Retail rage

Photo by Madeline Bourn
A recent study found almost nine of every 10 retail and fast food workers have been verbally abused. What does that mean for students juggling work and study? Madeline Bourn investigates.

Nicholas stands behind the counter at a Melbourne department store, wearing black tailored pants and a pressed white shirt. The lanyard every employee is required to wear suddenly hangs heavy around his neck when he spots a customer angrily heading towards the register.

“I had a certain customer call in to ask me to put a suit on hold and, when I told them it was out of stock but there was another alternative, they asked for the alternative to be put on hold,” he says. “When they came in to store to pick it up, they yelled at me for putting the alternative on hold, and tried to get me fired through intimidation and insults and made up stories of things I had said in order to try and get the suits for free.”

He declined to repeat the names he’d been called.

The 22 year-old studied literature and philosophy for two years at La Trobe University, decided it wasn’t for him and then graduated from CATC Design School in 2017. He is among two million Australians working in retail. Of the two million, 49 per cent are employed on a part-time or causal basis, with this industry holding the largest percentage of casual employees in Australia.

Yet, despite an industry inadvertently shaped towards equipping young people with the skills needed to progress and succeed in many different industries, a recent report highlighted that workers were feeling directly in harms way.

The Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) reported in December that 85 per cent of retail and fast-food workers had been verbally abused by a customer while at work.

A third of workers surveyed admitted to feeling “threatened by a customer one-two times in the last 12 months,” and “24.35 per cent were subjected to verbal abuse every week.”

“Dealing with customers is generally positive,” Nicholas says. “I love having those customers that you can have a good conversation with, or they come back to the store and know you by name. But it’s the few that aren’t good that really stick with you.

“The possibility of dealing with a bad customer makes me extremely anxious to go into work every day. It makes me not want to be there anymore with the amount of abuse and negative projection that often times has nothing to do with us.”

“This [negative] culture has taught people that the customer is always right and that we are here to serve and submit,” Nicholas says.

Among the 85 per cent who have endured verbal abuse at work, Sam is a 20-year-old Melbourne University politics student with two retail jobs, one at a supermarket  the other at a major sports venue.

“Working in retail is not my life goal,” she says. “As a 16-year-old entering the workforce for the first time, retail was one of the only positions available to me.” Rather than jeopardise her studies Sam decided it was easier to “move through different retail positions rather than branch out.”

She says that even though her interactions with customers are mostly positive, she will encounter a handful of unpleasant customers each shift. Sometimes it’s a challenge in the morning to get out of bed, brush your teeth, get yourself in the right frame of mind to deal with difficult customers.

More common than abuse is harassment, she says, adding “on very few occasions have I been abused by someone my age. More often than not it’s the elderly, or 40-to-50 year-olds.

“We have a man come in to [the supermarket] multiple times during the week. He’s in his 50s I’d assume and is potentially homeless. He has asked myself, along with several other female members of staff, to marry him. He also makes sexually explicit comments towards female staff. When we ask him to leave he doesn’t, and rather hangs around the store, repeats his questions, or simply just stands and stares. I haven’t seen him for a while, but at one point I saw him literally every time I went to work.”

Dr Jenny Chesters, a research fellow at the Youth Research Centre within the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, says that as students are committing to too many hours at work, it is damaging their chances of walking straight into the workforce at the end of their degree. Put this on top of the stressful environment of retail or fast food work, and it’s a harrowing position to be in.

“University isn’t just about good grades,” Dr Chesters says. “It’s about a way of living and engaging with new people, which [young people] are simply not having the time to do.”

An expert on transitions between education and employment throughout the life course, Dr Chesters says “it doesn’t help now to pass at uni. It’s not enough. You need lot more on your resume to get a graduate entry level job than just a pass [on your university transcript]”.

Dr Chesters says that while many students generally over commit their time to both study and work, it’s simply out of necessity. “There’s no way you can rent a room in a share house, plus pay your share of utilities, pay for food and pay any uni expenses that arise simply from youth allowance”. Students need to work, but it’s how much they work and in what environment that the job exists in that is the point.

According to a Retail Workforce Study commissioned by the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency, retail has one of the youngest age profiles, with more than a third of workers aged 24 years or younger. The ages of retail and service workers is largely dependent on the role they hold, as younger workers are much more likely to hold a sales role.

Taylar, a 22 year-old senior manager at a fast food outlet, defies that statistic.

Starting out as a trainee in late 2010, she spent seven and-a-half years working her way up to be the senior manager. Taylar says that she often finds her job stressful and demanding, having undergone additonal internships to make sure her resume is perfect when graduating.

“The most confronting experience I’ve had was when I found a man shouting at three of my team members about slow service. He was swearing and being very aggressive and, as a result, two of my team members were very upset and I don’t blame them. They were 16. The way he spoke to everyone was so degrading and disrespectful but, as the manager, I had to jump in and resolve the issue. I was scared as I’d had never had to deal with a situation on that level before. In the end, I tried to remain as calm as I could and ultimately refused him service due to his poor behavior.”

She’s had to call the local police station so often that the officers know her by name.

“I think my team doesn’t appreciate all the hard work I put into my job and doesn’t realise that it can be challenging especially while balancing uni and a personal life,” Taylar says. “With age and maturity you’re definitely able to handle it more and I think that it becomes easier to forget, but abuse still happens.”