Retail staff in the line of fire


A nine year-old robbed a Kensington Carphone Warehouse outlet on October 8, pinching 14 handsets. He was accompanied by a gang of adults in the theft, who distracted store staffers while he relieved Carphone of around £3,500 in the latest consumer electronics. The incident, and the youth of the chief perpetrator, appear to demonstrate what easy targets mobile retailers are.

Staff, on the industry’s front line, face the threat of robbery every day. They also face verbal and sometimes physical abuse from ‘customers’, more personal and often more distressing than store thefts.

Trade union Connect last month launched a campaign to support mobile retailers’ efforts to reduce violent or abusive cases, which often lead to thefts, and to raise awareness among staff.

A 2008 Connect survey of 1,100 retail staff found 80 per cent of respondents had been abused verbally in the work space, and seven per cent claimed to have been victims of physical violence.

In 2006, it also found 16,000 physical attacks in the UK on retail staff and 83,000 verbal abuse cases.

These are scores for general retail in the UK. But mobile retailers handle easy-to-shift high-value items, and are considered primary targets.

Most mobile retailers applaud the theory of the campaign, although few came out in support of Connect itself – mobile providers have apparently little truck with the traditional trade union movement. They would prefer to be left to deal with the issue without unions engaging directly with their staff.

Everyday threat

A straw poll of retail staff says experience of abusive behaviour from customers remains unchanged, while shoplifting is on the rise. The suggestion is most retail outlets receive a visit from at least one abusive customer every day, whilst stock goes missing from stores at least each month.

Live demonstration handsets on shop floors have encouraged opportunist thieves, while products in stock cages continue to be a target. Of course, live units are a necessary tool for retailers to showcase increasingly complicated technology.

Mobile stores are increasingly fitted with devices such as panic buttons and CCTV cameras. Staff also now receive training to handle  difficult customers. Retailers are not about to disclose how many, or which, stores house CCTV. But a well-placed

Phones 4U staff claim it is common knowledge among them the “majority” of stores do not have any form of CCTV. “The flagship Oxford Street branches do have CCTV cameras, but most of the cameras in Phones 4U stores are dummies with no actual recording being made. There are panic buttons on the shop floor in all stores, but from my own experience, they do not always work,” says one senior source.

All O2 stores are fitted with surveillance cameras, but it has reduced the number of security guards it employs. Orange’s entire retail estate was fitted with security cameras last year, and staff say the equipment has helped to reduce shoplifting and physically abusive customers.

But staff claim such measures have little impact upon verbal abuse from customers.  

Orange actively bans abusive customers from stores, directing them to its telephone customer service department. O2 also bans customers they find to be a threat to its staff.  

An O2 spokesperson says: “Our legal team writes letters to abusive customers, asking them not to visit a particular store. Ultimately, we can (and do) disconnect the phone of a customer who has been abusive or violent towards staff.”

Staff training

Connect project leader Ben Bellamy says staff must also be equipped to deal with difficult customer situations, and training is vital. Vodafone’s NVQ includes such training as does O2’s induction training and Orange’s health and safety training programme.

“Our NVQ includes information on how to avoid confrontation and how to handle tough situations including crime and violence,” says a Vodafone spokesperson.

“If people are involved in such cases, there is additional support offered. Staff can call the employee assistance programme free of charge. This is a common support programme for large businesses.”

Says an O2 spokesperson: “We provide induction training and posters [about best-practice] in the back office. This is combined with a counselling service for staff, and the reporting of all incidents and investigations being completed.”

Carphone refuses to comment upon training, but staff claim there is little in the way of training on how to deal with abusive customers, or robberies.  

One staffer says: “It’s important staff handle the situation appropriately, or else it can escalate, so training would benefit us.
On occasion, a situation may become worse because the staff member becomes confrontational themselves.

“If they had the training to understand how to approach these types of customers, the matter can be diffused more easily.”


Full article appears in Mobile News issue 451. To subscribe click here