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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 August, 2004, 14:24 GMT 15:24 UK
'Shopping rage' threatens UK workers
By Julian Knight
BBC News Online personal finance reporter

Shoppers

Few of us enjoy queuing in shops, or the vagaries of what often passes for service in some restaurants and bars.

But increasing numbers of UK consumers are going far further than complaining or taking their custom elsewhere.

They are letting their fists do the talking as shopping rage grips the UK.

From verbal abuse to serious physical assault, the UK's army of shop and service sector workers are feeling the heat.

Broken knee

Two years ago, Mark, 39, a supermarket worker with 15 years shop floor experience, had his knee broken in two places by a violent shopper.

The message from our members is that violence and verbal abuse is on the increase
Kevin Hegarty, USDAW spokesman

Mark, whose full name cannot be revealed for legal reasons, had confronted a shopper who was harassing his colleague at the checkout.

"The shop was full of pensioners and young families. I asked the man to leave politely, but he just punched me in the face," Mark said.

"I fell to the floor and the kicks were raining in, I feared for my life," he added.

Recluse

Mark felt that his employer let him down.

"There was no security guard, despite the fact that colleagues had been the subject of customer assault and abuse day-in-day-out," he said.

The assailant was later arrested, but released without charge.

Mark still bears the scars, both physical and mental.

"The attack turned me into a virtual recluse. I find it difficult to leave my house and I can't work," he said.

'Getting worse'

Mark is far from alone in falling victim to shopping rage.

According to the retail union USDAW, more than 200,000 shop workers were threatened with violence and 100,000 suffered assault between 1995 and 2001.

USDAW is currently studying the problem and anticipates that the results will show that the problem is getting worse.

"The message from our members is that violence and verbal abuse is on the increase," said USDAW spokesman Kevin Hegarty.

I wish shoppers would remember that they are dealing with someone's mother, brother, son or daughter when they overreact and become abusive
Mark
Shop worker

As well as the seemingly intractable problem of drug- and drink fuelled violence, the union believes there is something more at play.

During recent years, most retailers have been trying to lay to rest the old perception of UK shop service, that of long queues and customers having to be make do with what they were given.

Customer focused mission statements and in-store greeters have been deployed to win shoppers' hearts and minds.

But at the same time, many retailers, keen to cut costs and boost profits, have adopted 'just in time' supply tactics.

In some senses, a chasm has been created between customer expectation and retailer delivery, and this could be having a negative impact on shopper behaviour, according to USDAW.

"There are many complex reasons for violence and abuse, but no doubt some customers believe they can have anything they want and get angry when they can't have it straight away," Mr Hegarty said.

Mark calls this the 'must have now' society and is thoroughly sick of it.

"Shoppers' manners have got much worse since I started work," he said.

"I wish shoppers would remember that they are dealing with someone's mother, brother, son or daughter when they overreact and become abusive."

Secure behaviour

Some retailers and police forces are teaming-up to tackle the shop violence menace.

Under the shopwatch scheme, which is being piloted in parts of London, shop staff train as police special constables and patrol the local high street or retail park.

Dixons, one of the retailers involved in shopwatch, said that it had a positive effect on shoppers' behaviour.

"Not only does it deter shoplifting, but it creates a feeling of security for staff and shoppers," Joe Garner, Dixons director of strategy, said.

Your comments

I find that good customer service in a lot of places especially public services (banks, transport etc) is non-existent. I've felt extremely unhappy at times too because I've been repeatedly passed off from one person to another when problems have happened.
Ben, London

I work in a social security office and get verbal abuse all day. I don't ever recall the media making a great deal out of our plight as civil servants as you lot have for shop workers. Abuse should not be tolerated in any sector but the media should also focus on our plight as low paid undervalued civil servants.
Samuel, London UK

I worked in a newsagents/off license for 3 years and witnessed verbal abuse at least 5 times a week, and violent abuse directed at other customers and shop staff alike. The police don't treat it seriously enough, and we were forced on more than one occasion to deal with offensive people ourselves. I found it shocking that we needed security guards after 6.30pm in a shop to protect us. But one reason that it still happens is that we cannot touch the offenders, to physically eject them from the premises, for fear of breaching their human rights. We had a very drunk and violent young man, who was well known for his actions come into the shop and threaten everyone. He kicked the door and shattered the glass, but the security man was advised by the police that if he tried to eject him, he himself would risk prosecution. Shop work is becoming a dangerous job, and a no win situation.
Deborah Thompson, Stafford Staffs

With the views I've just read is it no wonder we get angry at shop workers! Telling us that our manners have got worse is laughable. I regularly have to remind checkout staff to say please and thank you. I often will not hand over money until they use basic manners. After all, it is the likes of me who are keeping them, in a job. And as for shoppers being asked to remember that workers are someone's mother, father, son, etc. this is pretty much a selfish comment. Shouldn't we, as customers be the ones reminding rude staff that it applies to us also. I for one will keep asking staff to say please and thank you before entering into a transaction and urge others to do the same. Basic manners cost nothing, but in this world respect is to be earned and is not an automatic right. If you use bad manners to customers don't expect politeness back!
Karen, London

I live in France, and there is no such thing as customer service here. Shop assistants chat to each other before serving customers, no refunds are given, no effort is made to locate goods in another store for example. When I first arrived, this frustrated me beyond belief, but 2 years down the line, it no longer bothers me. You don't have to stand in line behind someone shouting about their rights, everyone just accepts that they don't have any! I think the UK needs to slow down, and relax more. 2 hour lunch breaks here mean you don't mind if the assistant is chatting, in fact, lots of shops close for lunch too so often there is no choice but to relax. Goods ordered are not 'next day delivery' but can take up to 3 weeks, but it's not a problem. I dread the day 'customer service' creeps in here, it's already starting...
Catherine Burroughs, Strasbourg, France

I worked for a well known chain of off-licences while I was at University. One night a woman came in and bought cigarettes, she had 2 money off coupons that she wanted to use when we were only allowed to accept one (under threat of disciplinary action). When we wouldn't accept the second one, she started shouting so we asked her to leave. As we were locking up for the night, her boyfriend rang up, saying we had beaten her up and that he was going to wait outside the shop and stab us. We phoned the manager and the police who both refused to come down, so the manager of the chip shop next door came to check we were ok as we were leaving. The next night this woman's sister came in making threats and still nothing was done, despite both of us being afraid for our lives. I left 2 weeks later, and will NEVER work in retail again.
Anon, UK

When I worked in food service, I experienced "shopping rage" first hand several times, though I never heard that name until today. The worst example I can remember was the time, as a waiter, that (in my mind) I saved a 2 year-old, far out of his parents' eyesight, who had been teetering on the edge of a chair attempting to knock over a lit candle. I brought him back to his table, told the parents what I had seen, and politely asked them to keep him in hand. For this, I was screamed at and nearly hit in the face! Customers more and more believe they are "always right," no matter what they do, no matter how outrageous their requests. This seems to include verbally and even physically abusing those who are paid so very little to serve them.
Matthew, Northampton, USA

Supermarket shoppers in the UK do not realise how fortunate they are. Compared to the supermarket system here in Norway, the supermarkets in the UK are far superior in choice, environment, quality and definitely price. Frequently here in Norway, it can take up to 3-4 hours to do a normal food shop, compared to around 1 hour in the UK. This is largely due to the fact that each shop, even if it is part of the same chain, stocks completely different products, so you end up having to trail around 4-5 different shops in different areas to get exactly what you want. The environment in most of the shops here can only be described as dated and dull, poorly lit, with narrow food aisles. Although some shops are beginning to address this issue. Quite often the quality is poor i.e. vegetables for example and as a common occurrence food products such as dairy, biscuits or crisps, are sold well after their sell by dates. For the pleasure of all this, people here pay exorbitant taxes! I wonder how those impatient customers with shopping rage would cope, if the same system were in operation in the UK?
C K (ex UK), Stavanger, Norway

I once saw a shop worker (female) being attacked by a shopper (a male drug user) who threw her to the floor and bit her after she tried to get him to pay. He was taken away by the police, when they eventually turned up half an hour later, after other shop workers tried restrain him as he was trying to punch and kick and bite everyone else. The girl who had been attacked had to be taken away for a blood test to check for HIV and AIDS. If this shop had, had a security guard then this probably wouldn't not have happened. Shop workers are not trained to deal with abusive and violent customers, and they shouldn't be expected to either, there should be properly trained guards to keep shop workers and decent customers safe. The shop concerned (a supermarket) still hasn't got any kind of security, which I think is appalling.
Louise, London, Surrey

My first job was at a supermarket in Croydon, south London. One day I caught a shopper trying to use a fake card to pay and the checkout manager called the police. The woman was arrested. The next day I had leave, which was lucky because the woman sent in her boyfriend to beat me up. When I was not there he beat up the floor manager (who had come to ask him to calm down and stop harassing the checkout operators) and put him in hospital with broken ribs then ran away. The police did not catch him and I quit as soon as I heard about it.
Jen, MK

I think the problem is that people are forced to be within close proximity of each other in supermarkets, and it only takes a trolley wheel over the foot in a long queue to start upset. I reckon the solution is to force everyone to travel in large baby walkers thus keeping everyone an arms length apart.
Jon, Barcelona

Customer service is more than buzzwords("Customer focused mission statements"), and inane people uttering "Hello" and "Have a nice day" when you enter or leave. Having said that, there is no excuse for violence - a little politeness goes a long way.
Robert, Frankfurt, Germany

What's going on? I've lived in Italy with my family for 18 months and am shocked to read about the violence experienced by shop workers. I was a nurse in the U.K. and I don't miss the aggressive behaviour of patients I often encountered, however I always tried to put this down to fear, distress or drug problems. I visited a major store in England 6 months ago and was amazed at the attitude of some shoppers to the staff. Come and live here and wait in a queue while the checkout assistant takes a few minutes to chat to regular customers. There is a different attitude here of tolerance, people don't constantly whine about their 'Rights' they just get on with life. I think we'll stay.
Ella, Turin Italy

Is it really "shopping rage", or is it just a sign that there is a greater culture of aggression in this country nowadays ? I don't think you can categorise it as "road rage", "shopping rage" or whatever ... it's just "rage". People are losing their patience and the ability to cope with stress. It is a sad state of affairs.
Tony Brooks, Cambridge




BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
A victim tells his story



VOTE RESULTS
I get really, really angry when:
staff are rude
61%
queues are long
24%
prices are high
4%
stuff is sold out
7%
it rains
4%
2747 Votes Cast
Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion

Vote now closed



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