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The growing statistics
In November, Professor Rae Cooper from the University of Sydney Business School, and colleagues from Australian National University, published a report titled “Pandemic Pressures: Job Security and Customer Relations for Retail Workers”. Their survey of 1160 retail, fast-food, and distribution workers in Australia found more than half had experienced customer abuse during the pandemic. Similarly, a retail workers’ union survey conducted in December 2020 reported 88 per cent of retail workers had experienced abuse in the previous 12 months. In the UK, this figure was 90 per cent, which prompted the Scottish Government to enact laws protecting retail workers.
Last month, in an open letter to Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, Australian Retailers Association CEO Paul Zahra highlighted several examples of customer aggression, including physical assaults and verbal harassment. Associations are now calling on governments for greater protection of retail and frontline service workers as businesses re-open for the fully vaxxed. While many have pointed directly to the pandemic as a trigger for abuse and aggression – there has certainly been a spike – we argue that such behaviour has been present for decades. For example, prior to the pandemic, the SDA retail workers union found 80 per cent of workers had experienced abuse in the past year. There are many academic studies that detail abuse and aggression in call centres, airlines and other service sectors, years before Covid.
The psychology behind abusive customer behaviours
Increases in customer aggression and abuse can be explained using three broad approaches: a psychological approach, a contingency approach, and a sociological approach.
The classic psychological approach suggests abuse and aggression are forms of ‘deviant’ behaviour and; therefore, they label the individual deviant as the key unit of analysis. With deviant individuals identified, psychologists then proceed to analyse the characteristics of these individuals, seeking to identify key traits they have in common. These traits may include dysfunctionality, anti-social behaviours, extreme egocentricity or extreme narcissism. These character traits are then identified as the primary cause of the deviant behaviour leading to abuse. While this approach may explain a small proportion of customers who walk through the door, it would not be reasonable to suggest this correlates with the 80-90 per cent of workers reporting abuse.
The second approach draws on contingency theory to identify contextual and situational factors that act as triggers of abusive and aggressive customer behaviour. This approach may explain the rise in abuse due to changes within the servicescape. Such changes may include layout and design changes, environmental shifts, process changes, and the exterior service environment. This approach certainly does explain recent reports of abuse and aggression directed at retail workers due to new check-in protocols and health directives. While logically this approach implies that there is latent customer abuse and aggression bottled up, waiting to be released at an innocent and unsuspecting retail worker, it fails to address the crucial question of why this might be so – why customer abuse is systemically present within the retail and service sector.
We suggest that to address this question, researchers must turn to the sociological approach. Sociological approaches to abusive and aggressive customer behaviours centre on the idea that such behaviours are often deeply linked to prevailing social norms. We argue that the social creation of customer abuse lies within the fabric of the service economy.
The myth of customer sovereignty
Our key argument advanced here is that customer abuse systemically arises when the myth of customer sovereignty, which retailers and service organisations advance, breaks down. The notion that the customer is always right predetermines a fragile relationship hierarchy that quickly dissolves when the rule of customer sovereignty is broken. For example, upon entering a store, customers are regularly welcomed warmly and the employee offers to be of service – get another size, call another store, arrange for a free delivery, or make a cup of coffee. The relationship is essentially one of master and servant.
Customer abuse arises at the point where customer enchantment turns to disillusionment. The point upon which the servant requests to see the master’s vaccination certificate, or proof of purchase. Led into assuming the trappings of authority, customers then feel powerless and offended when the myth of sovereignty dissolves. The hierarchy shifts and the fragile relationship fails, and it is this approach that leads to the systemic presence of customer abuse in the retail and service economy.
Status shields and anonymous relationships
Intensifying these abusive behaviours are two other factors – a perceived lack of a status shield and anonymous, disconnected relationships. Traditionally, retail and service frontline workers tend to be younger, female, or from migrant minorities – groups often more exposed to abuse and aggression. There is also a perception that much of this work is undertaken by low-skilled, low-paid employees. Hence they lack a ‘status shield’, which is afforded to other professionals, such as doctors and lawyers. Employees with low status shields are considered easy targets, with little power. Adding to this are the multiple disconnected and anonymous interactions customers have with certain retail and service workers. We don’t know the young team member who just packed our bags poorly at the supermarket or the fast-food worker who just got our order wrong. Therefore, we are more inclined to snap at them than our hairdresser, whom we have known for years. Overall, the notion that the customer is always right, and therefore superior to workers, and the fact that there are few penalties for abusing retail workers, have contributed to the problem.
Underpinning this argument is Displaced Aggression Theory, which predicts an individual treated unfairly (can’t enter without proof of a vaccine) may behave aggressively toward a third party (retail or service worker) because the source (health directive) is too powerful and may exert retaliation (a fine, or penalty). Displaced Aggression Theory is often referred to anecdotally as ‘Kicking the (Barking) Dog Effect’.
The ‘self’-centred solution
Sadly, when an abusive incident occurs, retail and service workers often feel very isolated, vulnerable, and helpless. The innocent bystander effect explains that when a large group of customers are shopping in a store, individuals are less likely to intervene when a retail worker is being subjected to aggressive or abusive behaviour. The other customers assume that someone else will speak up on the worker’s behalf. This is particularly prevalent during one-off or infrequent encounters with retail staff, such as in large supermarkets, as opposed to longer-term customer relationships and repeat interactions, which often happen in smaller stores.
The traditional approach to reducing abuse of retail workers tends to focus on the behaviour and reminding the customer that it is wrong and won’t be tolerated. Such tactics are often supported with visible security guards, resilience training, in-store signage, and surveillance cameras. However, burly security guards, CCTV and signage detract from a positive shopping experience and resilience training doesn’t fix the problem of abuse, only compensates for it by preparing team members after the fact.
It is suggested retailers adopt a self-surveillance strategy combining two tactics. First, a traditional external motivation to do the right thing – such as amplifying the spotlight effect with an overt reminder we are being watched. This is also intended to evoke self-reflection and self-regulation. Research shows the effectiveness of cues that cause us to self-focus and self-regulate; they are part of an evolutionary instinct to focus on one’s self. University of East Anglia researcher Rose Meleady and colleagues demonstrated this with experiments using signs to encourage drivers to turn off their engines at a busy rail crossing with a two-minute average wait.
After an experiment just using a “watching eyes” image (with no discernible effect), they tried two signs. One with a set of human eyes and the words “When barriers are down, switch off your engine.” The other with just the words: “Think of yourself: When barriers are down, switch off your engine.” With no sign, 20 per cent of drivers switched off their engines. With the watching eyes sign, 30 per cent switched off. With the “think of yourself” sign, 51 per cent did so.
Ultimately, this problem needs to be tackled from multiple sides – business, society, and government. The retailers associations have developed a suite of resources for retail workers including training and posters. More recently, Woolworths introduced worker badges.
The SDA’s ‘No-one deserves a serve’ campaign has leveraged personalisation. It re-focuses the abusive customer on the person (someone’s son, daughter or mother) and not the ‘brand’. We suggest a federally funded and nationwide campaign reminding the community of the importance of essential workers. In addition, greater penalties should be legislated (as they have in Scotland with the 2018 Protection of Workers Bill), in a similar way in which police, paramedics, corrective services officers, and other frontline emergency service workers are protected at work.