When customers misbehave

As the pandemic persists, grocery staff are paying the price
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Verbal attacks and physical aggression aren’t what employees bargained for in taking on grocery jobs. But a slew of videos have gone viral depicting violent behaviour, proving that customers are lashing out and frontline grocery staff are often bearing the brunt of it.

As the pandemic lingers on, a combination of frustration, mental health issues and general “COVID fatigue” is contributing to more and more customers behaving badly, says Diane Brisebois, president and CEO of the Retail Council of Canada. “It’s still a minority (1% to 2%) but you only need a small number to rattle employees and create angst and concerns,” she says. “Our retailers, including grocers, are the storefront to society and unfortunately have to deal with customers who don’t appreciate the health and safety measures currently in place.”

In the last month, Brisebois says her organization has been hearing from an increasing number of retailers reporting belligerent customers shunning masks and refusing to leave the premises, giving staff no choice but to call law enforcement. “We’ve heard of customers going so far as to spit on the Plexiglass separating cashiers,” she says. “These are very difficult times.”

Jack Minacs, who has more than 20 years of experience as an occupational health and safety professional at Workplace Safety & Prevention Services (WSPS), has been assisting several large grocery retailers since the pandemic started. “Violence is always a concern in the services/retail sector, but COVID has taken that to a whole new level,” he says. “There was an incident in my town where a grocery employee followed a customer trying to get them to put on a mask, and the person screamed at and coughed in their face.”

Contributing to the issue is having grocery staff take on security/safety roles without the support and training needed to handle difficult people and potentially violent situations, says Kristy Cork, health and safety consultant at WSPS. “Managers should either hire for that role specifically, or have protocols in place so staff know what to do when customers get aggressive,” she says. People in these kinds of policy enforcement roles also benefit from having certain soft skills, says Cork, such as being able to listen, stay calm, have empathy and use humour. “Most people aren’t violent by nature, but there are triggers that can set them off and escalate a situation.”

Jan Chappel, senior technical officer at the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, says employers need to be clear about what staff should be saying to frustrated shoppers. “Have a strategy for addressing customers who are upset, and provide training in mental health, conflict resolution and similar topics to those who will need to address the person who is upset,” he says.

At Rabba Fine Foods, it’s a head office supervisor’s full-time job to train staff on proper procedures such as these. “He makes sure that our staff has the tools and the knowledge that they need to enforce the laws,” says Rick Rabba, president. Being part of a chain of stores that are open 24 hours a day in densely populated urban areas, he says Rabba employees are accustomed to calming down customers who may be irate or uncooperative. “If there is truly a problem, we will rely on our security people and, ultimately, the police, but by de-escalating the situation our staff is usually able to calm the person down and resolve the issue.”

Earlier in the pandemic, Rabba recalls witnessing two grown men shouting and shoving each other out of frustration over social distancing issues. “I was able to de-escalate the situation before there was any violence, but not before yogurt had been splashed all over the aisle out of anger,” he says.

With no resolution to COVID-19 in the foreseeable future, retailers around the globe are getting creative in helping their employees deal with escalating customer anxiety and abuse. In Australia, Woolworth and Target employees are wearing buttons reminding customers they are someone’s mother, father, son or daughter. In Finland, grocery cooperative HOK-Elanto put together a documentary with staff talking about their current concerns and the ways they are helping their customers stay hopeful.

At Ontario retailer Longo’s, where customers were asked to wear masks before it was mandated by municipalities, there is a four-step process that gives shoppers multiple options, says Liz Volk, chief human resources officer. Those who don’t want to wear a mask are offered a face shield they can keep, which may feel less restrictive. “Or we offer to shop for them on the spot or have their groceries delivered online,” she says. “Because we started this early on, our guests expect it now and those that refuse all these options are probably not guests who suit our culture anyway.”

Along with adhering to new protocols inspired by COVID, Volk says staff are encouraged to help make the grocery store experience as pleasant as possible for anxious customers. “We continue to go back to basics with eye contact and smiling, even through the mask,” she says. “It’s about recognizing that everyone is in a different place and you can make their day brighter and better.”

RCC’s Brisebois points to grocery initiatives currently underway that are helping de-escalate frustration while customers are shopping or even before they enter the store. “With in-store pre-recorded announcements, instead of just reminding people to wear masks and social distance, the messages are about thanking people for being thoughtful and helpful, which is a subtle difference,” she says. There are also retailers who are using signage to explain how following guidelines will help everyone keep their jobs so they can support the local economy and get back to normal sooner. As Brisebois explains, “It’s about trying to get to people’s hearts instead of appearing like a police state.”

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