opinion

"Customers are swearing and abusing staff." I work in retail, and this is what I'm seeing.

I cannot explain to you the heart-stopping pressure that weighs on you as a retail worker when you realise that social distancing is not a simple task.

I manage a team of exceptional staff; all mature, all experienced in the ways of retail and in life. Leading up to the NSW lockdown earlier this year, there was a lot of apprehension. We all have families; we have parents in the high-risk category, and young children, nieces and nephews and grandchildren to worry about. 

I myself had five weeks off work just a year ago with pneumonia. We were all worried about the possible implications of this virus.

Our employer, an Australian fashion brand, was one of the first to close its doors. This was before Jobkeeper was announced, and frankly our relief outweighed any financial concerns. We were so appreciative of their concern for our wellbeing.

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We no longer had to expose ourselves to busy shopping centres; to have people cough and sneeze in our faces (yes, that actually happens). We could protect ourselves and our loved ones, do the right thing and isolate at home.

Then came the moment when the powers that be decided to reopen our stores. So, after months of doing the right thing and isolating, we re-entered our workplace. To say it was a shock to the system was an understatement. Westfield was BUSY! And by busy, I mean Christmas peak trade busy.

Social distancing was an impossible task. We opted to walk stairs and ramps in place of lifts. The lifts - despite having clear signage with new, safe passenger limits - were crammed full of eager shoppers. You could not physically walk from one location to another in the centre without brushing shoulders with others.

Our team formed new habits and did not leave our store; we didn’t break outside of the confines of our own shop.

Occasionally when we couldn’t hold it any longer, we would escape to the bathroom - and every time it was an immediate regret. There were LINES of people waiting, toilet paper was low, and handwash was hit and miss.

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Our store has maintained a low customer limit since reopening. We restrict the numbers in store at any one time to maintain control over distancing and hygiene.

My staff became stylists, cleaners and bouncers overnight. The expectation on staff to uphold new policies and procedures was intense. In the space of a week I witnessed every single one of my team break. They all cried; they all struggled to accept our new reality.

For some it meant they could no longer visit their parents in aged care facilities, for others it meant they wouldn’t get to hold their newborn grandchildren. And for a few, it meant the realisation that it would be years before they could visit their children who now live overseas. For all, we worried we were taking this virus home with us every time we worked a shift.

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Customers varied greatly. Some have been vigilant, worn masks and not wanted to try things on. (To be clear - we love these customers! We appreciate their efforts and we have no issue returning their garments if they weren’t as they hoped once they’d tried them on at home.)

Then we have those that REFUSE to use sanitiser, but not only refuse - they swear and abuse my staff. This is something we have really struggled to wrap our heads around; surely a request to clean your hands is not unreasonable during a pandemic? Surely all would benefit from knowing that anyone who has touched a garment before them cared enough to have clean hands.

The amount of people who argue that they’ve used it elsewhere (and presumably teleported to our store without having touched their faces, a counter, a handrail, an eftpos terminal) or that it smells bad (um, okay, I’m sorry but I’m sure you’ll live), or that they’ve already done it in fifty other stores today (well - I hate to break it to you, but you probably shouldn’t be visiting fifty stores during a pandemic) or that they’re incredible fragile, sensitive beings who can’t tolerate how it will dry out their hands (in this case - we offered an alcohol-free version.)

And finally, my least favourite type: the people who just refuse, insult you and your intelligence by quoting inaccurate facts and abusing the staff who had politely asked that they sanitise as they enter the store.

Then there are those who oppose our customer entry restrictions, they argue that we could fit so many more in the store and they don’t want to be inconvenienced by waiting. 

Yes - they are absolutely correct, we COULD fit more in. But, we couldn’t ensure distancing, we couldn’t wipe down every surface, we couldn’t put the garments they’d tried aside to be steamed before another customer tried them, and we couldn’t offer the level of service they expect from a respectable distance.

To the customers who open a closed door to let themselves in...the doors are closed for a reason. We will open them when it is safe for you to enter.

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Many take issue in maintaining a safe distance from counters while processing a transaction. In fact, for most, it is as though their spines have failed them and they must drape their entire bodies over every surface of the counter. (Hot tip: while we try and clean between customers, there is only so much Glen20 will do...and we’ve all seen the hazmat suits professional cleaners are wearing. I’m just saying, if it were me, I’d be levitating rather than touching any surface.)

A disappointingly high number felt compelled to complain about how long their knit/pant/shirt took to arrive during lockdown. Oh I’m sorry, you do realise that our stores were ALL closed. Our warehouse operated on half-staff to maintain social distancing and the postal service was overwhelmed. But please, tell me how inconvenient that was to your life.

We have adapted with the times and grown accustomed to our new normal. At any one time, a staff member is doing a headcount, greeting and ensuring hand sanitiser has been used, searching a system for stock (that likely isn’t there), trying to style and outfit a person - all while maintaining a distance.

It is not easy to style a person from metres away. Believe it or not, many expect you to button their clothing, roll their cuffs and assist them into jackets. Others don’t know their size and literally bend over, exposing their rears and asking that you peek inside to glance the size label.

And now we wait on tenterhooks, uncertain as to what will happen next. Victoria is yet again in lockdown, and the advice or request is that New South Wales wear masks when distancing.

Our team prepared for this. We ordered masks weeks ago just in case. We opted for something that would blend with our garments and not be too off-putting. And yet, day one of these new standards, we encountered a “Karen”.

A customer who felt compelled to tell us in no uncertain terms that she didn’t care what the Premier asks, that she found our request for sanitiser or our personal choice to wear a mask offensive and intimidating. This woman went so far as to lodge a complaint with our employer. (How dare we care enough to protect ourselves and our clientele by wearing a mask.)

You may struggle to find the perfect piece for your wardrobe. Stock is low, and we likely won’t get more. But people are dying. Others are sick. This thing is real. Like it or not, we’re in it together.

Sanitising is a thing now, and distancing shows respect. Patience is a virtue, and kindness goes a long way. Remember, we are ALL people. We all have families and lives. 

Feature Image: Getty. The photo used is a stock image. The author of this post is known to Mamamia and has chosen to remain anonymous for privacy reasons.

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