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Vancouver Retail Workers Report an Increase in Customer Aggression

Shoppers could be mean and picky before the pandemic, ‘but now it’s like a million times worse.’

Pratyush Dayal 24 Jul 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Pratyush Dayal is a graduate student at UBC’s School of Journalism, Writing and Media. He is completing a practicum at The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter @Pratyush_Dayal_.

It was just another workday at Amato Gelato in Olympic Village for 24-year-old Shannon Ferris. Until she saw a customer breaking the store’s physical distancing rules.

“She didn’t follow the precautions. She didn’t use the door that we had asked her to use,” said Ferris. “We have these ropes in place, and she was trying to go under it to get closer to the gelato, but we told her that it’s there for a reason.”

As Ferris served her gelato in a cone, the woman tapped her credit card and said something shocking.

“‘How could they let a thing like that in here,’” Ferris recalls her saying.

“I assumed she was talking about one of the customers, so I just sort of brushed it off,” Ferris said.

But the woman was attacking another employee.

“She got aggressive and got really nasty towards my co-worker. She started screaming over the counter at my co-worker, saying ‘And you’re nothing but a disgusting person’ and just started hurling abuse at her, like ‘I come from a wealthy family and you’re nothing but a dirty person.’”

And then I shouted to her, ‘You need to leave.’”

Ferris was frustrated, even more so because her colleague had received her permanent residence status acceptance that very morning. But it wasn’t the only bad experience she’d had lately.

“Ever since COVID-19, everybody’s just impatient or they’re not accepting of the new rules, and they get very aggressive. It’s very hard to deal with. The mean customers could be a bit picky before, but now it’s like a million times worse.”

Jon Comstock, an assistant manager at Cobs Bread at Main Street, has been seeing rude customers at his workplace too, especially when it comes to not being able to pay cash, a measure implemented to protect everyone from the virus’s transmission.

“We usually get a couple of people a day that will use abusive language. For not accepting cash, we’ve been called ‘assholes’ and things worse than that,” said Comstock.

The 24-year-old has worked at the bakery for nearly three years and has observed the pandemic causing a lot of bad customer behaviour.

To promote a safe shopping environment many establishments have transitioned to cashless mode of payment. But it becomes tricky when the value of a purchase is less than a dollar, which seems to further trigger aggression in customers, he said.

“If someone comes in to buy a 65-cent bun and then they give me a loonie, and I say, ‘Oh, sorry, do you mind putting that on your debit or credit card?’ and if their bank charges them per transaction, I understand that they’re not going to want to do that. And some people will just angrily say, ‘Oh, you’ve lost my business, no cash, I guess no bread for me’ and stormily leave.”

Ferris remembers a similar incident at her workplace.

“Recently, a guy got aggressive with my colleague over the usage of a debit card. She told him that if you have a debit card, it has to be inserted instead of tapping. And he shouted, ‘Oh, you don’t know how to do your job. You’re stupid!’ and as soon as she left work and got on the train, she just burst into tears over the incident.”

The summer heat and long wait lines aren’t helping, Ferris said.

“The area I work in is near the seawall, so it gets very, very busy. Now, since we only allow like a maximum of two groups at a time in the store, we have a huge lineup, maybe halfway down the street. Some people will not see the line, or they’ll open up their opposite door even though it says ‘exit only.’ When we have to redirect them, they get aggressive and then they don’t want to wait in line.”

Comstock said his store has started pre-slicing loaves throughout the day to help the lines move more quickly.

“We’ve also been trying to address as many problems and concerns that people seem to have. It seems everyone is waiting wherever they go right now, anyway. So, we wanted to see what we can do to reduce that even by a minute, or even by 30 seconds.”

Ferris is worried about the second wave in the fall, and the possible increase in customer abuse accompanying it.

“I think such customers will be more agitated then, especially because coming into the colder weather, people are very impatient and in a rush to get home... I think there’s going to be a lot more tension and frustration, and I honestly think it’s going to be harder than what abuse we are seeing now.”

Anna Gerrard, communications and digital organizer at the Retail Action Network, a group that fights for better working conditions for workers, has seen the impact of such encounters on the mental health of retail employees.

“People are going through so much in their personal lives already, just facing this pandemic,” she said, noting that racism and harassment are unacceptable. “I hope that people know what their rights are even if it is scary, even if they’re afraid of losing their jobs. They have to know that there is support there for them.”

Ferris said her job isn’t under threat, as her manager is understanding.

“I eventually told [my manager] that I sort of snapped at that woman and asked her to leave, and she was like, ‘No, that’s a good check.’ For my boss, the employees, their safety and their well-being are the priority,” said Ferris.

Not all employees facing abuse from customers have such support from the boss, said Gerrard. People don’t always feel comfortable talking to their manager, nor do they always get a satisfactory response.

“It is completely unacceptable what people have to deal with,” said Gerrard. “They deserve to look after their well-being, they deserve dignity and respect.”

Gerrard finds that many employees working at minimum wage jobs don’t have a lot of security, which can harm their mental health. They face aggression but can’t take a day off to recover from a bad experience.

“Seeing all this, we’re advocating for job protection to be enshrined in the Employment Standards Act, so that if people do need to take a mental health day, they can without being afraid of losing their jobs.”

Meanwhile, Gerrard urges customers to stop treating retail employees as invisible and calls for more kindness and respect.

“This isn’t over, and it’s not going to be over for a while now, so we have to remember that the people serving your tables, the people helping you in the change room are not invisible. They’re not separate from this; they’re going through it just like you are.”

Ferris, who continues to scoop gelato with a smile for every customer, has similar words for customers.

“They need to realize that they’re not the only ones going through this pandemic, everyone is, and we are on the same level. Everyone is just as distressed, and we all feel it. And if you lighten up just a little bit on someone, you know, it could make a whole difference to their day as well.”

Ferris remains hopeful that as the summer sun continues, customers keep returning for their favourite gelato and leave their aggression behind.

A smile and a cup of gelato, she believes, is a cooling balm for any heat.  [Tyee]

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