Should Stores Associates Police Rude Customers?

Discussion
Aug 09, 2013

A new study by the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business says retailers should consider admonishing checkout line jumpers and other disruptive store browsers to ease aggression between shoppers.

"Our study shows that retailers can play a key role in mitigating conflict by calling shoppers on bad shopping etiquette," states Lily Lin, a recent graduate of the Sauder PhD program in a press release. "This is important because research shows retailers can get part of the blame for their badly behaved customers."

The study, Do the Crime, Always Do the Time? Insights into Consumer-to-Consumer Punishment Decisions, was published in Journal of Consumer Research.

Examples of breaking the "social norms while shopping" include cutting in front of others while waiting in line for a cashier, taking multiple free samples and creating a huge mess at a store display.

In an experiment to explore conflicts between shoppers caused by bad behavior, researchers set up a shop display of neatly folded clothing. The object was to test if consumers would punish fellow (planted) "shoppers" who left it in disarray and how reprimanded messy shoppers are treated.

The researchers had their planted shoppers knock over a large stack of paper after browsing the clothing. Those who left the clothing tidy and those who left it untidy but were reprimanded received the same amount of help picking up the paper from fellow customers. But the messy shoppers who received no reprimanding received almost no help at all.

"The study indicates that if someone acts badly in a shopping environment and their behavior goes unchecked, they’re more likely to receive ill treatment from fellow consumers," says Ms. Lin. "Managers need to think about how they can alleviate this friction."

Ms. Lin said such conflicts can affect how consumers make decisions and evaluate their shopping experience. While aisles should be wide enough for shoppers to avoid accidently knocking over product and checkout line order shouldn’t be confusing, retail managers "also need to consider empowering their staff to step in when the rules of shopping are broken."

Do retailers get part of the blame for shopper behavior conflicts in the store? What should and shouldn’t store associates do about improper shopper behavior and resolving conflicts between shoppers?

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19 Comments on "Should Stores Associates Police Rude Customers?"

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Ken Lonyai
Guest
4 years 4 months ago

I tend to doubt that retailers are blamed for the behavior of customers unless it is constant and egregious at a given destination. Short of that, policing customers can be a slippery slope that takes real people skills or it may backfire. What would be worse for customers to witness: a shopper messing up a display or a shopper messing up a display and a store associate arguing with them about it? So unless particular employees are trained and assigned to deal with these situations, it seems the PR liability might outweigh any benefits.

Rather, preemptive measures might be better, like having a person in front of the registers, guiding people to the shortest lines and making a visible presence to potential line jumpers.

Steve Montgomery
Guest
4 years 4 months ago

The upside is very limited for the retailer having a store associate of pointing out a customer’s bad behavior while the downside is unlimited. The negatives range from someone using a phone to make a video, which is edited such that the issue that led to the confrontation is not seen, that ends up with physical assault or worse, that then goes viral. That being said, store associates should be trained what to do when a confrontation between two customers gets out of hand.

Zel Bianco
Guest
4 years 4 months ago

I’m not convinced this is a real issue in shopping. If someone knocks something over, I think more times than not it’s an accident. And if people are behaving badly enough for others to notice, I think managers or security should step in. To make employees responsible for policing puts their positions in a place I’m not sure retailers want it to go. Think about the liabilities of customers dealing with employees that feel like they have to police them. I think it would definitely cause more tension and friction than help the occasional “customer badly behaving” scenario.

David Livingston
Guest
4 years 4 months ago

I don’t think retailers should be blamed for the behavior of shoppers. My experience has been that rude and disruptive shoppers are often mentally ill with mood disorders. The best thing to do is just keep your eye on them, make sure they are not going to physically harm anyone or themselves, and do your best to quietly send them on their way.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
Guest
4 years 4 months ago

Improper behaviors is a broad category. Where is the line drawn between retailers monitoring and managing behavior or creating a pleasant shopping experience? Disney does well with this balance, but the approach requires a tremendous investment in training. What kind of atmosphere does a retailer want within their store and what kind of investment are they willing to make to get that result?

Ryan Mathews
Guest
4 years 4 months ago

I don’t think people blame retailers, but they may avoid shopping in environments where customer behavior is often an issue.

So, step one is to eliminate certain “pain points,” i.e., make sure the checkout lines are moving quickly so people have less inclination to cut them.

That said, the study was Canadian—a nation where people are generally pretty well behaved in the first place—and maybe there, social peer pressure is enough to admonish shoppers into better manners. But here, I’m afraid it would just make things potentially worse ala “retail rage” at the holidays.

Cathy Hotka
Guest
4 years 4 months ago

When I saw a woman eating lunch in the produce department—yes, pulling out fruits and vegetables and eating them right there in the store—I alerted management. It’s important that stores address bad behavior, because customers who play by the rules will insist on it.

Bill Bittner
Guest
Bill Bittner
4 years 4 months ago

As the article alludes, a lot of peer conflict between shoppers can be avoided through good store design. Probably the ultimate example of bad shopper behavior was the holiday opening of the Long Island store a few years ago when a shopper was trampled to death at the entrance.

Unless it is a clear and simple situation to correct, I would not advocate employees getting into the middle of shopper conflicts. If someone doesn’t understand how the queue works and accepts the employee’s advice, then all is fine. But if two shoppers are fighting over the same pair of shoes it is time to call in the manager and maybe some outside help. If it seems to be a recurring situation maybe some signage can help until a more permanent change is made.

Retailers owe it to their shoppers to provide a safe environment. The challenge is that they need to also provide it for their employees.

Jerome Schindler
Guest
4 years 4 months ago

The local Kroger store changed their express checkout item limit sign to “About 15 items or less,” probably to address shopper complaints/conflicts.

David Zahn
Guest
4 years 4 months ago

With the lack of training currently provided to employees/associates on job tasks, this seems like a problem waiting to happen if we expect them to now act as hall monitors.

I am okay with customers/guests alerting management (or a store clerk who then alerts management)—but direct intervention may be a bridge too far as an expectation.

Jason Goldberg
Guest
4 years 4 months ago

It’s really difficult to gracefully coach customers to follow social norms when they choose not to, and is a big ask of a part-time or seasonal employee to strike the right balance. I generally advise retailers to train staff to be observant, and escalate to more seasoned staff to intervene with customers when appropriate.

The challenge with leaving the behavior unchecked is that other customers in the environment ABSOLUTELY DO hold the retailer responsible for the experience, even if it is unfair.

The classic example is the cutting in line. David Maister’s did the seminal study “The Psychology of Waiting Lines” in 1985 and Don Norman updated it in 2008.

A critical component is that lines and waits much feel “fair.” When customers are allowed to “take cuts” or bypass the conventions, it eroded the perceived “fairness” for all shoppers.

Warren Thayer
Guest
4 years 4 months ago

I don’t think retailers get part of the blame from shoppers for other shoppers’ bad behavior. But if it is consistent, sane people may wind up avoiding the store. Asking everyday associates to get involved is just looney and dangerous, at least in most locations I know in the U.S. I could easily see things getting out of hand with injuries, lawsuits, etc., with employees playing cop when they can’t even successfully learn pricing policies or where things are in the store. Leave the policing to the police or people with legitimate training.

Shep Hyken
Guest
4 years 4 months ago

Empowering front line employees to take care of improper shopper behavior is an interesting concept. Done well, this is an excellent idea. However, mismanaged, it is a problem.

Managers need to train. Hire right, train and role play. Then, let the employees do their job.

It will take trust. Managers must trust their employees to do it right. Employees must trust their managers, the training and the company. The result will be a better employee—one that is engaged and fulfilled. (Trust goes a long way to having a fulfilled employee.)

The result is a better experience for the customer—even the one who is exhibiting improper behavior.

M. Jericho Banks PhD
Guest
M. Jericho Banks PhD
4 years 4 months ago

I can’t erase from my retinas the TV coverage of hordes of rude shoppers rushing into retail stores at opening time on the Black Friday shopping day last year. All races, sexes, ages, sizes, and shapes of rude humanity. Do you remember women being knocked down, wigs flying from their heads? Those are the shoppers we’re discussing here, and there’s probably no way to adjust their courtesy meters. They are and will remain oblivious.

Store employees should, however, police overtly rude behavior that offends other shoppers. The examples cited in Tom Ryan’s write-up come to mind. But while employees can affect individual situations, there’s no way they’ll permanently change a rude shopper’s attitude. That shopper will always do whatever they can get away with.

Ralph Jacobson
Guest
4 years 4 months ago

This can be a slippery slope if a retailer encourages this behavior. One way to help avoid these issues is with store layout and design. Some of the best checkout processes are executed with a single queue line at the POS. This tends to eliminate line jumping and gives everyone a sense of equality. This is most often done in specialty stores, however, I do see it in successful large format stores periodically.

Janet Dorenkott
Guest
Janet Dorenkott
4 years 4 months ago
Yes, of course the retailer should stop the behavior if someone is cutting other customers in line. Anytime behavior directly effects the customer, the retailer should put an end to it. But messing up clothes? that’s the retailers job to fix. It depends on the issue. Some of the comments state they don’t think retailers are blamed for bad behavior. I can tell you that they are blamed. I for one tell people I won’t shop at Marc’s because people become rude the minute they walk in the door. However, that’s because of the bad floor plan. This is a case where the retailer could fix the issue, but they chose to have more product instead of room to move. I prefer to spend a few more bucks and shop elsewhere where my experience won’t involve people slamming carts into me. Another example is where the bathroom’s a mess. If a retailer has frequently dirty bathrooms, I will avoid shopping there. To me, it’s an indication of how they keep the back rooms. I was… Read more »
Gordon Arnold
Guest
4 years 4 months ago

Store management and supervision receive very little formal training for observing and handling bad behavior from shoppers. This fact significantly lends itself to the huge employee turnover numbers present in retail today. When an employee feels compelled to quit for reasons of perceived technical abandonment by the management team, they not only quit the company, they also take the patronage of their family and friends with them.

This is a fact that is not encouraged for discussion in most management meetings taking place as we speak. Meetings that this topic does creep into get heated quickly and evolve into pity parties before they end. Tens of millions of sales and overhead dollars going out the doors daily and nobody wants to calmly talk about it, let alone deal with it. Perhaps we need to understand this as a means of capturing a larger percentage of our sales dollars as profit. We need to call this dilemma an opportunity and not a nightmare, or impossible job.

AmolRatna Srivastav
Guest
AmolRatna Srivastav
4 years 4 months ago

All the time, I would say. Retailers are the next best “punching bag” for a disgruntled customer due to behavior of other customers. Well the rules should be more well defined if not already, and more importantly, more training is required for store associates to handle this which does have cost implications, but so does the situation of shoppers’ conflict.

Alexander Rink
Guest
4 years 4 months ago

As has been mentioned before, it is most likely dependent on the situation. It’s doubtful that a shopper is going to blame the retailer for someone messing up displays or knocking something over. Those things happen. But I would disagree that they don’t ever blame the retailer for allowing other customers’ bad behaviour. I have to admit that it’s slightly frustrating when cashiers see shoppers “cut the line” but continue to serve them or if they notice someone opening food packages and let the behaviour continue. I would like to have confidence that when I get home, my box of cookies hasn’t been tampered with.

It’s all about teaching your employees when and how to step in, and to what level they should get involved.

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