Shop assistants take their revenge

With `store rage' attacks soaring, Vanessa Thorpe reports on new moves to cut physical and verbal abuse
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The Independent Online
A SHOP assistant's lot is not a happy one. Verbal abuse, fisticuffs, rude gestures and even spitting are all part of the exchanges across the counter which shopworkers have to endure when dealing with difficult customers.

Until now, most people have equated aggression in shops with "trolley rage" incidents, when belligerent shoppers - such as the men whose battle over the Mr Kipling cake stand in a Wakefield supermarket ended up in court last week - fight one another in the supermarket aisles.

But customer aggression towards shop assistants - there were 350,000 incidents last year - has become so bad that retailers have joined forces with the Government to tackle violence at the counter.

A new training initiative will be launched this week by the Home Office minister David Maclean and the British Retail Consortium (BRC). It will highlight the problem of in-store violence, both physical and verbal. Speakers will acknowledge the phenomenon of "store rage".

Independent retailers and chain stores will be offered training videos and an information pack about how to diffuse potentially violent situations and how to spot a troublemaker in the first place.

Shop violence has many causes. The BRC cites long checkout queues, drunkenness, attempted theft, queue jumping, and anger about poor goods and service. The National Lottery has also been blamed. According to Barry Allen of the shopworkers' union Usdaw: "The new lottery machines are causing a lot of the queues in the small corner shops. The Lottery haven't identified suitable shops. Often on a Saturday there will just be one shopkeeper selling lottery tickets and everyone who is trying to buy a newspaper has to wait."

David Boot, a former retail manager who put the new training programme together in consultation with shops and police forces all over Britain, says he has witnessed a huge change in the kind of difficulties that sales assistants expect to tackle at work: "There is no doubt about it, there has been a significant increase in store rage. It is quite simply due to the pace of life. We now have less and less tolerance and time for each other. People are living less in families and more in the individual unit and then taking out their frustrations on shopkeepers.

"It creates a tremendous strain on the shopkeeper. While I was working in stores I nearly had my eye gouged out once by a junkie and I also had a knife drawn on me. I was like jelly".

Petrol station and off-licence employees are at most risk, but staff at all kinds of smaller outlets, who lack the management back-up of the large chains, are having to deal with more and more aggression.

One small business which has suffered from customer abuse is Toff's fish and chip shop in Muswell Hill, north London. For a year-and-a-half staff were subject to abuse and harassment from a man who took offence after being told to take his place at the back of a queue rather than push in.

"It was terrible. He would stand outside the shop and make gestures, and spit, and tell people not to go inside the shop," said manageress Nethie Ttoffalli.

"When you are a small family-run business there is nothing you can do. We couldn't protect ourselves. He started coming into the shop and then it got worse and worse. We were very vulnerable."

After months of threats and abuse, their tormentor was found guilty of harassment and indecent exposure and is awaiting sentence.

In the year 1994-95 the BRC's figures reveal that at least 352,842 people working in retailing had had to face some kind of aggression. It is the reported levels of verbal abuse and violent threats which show the most marked increase.

At 98,586, the number of shop assistants who were threatened was up by 9 per cent on the 1993-94 figure, while the number of those who had to put up with some kind of verbal taunt went up by 15 per cent.

Five per cent of the violent acts recorded in shops last year were caused by angry customers. In December a 33-year-old Croydon woman was jailed for smashing a bottle of wine over a man's head during a queue-jumping row in Marks & Spencer.

More than half the recorded incidents were caused by attempts to stop crimes, while a group that might be termed "rowdies" or troublemakers accounted for another 16 per cent.

Out-and-out robbery is the source of 10 per cent of violence. Drunks, drug addicts and others make up the remainder.

Barry Allen puts the finger on a more conventional social culprit: management. "In the end it is usually management's fault if there is an angry customer," he says. "Customers shouldn't blame the staff at the counter, who are often under-paid and under-trained.

"It is human nature to get agitated. There is nothing more irritating than being able to shop quickly and efficiently in a supermarket and then being held up at the till.

"Long queues at the checkout are one of the most common scenarios for aggression. Often there is a very long row of checkouts with only five or six staff."

Jerry Walton, managing director of the Thresher off-licence chain and chairman of the Retail Action Group, who will chair the Counter Violence launch on Wednesday, said he was determined to change store rage's image as "victimless crime".

"These kind of violent things go on and we need to address them. It is easier for the multiple chains to handle but much harder for individual businesses.

"You would be amazed at the things that people will argue about. If they have just been given a parking ticket, they will take it out on another customer or a member of staff in a shop.

"Funnily enough, if someone is actually complaining about a product or a service it is often actually easier to deal with. At least you can offer a refund or replace it.

"We are also trying to demonstrate the level of victimisation that goes on. Sadly, shops that have been the scene of violence once often tend to be again."

David Boot believes that some problems arise because more shop workers are part-time than in the past and have failed to learn the "inter- personal skills" necessary for trouble-free relationships across the counter. He says the training video can help: "Small retailers have little time for anything except trying to survive. The video suggests how to empathise with a customer and have the right body language."