Modern Training

Retail and grocery associates feel scared to go to work—how the right training can ease their fears

Posted on: April 26, 2023Updated on: April 17, 2024By: Alex Kinsella

There’s trouble in aisle two, but it’s not spilled milk. Rising inflation, interest rates and product costs have stretched household budgets and consumer patience to their limits. Customers are looking for someone to blame as they grow more frustrated with price increases on essential items. Unfortunately, retail and grocery associates are increasingly bearing the brunt of this ill-placed anger.

As consumers struggle to make their budgets work, retail and grocery associates are confronted with more and more hostile customers engaging in heated conversations, disrespectful behavior and escalating incivility. But without the proper employee training, staff are left unprepared to manage these situations and the fallout is affecting more than the bottom line.

Polling the frontline: What’s happening in retail and grocery

To better understand the day-to-day realities of the frontline, we polled 1,000 retail and grocery associates to get an inside look at what’s happening in stores and how they’re dealing with this uptick in difficult customers and confrontations.

Employee Standing In Retail Store

Sadly, the results paint a grim picture. Over the last six months, retail and grocery workers have reported dealing with more hostility, anger and sometimes physical violence: 33% revealed that their retail store had experienced a violent situation, ranging from robberies to physical altercations.

When asked to expand on how customer aggression most often materialized, associates offered some scenarios:

  • 63% reported that customers are more likely to ask to speak with a manager
  • 58% reported that difficult customers have more disputes with workers and sometimes other customers
  • 55% said that they are dealing with more customers trying to haggle on prices
  • 60% said they feel customers are more irritable

Retail theft is on the rise—and underreported

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, overall food prices could increase by 7.5% this year and, in January, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that grocery prices had increased 11.3% from the previous year.

Sticker shock isn’t just happening at the grocery checkout, either. Even with inflation numbers starting to ease, retail prices are still climbing due to continuing supply chain and labor market issues. The World Economic Forum’s report showed the Consumer Price Index increased by 7.1% between January 2022 and January 2023.

As prices have increased, unsurprisingly, shoplifting and retail theft incidents have also gone up. According to a CapitalOne Shopping research report, retail theft cost an estimated $86.6B in 2022; up 4% YoY. The same report had another startling stat—retail loss prevention teams only catch thieves 2% of the time.

The retail and grocery workers we polled also reported a similar increase in incidents. According to the results, 50% of retail and grocery workers reported witnessing a customer stealing or attempting to steal from their store in the last six months. But 28% of those workers said they turned a blind eye. Why? They lack the support system, protocol and sense of safety to feel comfortable reporting the incident.

All of these factors are leading to increased stress and burnout, with 40% of the workers surveyed saying they felt scared to go to work. This is alarming and unacceptable.

What can retailers do to make workers feel safe?

With 36% of associates admitting that they don’t have the skills to interfere and manage incidents of theft, it’s clear that retailers need to step up and develop substantial protocols that make their employees feel prepared to confront or defuse shoplifting scenarios.

One retail worker told CTV News Montreal about a customer demanding to return an item that the store policy wouldn’t allow and the outsized, combative response underscores how unfortunately commonplace these incidents have become.

“When I didn’t budge on my answer he decided to throw the opened package at me,” the retail worker was quoted as saying in the story. “I was so frazzled by the situation that I went straight to our back store and stayed there until my manager had to basically walk him out of the store.”

As these types of difficult customer interactions increase, retail and grocery workers need the proper training to help diminish and safely deal with aggressive behavior and  theft incidents. This type of training can include:

  • Fraud prevention – Labor market challenges are forcing many retailers to operate with reduced staff. This means fewer eyes are on the lookout for in-store fraud attempts like price switching, where a customer switches a price tag on an item for purchase. Fraud prevention training should also include identifying and reporting when other employees are stealing or helping others steal.
  • Safety training – 21% of the retail and grocery workers we polled said their employer hadn’t given them the tools and training to manage and resolve tense customer situations empathetically. Employee training must include content on defusing situations and confronting or reporting potential theft while prioritizing the safety of the associate, customer and other shoppers in the store.
  • Store process training – Whether a worker is seasonal or full-time, ensuring they have the proper store process training can help them address internal and customer conflicts. Topics like return guidelines, how to deal with damaged items and the proper use of employee discounts are just a few of the topics that workers need to know to provide better customer service—and deal with challenging shoppers.

Improving retail and grocery workers’ mental health

Proper, timely and continuous training is essential to improving employee morale and mental health. Beyond training, employers can develop several other proactive and reactive supports to help create a safer and healthier workplace:

  • Let customers know what is and isn’t acceptable – While it’s safe to assume most customers know how to behave respectfully, the reality is that staff need to be prepared to deal with those that don’t. Employers can post signage reminding customers of unacceptable behaviors and that there is a zero-tolerance policy for those who don’t adhere to expectations.
  • Talk often – Whether at the start of a shift or during closing, gather workers together and share updates on store policy, training opportunities and workplace health and wellness services. Letting workers know they have options—and support—can go a long way to helping them take action.
  • Create safe spaces – If the workplace can accommodate it, create a safe place where workers can regroup and calm down after difficult customer interactions. Witnessing incidents of physical violence or threats causes a great deal of stress. Providing a place to recover and ask for help is an important part of processing.
  • Provide additional mental health training and support – The topic of mental health still often has a stigma attached to it. Telling employees that they’re encouraged to ask for help is only a start. Organizations need to ensure that managers are enabled with the right skill set to know how to address and handle an employee who comes forward and opens up. For example, Walmart recently partnered with Lyra Health to provide a Workplace Mental Health course for its leaders and managers so they know how to properly guide and support their workers when asked.

Difficult customer interactions in grocery and retail stores likely won’t slow down as economic conditions continue to fluctuate, drive up prices and heighten consumer stress. By providing retail and grocery workers with the right training and support to manage these challenging conversations, frontline organizations can help improve worker safety and well-being. This level of training and enablement not only impacts how associates show up to work, but it also ripples across productivity, retention and recruitment, all critical factors in today’s labor market.

Alex Kinsella

Alex Kinsella is a freelance content marketer and writer based in Kitchener, Ontario. Alex has contributed to publications including BetaKit, The Community Edition, Grand Magazine and more.

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