Covid 19 Delta outbreak: Angry shoppers take out frustrations on staff

Staff in retail store and call centres are facing so much abuse from angry customers that some feel it is unsafe to come to work. Jane Phare reports.

A Wellington business manager has closed her boutique Petone shop until further notice, to protect herself and her staff from customers whose abusive behaviour caused her to be on the verge of burnout.

Ana Warnock, who is in the process of buying The Sewing Depot in Petone from the previous owner, told customers in a Facebook post last week that she was forced to close the store due to the “backlash and bad behaviour from a large number of our normally lovely customers.”

“From snarky comments and unrealistic demands for stock when it is explained we just can’t get it, to being called rude names and at one point, having stock thrown at us,” she wrote in her Facebook post.

Warnock told the Herald she was on the verge of burnout from stress and mental anguish before closing the shop. Under level 2 she could only allow two people in at a time, allowing for staff, because of the confined space. People became angry at having to queue outside, at having to wear masks or discovering a product was out of stock.

“That caused all sorts of chaos.”

Retail NZ chief executive Greg Harford said abuse of staff across the retail sector was a “huge issue”.

Over the past 18 months, and particularly in the past six weeks since lockdown, customers with a “short fuse” had become increasingly angry at retail workers. Staff had been threatened and abused across the sector including at supermarkets, convenience stores, clothing shores, retail call centres, and via social media.

Some staff had been personally threatened and there had been incidents of violence.

“It’s areally serious issue.We’ve got some retail businesses where staff are seriously concerned that it’s not safe to go to work, and it’s just not on.”

The Sewing Depot, part of the Petone heritage precinct, sells sewing machines, haberdashery including much-sought-after elastic, and masks. With Auckland still in lockdown online sales took off, with orders coming in every few minutes.

Warnock and her staff were juggling packing online orders, processing click-and-collect orders and serving people in the shop. Customers became irate when they discovered a product had been sold to an online customer from Auckland, or if they had to wait 10 seconds for her to check availability on the computer.

“There were little issues here and there that just started escalating. People were not wearing masks or were pulling them off to talk to me. They’d get angry when I asked them to put them back on,” she said.

“They came here expecting normal and the Government don’t allow normal at the moment unfortunately. We just have to comply with that.”

Warnock said she could see people were struggling with the restrictions.

“But the problem is they were taking it out on us and it came at the expense of mine and my staff’s mental health and wellbeing. I just had to make that call for my own staff.”

She and her staff wore masks all day and often did not get much chance for a breather during busy periods, Warnock said.

“We don’t just get to leave the shop whenever we want a breather. While talking to customers they can’t see that we’re smiling and they’re getting all worked up saying we’re not helping.”

Stock issues exacerbated the problems, she said.

“Our stock supply comes from all over the world, yarn from Italy, DMC thread from France, Brother (sewing) machines from Asia, labels and haberdashery from Australia, the list goes on. I am still waiting on stock that I ordered last year. And there’s no ETAs and no guarantees.

Knowing that she had recently taken over the business, long-standing customers accused Warnock or incompetence, telling her she did not know how to run a business.

“That was the feedback they were yelling at me.”

After Warnock posted on Facebook other retailers and staff shared similar experiences.
One woman called to say she wished her workplace would make the same decision and shut the doors.

In the end she decided to shut The Sewing Depot to make sure she was healthy enough to return at a later date. She and her staff are still processing click-and-collect orders, and allowing individual clients in by appointment.

“If we kept battling it would get to the point where we are too burnt out to keep going. As a small business, there’s nothing to fall back on. I am my business and if I’m not here and healthy there’s nothing for people to come back to.”

Warnock said even in level 1 she won’t reopen The Sewing Depot until she and her staff are ready.

Harford said there were a range of triggers that set people off, including being asked to scan in to a store, put on a mask, or discovering a product wasn’t available.

“I think there are a lot of societal and mental health reasons that sit in behind some of this. And as a nation many of us are just over the Covid situation. But whatever the reason, it’s never okay to take out your frustrations on a retailer.”

Harford’s message to shoppers is, “Stay calm and shop nice.”

“Everyone in retail, has the right to go to work every day and come home without feeling stressed or threatened. And everyone is genuinely trying to do the best to provide a great service to customers.”

Where to get help:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633 or text 234 (available 24/7)
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (12pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 or text 4202 (available 24/7)
Anxiety helpline: 0800 269 4389 (0800 ANXIETY) (available 24/7)
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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