“I will slam your face through the desk”. This is what Kirsty, a 34-year-old customer advisor for a hardware store was told, minutes before a customer punched her in the face. For Moses, 42, a department store manager, it was asking a banned customer to leave that resulted in a trip to A&E for stitches in his head after the customer struck him with a metal basket.
In the last two years, two thirds of colleagues surveyed said that customer abuse – including shouting, abusive language, insults and threats – has got worse, with more than a third saying they now experience abuse on a weekly basis. For 14% of retail workers, it’s happening up to three times a week.
This rising intolerance epidemic is backed-up by a new YouGov public poll for the Retail Trust, which sees 68% of people admitting to having got annoyed with a shopworker, delivery driver or somebody working in customer services. Of these, nearly a quarter said they raised their voice or lost their temper.
This is why the Retail Trust has joined forces with the British Retail Consortium (BRC), Foot Anstey, Peoplesafe, Usdaw and leading retailers, including Ann Summers, B&Q, bp, Co-op, Primark and WHSmith to call for urgent, meaningful change that protects and supports the wellbeing of our colleagues.
The message the Retail Trust is sending to retailers and colleagues through respect retail is: ‘report it and support it’. Because despite 63% of colleagues surveyed admitting that customer abuse has left them feeling stressed or anxious about going to work, 24% revealed they did not report incidents to managers because they didn’t feel anyone would help (38%). What’s more, almost a quarter said they wouldn’t call the police because they or a manager had tried this before and found it unhelpful.
“Thousands of shop workers are contacting us to say they now fear for their safety, and this is simply unacceptable,” said Chris Brook Carter, chief executive of the Retail Trust.
“Every day we’re hearing from people who have been shouted at, spat on, threatened or hit at work, sometimes several times a week, so we’re very concerned. One person told us they were hit around the head by a shoplifter with a metal basket, another was knocked out cold by an angry customer, and this is on top of the vile insults and threats handed out on an all-too-regular basis.
“As a country and a society, we must get better at bringing an end to this terrible behaviour, making sure every incident is recorded and acted upon, and above all, ensuring that our colleagues across the country get the protection and support they need.
“Our message at the Retail Trust is clear. Abuse is never part of anyone’s job and if you’re a retail worker encountering abuse, threats or violence, please do report this to your manager and call the Retail Trust’s wellbeing helpline if you need any support dealing with your experiences.”
We at the Retail Trust added our support to a letter to the Home Office from the BRC, calling for urgent action to tackle intolerable levels of violence and abuse against retail workers. In this, and as part of respect retail, we are calling on the government to create a new statutory offence of assaulting, threatening or abusing a retail worker – similar to current laws in Scotland – to send a vital signal to colleagues that they are not alone and they are protected.
In addition, we are calling for higher priority police responses, after 62% of retail workers told us they would like to see harsher penalties and more police action to tackle customer abuse.
“Luckily people in retail have access to the Retail Trust because to be honest, you don’t get a lot of support otherwise,” former supermarket store assistant Callie told us after reaching a tipping point at work ten months ago. “A customer was being disruptive, banging the metal ‘next customer’ till divider on the checkout. I asked him politely to stop. He refused and whacked me across the face with the metal bar, knocking me out cold. My confidence dropped and eventually, I had to leave a job that I loved.”
More than a third of colleagues said that customer abuse is making them consider leaving retail, and another concerning trend is the impact it’s having on customers. Almost half of the respondents in our public poll said they have witnessed abusive behaviour towards a shop worker in the last two years and, while it is heartening that 53% said they would speak up in support of a shop worker, retailers do not want to see customers or colleagues putting themselves at risk of harm.
What we can all agree on (according to 99% of colleagues) is that the public must be kinder to retail workers. Genuine, lasting change is only possible when we work together on these goals, which is why the Retail Trust has partnered with retailers including Ann Summers, B&Q, bp, Co-op, Primark and WHSmith to help put an end to the intolerance epidemic.
Many retailers are already making great leaps in tackling the issue, with Co-op working closely with policing figures and inviting 50 members of parliament into stores this autumn to discuss solutions. For Ann Summers, it was assembling a dedicated task force to track incidents and create an open culture of reporting and supporting colleagues.