Retail workers want the right to defend themselves

Discussion
Photo: Getty Images/stevecoleimages
Jun 29, 2022

A RetailWire headline last October asked the question: “Who protects store associates when shoppers lash out?” The answer to that question may come in new labor contracts being negotiated by unions representing frontline retail workers and their employers.

A New York Times article reports that the United Food and Commercial Workers union made sure to include the right of self defense for workers if they are attacked on the job. Associates in the past have been terminated from their jobs after physically engaging with customers or shoplifters over safety and liability concerns.

Kim Cordova, president of UFCW local 7 in Colorado, told the Times that the way people reacted to safety measures put in place to curtail the spread of COVID-19 prompted the need for the new provisions in workers’ contracts.

Associates were regularly verbally abused and too frequently physically attacked for enforcing public safety and/or corporate rules intended to protect workers and customers from the virus that has killed more than one million Americans and left many other with long-term medical issues.

The Times did an analysis of crime statistics published by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and found that assaults from 2018 to 2020 increased 63 percent in grocery stores and 75 percent in convenience stores. More than two million assault cases were reported to the FBI during that period, with 82,000 taking place in shopping malls, convenience stores and other retail locations.

Retail stores, including King Soopers, Tops and Walmart, have been the sites of mass shooting incidents perpetrated by mentally ill individuals or those espousing political hate ideologies.

There is also the growing spate of smash and grab incidents where gangs of shoplifters mob a store and make off with merchandise. Incidents such as this always increase the chance that workers will find themselves in between thieves and their plans to make off with merchandise.

Around 80 looters last November blocked the street with their cars before they flooded into a Nordstrom store in California. They grabbed armfuls of merchandise inside the store and attacked associates with punches, kicks and pepper spray, according to NBC News. The raid took only one minute.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Should retail industry employers give frontline associates the right to defend themselves and customers inside stores or should they continue to ban physical interactions with thieves and aggressive people? Do you see changes in store layouts, use of security personnel, technology, etc. as helping to address incidents of violent crime in stores?

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24 Comments on "Retail workers want the right to defend themselves"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

These stories about confrontations in stores are truly terrifying. And while everyone should have the right to defend themselves from physical harm, a better option is to hire trained security personnel. Retail leaders cannot expect frontline staff to service customers and police unruly customers, let alone defend themselves from physical harm. Meaningful investments in security need to be made.

Dave Bruno
BrainTrust

There are simply no easy answers here. Of course, people need the right to protect themselves when assaulted, but with the terrifying proliferation of weapons in our society today, one must always take steps to prevent altercations from escalating. In addition to the right to protect themselves, associates should demand proper incident training techniques. De-escalation is almost always the right answer, but rarely easy to achieve.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

If a customer is acting with physical violence against a member of staff or aggressively shoplifting then that customer completely loses their rights; it is perfectly legitimate for reasonable force to be used against them. The question is who should use that force? The answer in retail is usually that trained security personnel are in the best position to act and restrain the shopper. Other frontline workers would be entitled to use force if they were personally being endangered, but it is not really a desirable solution and runs the risk of escalation and putting them in greater danger. The bottom line is that retailers need to work harder to keep their people safe.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

This is dangerous but necessary. Judging what is a justifiable assault to respond to versus ultra-angry behavior is going to be very difficult. Are we going to experience a slippery slope?

What has happened to the culture of this country is very disturbing. I believe that the only way to solve these issues is to change the culture, which in the short term is impossible. I am saddened by the way people react to everyday slights and less.

Somehow, we as a population have made this kind of reaction acceptable. Yes, we wring our hands, but we do nothing about it. Aggressive behavior has become acceptable.

Gary Sankary
BrainTrust

Hard NO. Even if we assumed that in all confrontations the store team member is 100 percent in the right and the bad actor customer is 100 percent in the wrong, still no. Thinking back to the beginning of the mask mandates, I’m quite certain we would have seen serious bloodshed if employees were allowed to defend themselves in some really horrible situations. These interactions MUST be left to professionals to deal with, full stop. The exposure risk for the retailer is astronomical. This might be one scenario where insurance and risk management companies will step in to stop this before someone does something stupid.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

I have been in situations with aggressive shoplifters many times and I’ve gone into auto-mode, doing enough to be able to walk away. But when somebody pulls a gun all bets are off. That’s when I turned in my keys and got a corporate job.

We live in aggressive times. It’s a scary situation because you don’t know what people are capable of doing. Certainly, store personnel should have the right to defend themselves but as Gary Sankary points out this too is dangerous. It’s the retailer’s responsibility to have methods in place to protect the associates, customers and the store. Grocers love a grid layout with high gondolas that create blind spots; relying less on this and opening the site lines will help but I doubt many would be willing to give up that selling space.

This is a dilemma for store security experts, and one that requires immediate attention.

Mohamed Amer, PhD
BrainTrust

No. No. No. This isn’t about going retro and installing armed sheriffs in each retailer à la the Old West. That’s like saying let’s fight fire with fire, and let the chips fall where they may.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

Retail frontline associates already have enough pressures and responsibilities to keep the operation going. To expect frontline associates to have to defend themselves in the face of violence is a shocking development. They are not trained or prepared to act as the first line of defense when shoplifting or violent acts occur in the stores.

Sadly, this is a sobering reflection of our culture and society, where violent acts could happen at any moment. Store associates should feel the safety and security they need to perform their jobs. Retail operations need adequately trained security personnel to handle such incidents, not front-line associates who earn a living and do their jobs.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

Is the right to defend oneself against a violent customer something for retailers to “give”? One would think it’s a fundamental human right. I suppose what’s meant here is that retailers would cede some rights to fire people who do defend themselves.

Store employee perception can be incorrect leading some to “defend” when they aren’t in danger. That said, retailers need to support employees more and quit seeing them as pawns or cannon fodder. I would suspect if front line employees were offered more fundamental human respect in their daily work, this would be less of an issue.

What respect? Stop. Punishing. Employees. For. Store. Ratings. Store ratings are primarily not within the control of the employee.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

I am curious. BrainTrust, when was the first time you noticed any security personnel in a retail store?

Gary Sankary
BrainTrust

Target has a dedicated team of in-store security people. I see them every time I shop there. They’re not armed, but they wear uniforms, calling them out as Asset Protection. Best Buy is another where store security is very high profile—expected given the nature of the products they sell. Other than those two specific examples, I don’t see security in stores. Full disclosure, there are only about 3-4 other brand stores that I visit, so I don’t think I’m a great resource here.

Rich Kizer
BrainTrust

The point is, they should not be that evident. if they are, I fear it would scare customers. Then the question, when is the last time you saw a customer in the store? (I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek.)

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Except for banks, I don’t recall seeing security people in retailers 20 or 30 years ago.

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

There’s a lot you can do to prevent theft without fighting someone or shooting a perp (is that what we’re really talking about, by the way?) — the store can be designed better (think: sight lines), you can have more employees on the floor, some of them actually trained to spot thieves and you can set up your entrance and windows to help slow that type of thing down as well.

The other thing you can do is have more showroom stores (which have always tested well) with less inventory, size and chance for a big score. I’m still wondering why we don’t see more of those.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust
The retail world is a dangerous place these days. Many customers, and more than a few employees, are armed, angry, and prepared to meet force with force. Let that happen and you are going to have anarchy and a lot of dead and hospitalized customers and retail workers. I tended bar in college and grad school and was armed all of the time. Did that stop two armed robberies, multiple stabbings, and more than one “Wild West” showdown? Nope! And that was in a relatively saner time. The recent shooting in Uvalde, Texas shows us that arming folks isn’t always an effective deterrent, Neither is condoning bar brawls in retail stores. That said, retail workers and customers have a human right to assume they aren’t going to be threatened, hurt, or killed just because they went shopping or reported into work. Great to advocate for security guards, but most of them are either not or undertrained, underpaid, and just working security because ironically it’s one of the easiest jobs to get. Workplace safety is a… Read more »
Al McClain
Staff

The other day, in Atlanta, a Subway sandwich worker was killed because the customer thought she put too much mayo on his sandwich. So, he shot her and her co-worker in front of a 5 year old daughter of one of them. The gun and hostility culture in this country has won. Short-term, I propose security in every store, cost be damned. Long-term, gun buyback programs with huge payouts and restricting gun sales are the only things I can think of. But, since half the country won’t go along with that, I think it’s every person for themselves and every retailer for themselves. It will get much worse before it gets better, I fear.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Culture, culture, culture!

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

We regularly have gun buy-backs in NYC. It is a great scheme. Bad guys turn in their guns, get cash, and get more guns. The winner is the manufacturers of guns. Is this the circular economy?

Al McClain
Staff

I think buybacks will only work if we regulate gun sales at the same time. But, that seems to be an impossible goal for society as it is in the US today.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust
Al, There are just too many guns out there for buy-backs to have any demonstrable impact. I mean we are talking about (literally) at least 440 million guns that we know of, so that genie is out of the bottle. You want to make a dent in the problem? Make every gun and gun-related offense subject to a term of natural life in prison. It would take a minute, but over time, carrying a weapon would suddenly start looking a lot less attractive. Also, we need to get somebody with half a brain inside the NRA. Gun owners need to understand that the real threat to gun ownership isn’t AOC and the Dems, but an irrational NRA which is doing everything in its power to get away from its initial purpose. The NRA is the one that should be lobbying for registration, mandatory training for licensing, completion go fun safety courses (which they could make a fortune on), Red Flag laws, etc., etc. Get all those things in place and it’s much harder to advocate… Read more »
Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

Good points Ryan. For additional context, in 2021 it’s estimated that were 298 M smartphones in the US … 298 M vs. 440M.

Rich Kizer
BrainTrust

I would never put the store staff in Jeopardy. If violent escalation would erupt, an off-duty police officer can control the situation. Yes, I would hire the police.

Rich Kizer
BrainTrust

One further thought. If there is a fight or other occurrence, the police will be much more adept in handling the situation. If the confrontation gets out of hand, likely the news media will not blow it up if they hear of it. But if it is an employee, then it becomes news. That you don’t want — obviously.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

This seems a little misleading: typically associates are terminated for unnecessarily engaging with criminals, not “defending themselves”; that is to say it’s actually a safety measure to discourage ill-considered heroics (whether/not that’s the proper response is of course open to debate).

Like every other issue retail faces, security and safety are permanent challenges.

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