Retail employees are under attack. Here’s what brands can do



  • Abuse of retail store employees by customers has been on the rise worldwide since the pandemic
  • Staff shortages, Covid-weary consumers and supply chain setbacks have contributed to the problem
  • Brands need a strategy to support employees, involving economic and social incentives that bridge the gap between company management and stores

True Religion has long operated by the golden rule of retail: the customer is always right. But as shopper behavior has worsened during the pandemic, the denim brand has made some changes to this policy.

For starters, employees will have more leeway to “respond” when faced with an abusive customer, said Theresa Watts, senior vice president of human resources, diversity, equity and inclusion at True Religion.

“We had instances where the customer threw jeans and threatened an employee,” Watts said. “We have now said… ‘you don’t have to accept violence.’ We will be on the employee’s side in these incidents.

True Religion isn’t the only retailer rethinking the way its employees and customers interact. Service industry workers have always faced unhappy customers, but businesses and employees say the problem has worsened as the pandemic drags on.

Experts point to stressed customers, low staffing and product shortages as reasons for the rise in abuse. In November, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union sounded the alarm over rising cases of abuse by retail store employees, urging holiday shoppers “to treat workers with dignity and respect” amid supply chain issues. This month, Australia’s National Retail Association called on the country’s government to address “the widespread abuse of retail workers in the workplace”. Last week Scottish authorities said they were investigating 285 incidents of retail staff abuse that occurred over a three-month period at the end of last year.

This is a tricky problem to solve. Retailers can’t turn their stores into police states that also sell sneakers. Nor can they ignore the problem; many are already struggling to fully staff their stores, and it’s harder to hire for jobs that involve dealing with an endless parade of angry, rude customers.

“Nobody wants to come to work to be assaulted or infected by customers,” said Jessica Ramirez, retail research analyst at Jane Hali & Associates. “But, people ask, ‘What does being a Store Associate do for me? What’s the benefit?'”


Retailers can take steps to reduce the chances of an enraged customer going on a rampage. Clear signage about masks puts less pressure on employees to enforce the rules, a frequent source of tension in times of the pandemic. In stores that have security staff, it should be their job, rather than the sales staff, to monitor mask-wearing and other Covid protocols.

“You can’t expect your salespeople to be your security organization,” said Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School.

Low staffing levels compound the problem: firstly by hurting the overall customer experience, making flare-ups more likely, and secondly by leaving employees without back-up if something goes wrong.

“There were times when there were only three people in the building: you literally have one cashier, another [associate] is to help someone and another [associate] goes out the back to grab a product,” said Becca Hernandez, assistant manager of an athletic store in Austin, Texas.

Hernandez said having more staff working in the mornings, when it’s busiest, and fewer in the quieter evenings could create a more pleasant environment for everyone.


Providing a safe working environment is table stakes and most companies will need to do a lot more to keep store employees happy.

“Covid has always been an economic, social and health issue and the companies that do it best address all three of these areas in all of their policies,” said Matt Katz, managing partner at business advisory firm SSA & Company and chief sounding officer. Retail and consumer packaged goods and private equity practices.

The whistleblower hotlines, health care benefits and mental health resources that are common in many offices should all be extended to store employees, Watts said. True Religion launched a hotline last year that has helped brief executives on issues ranging from “too many boxes in the back of a store” to larger staffing issues, a report said. she declared.

“I also make sure that each of my team members gives their cell phone number so that store employees can call them directly and immediately if there is a problem,” Watts said.


Understaffed stores can create a cycle of worsening conditions.

Many retail workers who once found motivation in the camaraderie within their teams instead struggle with overwork when they’re on time and “guilt” when they’re not, a said Ramirez.

“I’ve heard from friends in retail who are worried about going to the doctor when they’re sick with non-Covid ailments because they don’t want to call and leave their already [overworked] colleagues on the hook,” she said.

Hernandez said she spends much of her day on the floor serving customers and stocking shelves rather than actively recruiting new hires or giving feedback to associates.

“Retail has always been about human interactions and that interaction is important to the associate,” Katz said. “Friendships, camaraderie and the competitiveness of store associates drive retail success.”


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