comes to any business, you can only control the controllable. You can’t control how customers will act or react,” Koelmeyer told SmartCompany.

“I think surveys like this reflect changing mindsets in society.”

Koelmeyer believes customers are becoming more demanding, with the expectation of “getting it now” thanks to the speed of online shopping.

“We’re conditioned into getting what we want straight away or very quickly, we’re just used to it,” he says.

Christmas can also cause a surge in retail abuse, as it is a “high-pressure season”.

“There is a lot of extra pressure associated with Christmas time, with customers needing certain items and certain sizes as soon as possible,” he says.

“Customers’ expectations have changed, but retail availability has not.”

Read more: Masters employees speak out about “aggressive” customer behaviour and “brutal” conditions in fire sale

How to prevent customer abuse

For businesses wanting to deal with or prevent customer abuse, Koelmeyer warns preventing complaints is usually impossible, noting, “You can’t control a person’s behaviour”. Instead, he recommends arming employees with conflict training.

“Make sure you train your employees on how to deal with difficult people, let them know what they can do in those situations,” Koelmeyer says.

“If you’re in a big retail store, you can always escalate it to security, or even ban the customer from the store.”

For standalone businesses, the best course of action is often diffusing the situation, and trying to see things from a customer’s perspective.

“A good thing to do is to put yourself in a customer’s position, and think if there’s anything you can do to diffuse the situation,” Koelmeyer says.

“However you choose to approach it let your employees know what their bailout options are. Let them know that you as a business owner will back them on any decision they make.”

“You can try to educate customers instead, but it’s very hard.”

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Dominic Powell

Dominic is the features and profiles editor at SmartCompany.

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