Navigating challenging situations: what’s happening in retail and grocery

According to the latest Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research data, retail theft in NSW increased by 23.7% in the 12 months to December 2022.

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Navigating challenging situations: what’s happening in retail and grocery


The last time I was at the supermarket I observed an instance of what the media is referring to as a “growing wave of hostility directed at frontline workers.” An agitated and incomprehensible customer was ranting at a customer services representative who was looking after the self-checkout section of my local grocery store. It was deeply uncomfortable to experience on lots of levels. The customer was either on drugs or had mental health issues, or a combination of both and was therefore unpredictable. Should I intervene? Is someone else going to intervene? Where’s the manager, assuming they are older and more skilled in de-escalation than the young customer services representative? Does the customer services representative know what to do? Is the customer services representative ok? So many questions in a moment?

What transpired? No manager, a non-responsive customer services representative and an agitated customer that quickly stormed out of the building. One might argue that the customer services representative did the right thing as the situation did not escalate to violence. But if you watched the state the rep was in following the confrontation you would have a different view. They were visibly in shock and very emotional. They didn’t know what to do in the moment and they didn’t know how to manage after the confrontation.

This is a specific example of managing a difficult customer, but the issue is much broader than that and also can involve having to confront customers who are suspected of committing theft.

According to the latest Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research data, retail theft in NSW increased by 23.7% in the 12 months to December 2022. Retail crime costs Australian and New Zealand retailers billions of dollars every year. This cost doesn't include the flow-on effects that come with loss of time spent responding to the crime, or the stress and other mental health impacts of witnessing a criminal event.

Now, I don’t believe for a minute we, here at Capability Group can address the range of factors and systemic issues at play in these scenarios, but the one thing we can do incredibly well is support frontline workers to effectively manage these situations and manage themselves after confrontation with hostile customers.

One of our longest standing partners, Axonify, also cares deeply about the capability and wellbeing of those working in frontline roles. They recently conducted a survey titled 'Polling the Frontline: What's Happening in Retail and Grocery. Here are some of the key findings of this survey, which provide valuable insights into the preparedness of frontline workers to deal with this uptick in difficult customers and confrontations.

1. Escalating hostile interactions

The current recession is significantly affecting customers, leading to observable changes in their behaviour. Employees are witnessing the impact of the recession on customers in a variety of ways, including increased haggling over prices, a rise in disputes with staff or other customers, incidents of theft, and even instances of violence.

So, the experience I encountered at my local grocery store is not an isolated incident, its widespread.

2. Lack of employee training and tools

Despite the rising frequency of difficult interactions, frontline employees often lack the necessary training and tools to effectively manage these situations. This gap in preparedness not only leaves employees vulnerable but also hampers their ability to provide satisfactory customer service.

Back to my scenario, I’m certain that the customer services representative in my local grocery store was totally unprepared to manage the customer situation they encountered. And it’s not ok! The onus is totally on the employer to ensure their frontline employees have the skills to manage these extremely challenging interactions each and every day.

3. Impact on employee well-being

The consequences of ill-equipped employees are far-reaching. The survey indicates that a significant percentage of frontline workers experience fear when reporting to work. This fear not only impacts their job satisfaction and mental well-being but also has the potential to affect overall employee retention and productivity.

Imagine what it’s like turning up to work every day knowing that you are going to have at least one but probably several really challenging customer interactions. Of course, your wellbeing is going to take a hit. Employers showing empathy for these situations is not enough, they have to build the skills of their people.

4. Importance of training and support

To address these challenges, organisations must prioritise the provision of comprehensive training programmes that equip employees with conflict resolution skills and techniques for handling difficult customer interactions. Implementing tools and resources to enhance employee safety and well-being is crucial for creating a supportive work environment.

So the piece of this puzzle we can influence is this. Supporting our clients to quickly and effectively equip their employees with the skills and resources they need (at the time that they it!) to navigate these challenging interactions. This will keep their people safe. This will keep their people engaged because they care about them. And then there’s a bunch of other benefits like positively impacting employee engagement, productivity, retention, and recruitment, all of which are crucial factors in today's competitive labour market.

Check out Axonify’s 'Polling the Frontline: What's Happening in Retail and Grocery survey.

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