“One in four retail employees copped verbal abuse every week last year, while one in five were coughed or spat on by a customer, according to the SDA’s survey of retail abuse in 2020. This is vile at any time but unforgivable during a pandemic.”
According to the SDA, over 85 per cent of workers are being abused while they work.
Inside Retail spoke to four SDA members, who work on the frontline across supermarkets and department stores, about their experiences of customer abuse and the support they would like to see from retailers.
Customer service, Target/Kmart*, Melbourne
*Store transitioned to Kmart last month. Training refers to experiences under Target.
“Sometimes I’m on the door and, especially right now with what’s going on in the world, we have to ask customers to sign in or if they can wear a mask, customers can be very rude and aggressive to us, or make a big scene about it.
“It’s definitely more targeted at women, unfortunately. They think we won’t stand up to them. I hate confrontation, so I step back.
“Unfortunately we deal with a lot of drug-affected and alcohol-affected people, a lot of them steal. It makes us feel really scared. The other day, I had this customer come in screaming at me, saying that I was the devil. She said all the voices in her head were telling her that I’m the devil.
“We call the manager and we step aside, normally management will then call the police. But all the police can do is issue them with a warning to keep on moving through. They come back maybe a week later.
“We don’t have security during the day, we only have security at nightime, which isn’t the best situation. I think a lot of customers know that. Everyone would feel more comfortable if we had more security.
“The only training we have had is when someone comes in and asks us for the till.
“I’m paranoid that an [aggressive] customer is outside and recognises me.”
Customer service and store greeter, Coles Supermarkets, Melbourne
“It has been worse because of the pandemic because customers are getting aggressive when they don’t get what they want because of product limitations, mask wearing and all that sort of thing.
“They shout, they think that we have put the limits on product and that we don’t want to sell it to them. When we say that it’s not up to us, it’s from higher up and we can’t do anything about it, they [think] it‘s not true and that we just don’t want to do it.
“I have seen so many team members in tears when they’ve been dealing with customers who are not getting what they want and they’re screaming and shouting.
“I would say, out of 100 people, 60 are aggressive because they are not happy with procedures.
“We have online training. [We are advised to] back off from the situation, we have to call management … there’s nothing more we can do because our hands are tied, we have limitations”
Customer service supervisor, Coles Supermarkets, Melbourne
“There have been a couple times where I have declined a customer a refund in line with the policy, and they’ve just started yelling at me. In the self service checkout, something was wrong with one of the machines and the customer just started yelling at me in the middle of a rush, when I couldn’t really do anything about it. A couple of months ago, there was a lady who was stealing. I asked her to stop and said ‘You can’t leave the store’. She turned around to me and said, ‘What a w**** you are.’
“I got a text from my manager several days [after the stealing incident] asking if I was OK, but it didn’t feel like anybody actually cared. I didn’t even have a support system around me to check up on me. It is a bit daunting knowing I could go to work today and have a customer potentially yell at me for no reason.
“I’ve noticed that the management reaction has really shifted … one of the team members [spoke to a manager about an issue with a customer] and the manager asked ‘But, how did you speak to the customer?’.
“The attitude is like it’s normal. It’s part of the job.
“I’ve never experienced [physical abuse] myself but I know a lot of our team members have … around the time customers had to wear masks in store, one of our team asked a customer to put on their mask. This customer actually jumped over the register and started to attack and punch her.
“One customer [when confronted by security] dropped his pants, he wasn’t wearing anything underneath and this poor 15-year-old [female customer] just happened to be right there [to witness it].
“I do think [customer aggression] is mostly [targeted at] younger girls … specific groups [and ethnicities] are also targeted as well.
“One of the [co-workers] said to me, ‘I don’t really feel comfortable asking customers to check in because that’s so many more times I’m giving the customer the opportunity to lash out at me.’
“I’ve been there for four years now, the only training that I’ve received was late last year, an online module. There were modules and videos [depicting a] situation and asking you to pick A, B or C [as a solution], but I don’t feel like the issues they addressed were very representative [of what we face]. It didn’t tackle issues like when customers are racist.
“We only have security come in between the hours of 8pm and midnight.
“I would prefer more security during more hours, like 10am until midnight, because managers don’t always come down in a situation. They have their own things to do.
“I would also like to see more hands-on training, rather than just videos. I’d rather groups go to head office and learn about training and actually do role plays, especially for the younger team, who obviously don’t really know how to deal with situations like this.”
Customer service and store greeter, Big W, Melbourne
Anon 3 has worked in retail for 18 years. She recounted numerous incidents in which she has been verbally abused by customers.
“I’ve been in the industry for quite some time, but the abuse that we’re copping now is worse.
“I get screamed at … customers swearing and carrying on, that verbal abuse is not OK. I don’t get paid enough to be abused here.That’s not my job to be abused.
“There’s only two [security personnel] that work in the centre and they don’t have the time to come around all the time and check things out.
“It really gets to me. I’ve said to [management] I find it all very stressful, I hate [working on] the door.”
Retailers respond: “We won’t tolerate abusive behaviour”
Inside Retail contacted Target, Woolworths Group and Coles seeking clarification on the training provided to staff.
A spokesperson for Big W said the safety of team members is a top priority and that customer abuse is not accepted under any circumstances.
“Our team members are trained to manage disruptive customers and we have policies and processes in place to best support these situations.
“We won’t tolerate abusive behaviour and will not hesitate to ban customers for poor behaviour.”
Woolworths Group is a supporter of the ‘Nobody Deserves a Serve’ campaign led by the SDA. The retail group offers all team members access to counselling services, which is extended to ongoing support in the event of an incident. Abusive incidents are reported to the local police who can place prohibition notices on specific customers, banning them from returning to the store.
A Coles spokeswoman said regular training is provided to help the team manage abusive behaviour and Coles recently launched a new online safety training program on ‘de-escalation training’.
“Almost 40,000 team members have completed this training this year alone,” the spokeswoman said.
“Coles does not tolerate abuse or disrespect towards our team members or other customers in our stores.
“We know that the majority of our customers appreciate and respect our team members and the great service they provide them.
“We encourage team members to report any incidents of abusive behaviour so that we can provide support. There is also an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) available to all team members.”
A spokesperson for Target said the retailer is concerned about aggression from customers, particularly through the pandemic.
“The wellbeing and safety of our team is our highest priority, and we have a comprehensive Personal Safety Training Program to educate and support team members in managing threatening situations.
“We have also executed a communications campaign to educate people on appropriate behaviour which includes physical signage in stores, notifying customers that unacceptable behaviour will not be tolerated. As a signatory to the SDA pledge, we are dedicated to working with the wider industry to eradicate customer abuse for good.”