By BETH CROUSE
The sun is shining, and for a Saturday morning working in a minimum wage retail job, it’s a pretty easy morning. Then, a couple enters the section of store you’re responsible for. There are already a few families wandering around, but nothing out of the ordinary. You approach them, smile, and offer the standard greeting of “Welcome to the store, my name is … Is there anything I can help you find today?” Suddenly, the seemingly relaxed couple turn into vicious attackers bent on destruction, or at least rendering you to tears.
This is something too many people experience when they work in retail. The level of abuse employees are not only forced to take, but are expected to take on a daily basis is astronomical. It’s virtually impossible for these employees to stand up for themselves because showing any backbone to these verbally-abusive tyrants only works to spur them on.
It’s impossible to tell who will be the next aggressor; verbal abusers don’t come with an easy-to-distinguish warning tag. Employees are frequently reduced to tears because of the unrelenting tactics of customers.
“At the place where I used to work, the cashiers were frequently reminded by our managers to, in laymen’s terms, do everything in our power to make the customer happy,” said Kirsten Jensen, a victim of retail abuse.
“I worked the customer service desk so I had to deal with the worst of the worst, however, the one that I will always remember happened when I was working the returns desk along with another girl when this guy came in to return a chainsaw that he said didn’t work.
“He took the chainsaw out of the box, which wasn’t a brand we even carried, and it looked to be well over 10 years old. There was rust and visible damage from extensive cutting time. He then told us that he had bought the chainsaw here last week and it came like this in the box.
“We tried to tell him that wasn’t possible because we don’t carry that line of chainsaws, but a competitor did, but he started raising his voice, swearing, referring to us as stupid cows, stupid bitches and other extremely profane names. He started screaming at the top of his lungs that he wanted his money back.
“Other customers around the area came over toward where we were to see what was going on. This guy then looks at me and says, “I see you don’t have a ring on your finger and it’s no wonder, a fat sack of crap like you is completely incompetent.
“After about 10 minutes of this, my manager came over, talked to the customer and gave him his money for this product we didn’t even sell just to shut him up,” Jensen said.
Another example of verbal abuse comes in the form of blatant sexism.
“I was working a day shift at Blockbuster so it was just me and my supervisor, Jon, in the store,” said Katie Stevens, a former minimum wage employee who was left to deal with a rather prickly situation.
“A man came into the store and asked me to look up a movie so he could order it in. The movie was called Dale and it was about Dale Earnhardt, a NASCAR driver. The search system at Blockbuster was very basic, so all I had to do was type in ‘Dale’ and it would say whether or not we had it in the system.
“It wasn’t there, and I told the guy this but he kept telling me more and more details about the movie and about Dale Earnhardt like I was supposed to use those to find the movie. I kept telling him that no, sorry, we don’t carry that movie at all so I can’t order it in for you.
“He asked if he could ask my supervisor about it. I said sure even though I knew Jon would tell the guy the same thing that I had already said.
“Then he said, ‘It’s just that men generally know more about NASCAR than women. I don’t mean anything bad by that, I mean I wouldn’t be interested in learning to knit or how to wash a dish. So why don’t you run along back to the kitchen where you belong and let someone who is qualified to deal with men come out here.”’
Oftentimes customers forget that the person standing behind the cash register or wearing the name tag is a human being. Customers disregard that these people have any feelings whatsoever and begin to verbally tear these poor souls apart.
“I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve been reduced to tears,” said Sam Mitchell, an employee at a big name book retailer.
“I’m not an emotional person, but working here, I’ve been called names that I don’t want to repeat,” Mitchell said.
“One of the worst times was around Christmas. The store was packed to begin with and we were short-staffed. I was doing my best to get through a 15-person lineup single-handedly at cash when this crazed-looking woman bypasses the people waiting in the marked line and jumps in front of the customer I was ringing though. She threw a bag at me, and said, “I need to return this now.”
“I stopped, and I can only imagine how I must have looked, almost like a deer in the headlights. This woman completely cut off the entire line and the customer I was ringing through was just staring at me, waiting for me to do something.
“I told her, in a very calm voice, that she would have to go to the back of the line and then I’d be happy to help her out. But that wasn’t good enough.
“This woman looked at me, snarled, and pounded her clenched fist on the counter. She bellowed at me, ‘I want this returned now! It’s broken and I won’t give my kid a broken gift! You have to return it! I’m the customer so you have to do what I say!’
“So I said if she could step to the side I would be with her in just one second.
“After I finished cashing out my original customer, apologizing the entire time because I was so embarrassed, the crazy lady came back to my till.
“I pulled the supposedly broken toy from the bag and it was one of the Disney Frozen dolls we had sold out of last week. There was nothing wrong with it though, everything was still sealed and in the original packaging.
“I asked her if she had her receipt so I could start the return, which she didn’t have, so I could only process it if we exchanged the item or gave her a store credit.
“I asked her why she was returning the doll and she looked at me and said, ‘Are you retarded or just stupid? Look at it! It’s broken! The picture on the back is a completely different dress than the one in the box! Seriously, how did you even get a job? I’m surprised you can even function if you’re this retarded!’
“By this point I was so angry I was shaking and I could feel my eyes starting to water.
‘I looked at the woman and said, Ma’am the doll has a water-changing dress meaning that it doesn’t show the pattern until you put it in cold water.’
“The woman then went on a rant about how stupid I was, how I didn’t deserve to have a job, that it’s people like me who are ruining the country, and so on.”
“By this point, other cashiers were able to come and help with the line and my manager had been called up to the front by one of the other employees. My manager was walking over to see what was going on, and as soon as she got to the register, this woman started blaming me saying I was doing things wrong and that I should be fired.
“I ended up walking away in the middle of the transaction and going home early that day,” Mitchell said.
Those who work in retail have very little control in how they must deal with irritated, irate or irrational customers. However, a website has popped up where employees from all areas of retail are able to voice their story about “that one crazy customer.”
The website, NotAlwaysRight.com, is full of first-hand accounts from the frontlines of the retail battlefield. Stories of crazy antics, outrageous tempers and poor choices made by adults offer a cathartic release for all those who continue to deal with customer tantrums.
What people need to remember is that behind the name tag and uniform is a human being who is doing his or her best to keep the customer happy. Throwing a temper tantrum that rivals an unruly toddler doesn’t solve any problems, and treating salespeople like verbal punching bags until they have tears in their eyes won’t fix the issue, either.
What everyone needs to remember is there are times when the customer isn’t right. And it happens more often then most people think.