The most magical time of the year? Some shopworkers may disagree

'Nothing's Stopping Us' is the slogan for this year's festive TV advert from Tesco, suggesting they believe and hope that consumers want a normal Christmas - whatever it takes. The rebound in retail spend in October 2021, after a slow Summer and early Autumn, might be a sign shoppers are planning and buying early for a big Christmas, boosted by lockdown savings.

However, will this pressure to create the perfect Christmas or bag the pick of the Black Friday bargains cause tempers to fray in stores?

Industry experts are highlighting forecasting problems caused by the pandemic and cost pressures – for both stores and consumers – suggesting there are challenges ahead as the retail industry accelerates through its 'golden quarter'.

Christmas cheer could quickly change to festive fear if key Christmas goods are not available, and it will be retail workers – both in stores and customer services centres – on the receiving end of any bad behaviour from shoppers.

Indeed, commentators have pointed to a general rise in rudeness and loss of civility during the pandemic, prompted by anxiety or pent-up anger about reduced freedoms. Already this year, events such as the petrol crisis and pandemic panic buying have shown how sensitive consumer behaviour can be to concerns over supplies and how customers can take out their frustrations on retail staff.  

A recent study of over 1,000 shopworkers by the national law firm, Foot Anstey, found that a staggering 61% of retail workers had experienced some form of offensive behaviour while working during the pandemic, resulting for many of them in stress (45%) and anxiety (43%).  It is easy to foresee the situation deteriorating further over the busy weeks ahead.

What can retailers do to ensure festive cheer for both shoppers and shopworkers?

Ensure a level playing field for all shoppers

A study of Black Friday shoppers in the US found that the retail environment can moderate or exacerbate difficult customer behaviour.

Customers at these sale events who felt other shoppers were being unpleasant and not being reprimanded were more likely to feel a sense of injustice and become uncivil themselves. The study suggested retailers should be alert to any signs of misbehaviour, such as queue jumping, or rudeness and act swiftly to correct this behaviour.

Defuse tension and clearly communicate

Retailers should both manage customers' expectations about queues or product availability and provide clear and obvious signage about the consequences of unacceptable customer behaviour. Effective and fair queuing systems to manage footfall and visible security and staffing on the shop floor will both be key.  Foot Anstey's study reported that 65% of retail workers would like their employer to have clear zero tolerance messages in stores to deter offensive behaviour.

Training and support for store team

Training in anger management and use of body worn cameras for store teams can also be useful in diffusing tense situations. Customer service procedures for dealing with difficult customers should be reviewed and refreshed where appropriate, and retailers should ensure they have support available internally or externally, such as employee assistance programmes, to which shopworkers can turn.  

But enforcement challenges remain

In the event of abusive customer behaviour - retailers can deny service, deny entry to premises or take civil or criminal legal action. However, many of the actions available are hindered by retailers' lack of appetite or resource to undertake private enforcement action and reliance on overstretched third parties such as the police. Foot Anstey's survey showed retail workers want to see more meaningful consequences for the worst behaved customers.

In response to this Foot Anstey is therefore developing resources and tools to help retailers show employees their well-being matters and protection is there for the long term, not just for Christmas. 

Ensuring a season of goodwill for all

Responsible retailers have been working hard to solve the problem of the harassment of retail workers. Over this festive season, many will be working hard not just to deliver the food and gifts to the shelves but to show their employees that their welfare matters, and they will be protected.

It is the season of goodwill after all.

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