Clashes at the checkout. Tantrums at the till. Cussing at customer services. These are all scenarios that are facing retailers and front-line staff in Central Otago and Wanaka.  Mary-Jo Tohill reports.

The cafe is crowded with people wanting their morning coffee.  A man makes his way to the front of the queue and asks for a takeaway. He is told by staff they are phasing out single-use cups.

New Zealanders discard up to 295 million single-use cups per year.

Wanaka retailers are hot on it and have vowed to be takeaway cup-free by the end of 2022.

The man becomes abusive when he is told he cannot get his latte to go unless he brings or buys a cup and stomps off in a rage.

Pembroke Patisserie owner Kirsty Schmutsch, of Albert Town, near Wanaka, said it was not an isolated incident.

‘Postal services customers were sometimes rude about prices and Customs paperwork, and tended to ‘shoot the messenger’. We try not to take it personally as we know some of the requirements cause confusion and frustration. — Paperplus Alexandra manager Sam Robinson

‘‘It’s an ongoing conversation we are having with our customers about rethinking our coffee habits and suggesting alternative ways of enjoying a great cup of coffee without contributing to single use waste.  Not everyone is open to change but our staff are on the front line of change and that path isn’t always smooth.’’

It was not a matter that would necessarily be reported to police or mental health services but was indicative of what many retailers and front of-house staff faced regularly, Ignite Wanaka Chamber of Commerce executive officer Naomi Lindsay said.

Retailers and front-line workers shared their stories at a body language workshop organised by the chamber in Wanaka last week.

‘‘We’re hearing it in all areas, especially since Covid. People are under a lot more pressure and businesses are struggling financially. Lots of people are anxious and they’re going from whoa to go [in their behaviour] very quickly.’’

She contacted body language coach Steph Holloway about holding the workshop.

‘‘People in general have a shorter fuse and the tiniest thing tips them over the edge,’’ Ms Holloway said.

The slow unfurl … a handy body language tip from language expert Steph Holloway of Wanaka to de-escalate situations. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

The English-born communicator and life coach moved to Wanaka earlier this year.

Her body language expertise is called upon regularly, and in more recent times by media.

She was asked to decode the controversial Meghan and Harry interview with Oprah Winfrey in March, for those tell-tale signs that tell experts how people are feeling —the touch of the lip, the blinking eyes, the fiddling or fidgeting with rings or buttons.

Then the Countdown stabbings in Dunedin happened, and that changed the whole emphasis of the Wanaka workshop, to show front line workers how they could use body language as a deescalation technique. Ms Holloway said it was common for all of us to be presented with unpredictable, aggressive, or inappropriate people.

‘‘In recent times this appears to have been exacerbated in retail and customer-facing environments. Aggressive outbursts, inappropriate language and comments, unacceptable behaviour . . . and much worse, becoming more commonplace.’’

There is a heightened level of stress, anxiousness, abruptness sometimes, confusion, frustration and disappointment over the changes in rules and regulations which can manifest as them appearing ruder to front-line staff.
— Albert Town’s Pembroke Patisserie owner Kirsty Schmutsch

Her services had been called upon many times since the May stabbings to provide some sort of explanation for this behaviour.

‘‘Many reasons are being offered such as length of time spent working away from real people during Covid [lockdowns and restrictions]. More screen time leaving people unaware of appropriate spatial distancing, which causes them to cross personal boundaries. People who lack intimate relationships in their life reading the wrong signals and doing or saying inappropriate things. Shorter fuse for things that are not done quickly, having to wait for a perceived ‘long time’.’’

Cromwell New World owner-operator Phil Ryan said the store had begun the training in the ‘‘dos and don’ts’’ of handling armed offenders last week.

‘‘The main thing is to get that person out of your shop as quickly as possible without anyone getting hurt. We don’t care if they steal, if they take stuff with them. Goods are replaceable.’’

He did not blame the pandemic for people’s increasing rudeness.

‘‘It was happening well before that. There’s no question people are less tolerant than they were 20 years ago. Back in the day, if you didn’t have something in stock they didn’t jump up and down about it. Everyone wants everything at the tip of their fingers these days.’’

He said the store had a good rapport with police, who were just across the road.

‘‘As for the Countdown stabbing, it could have happened anywhere. It just so happened it was in a supermarket but it does jog the danger signals because you don’t want any of your staff hurt.

‘There’s no question people are less tolerant than they were 20 years ago. Back in the day if you didn’t have something in stock they didn’t jump up and down about it. ,
— Cromwell New World owner-operator Phil Ryan

‘‘It’s good to have barriers if you can, between customers and staff. The checkouts are good because of the plastic coveringfrom Covid that we’ve kept. They’re a bit of a bonus.

‘‘Ultimately, you need distance and barriers from offenders, but if you’re stuck out on an aisle working, that’s not always possible, because there’s nowhere to hide.’’

Paper Plus Alexandra manager Sam Robinson said generally people using the retail section were really respectful to staff but at times, customers using the postal services were rude, usually about the cost of postage, and requirements for Customs.

They tended to ‘‘shoot the messenger’’ and could sometimes take their frustration out on staff.

‘‘We try not to take it personally, as we know some of the requirements cause confusion and frustration.’’

Recognising the signs
Recognising the early warning signs to take preventive measures sooner and before it escalated, was key, Ms Holloway said.

The state of ‘‘relaxed vigilance’’ was a front-line workers’ best friend, and she gave workshop-goers some tips and coping strategies.

If possible, watch how a person enters the building and how they approach you; the way they walk and their expression can say a lot.

Listen to the complaint, do not minimise, do not interrupt. Let them rant, but try to take them to one side to get them out of earshot of other people. This also takes away their audience.

Avoid standing right in front of them. Align your body slightly to the side. It can be less confrontational.

Keep your expression neutral and maintain eye contact. Keep your tone calm and hand gestures relaxed. Avoid pointy fingers or jerky movements.

Find out their name if possible. Acknowledge that there could be a problem. Put their name at the end of the sentence rather than the beginning. It is less patronising. For example:

‘‘I can see you are frustrated that your item’s not in stock, Dave.’’ Do not say ‘‘sorry’’ unless it is your fault.

‘‘In many cases, they will eventually hear how unreasonable they sound, feel guilt or shame, and stop, apologise or calm down themselves,’’ Ms Holloway said.

Then come in with your business mantra. In the case of Wanaka cup-free quest it could be: ‘‘This is a Wanaka thing and we’ve decided to do away with the takeaway cups by the end of 2022.’’

Offer them the alternatives— to buy a ‘‘borrow’’ cup which they would get a refund for on return, or to bring their own next time.

If they continue to rant, do not say, ‘‘As I explained to you. . .’’ That can be red rag to a bull.

If this does not de-escalate the situation, repeat the mantra then ask them if they still want to buy a coffee.

De-escalating the situation so they left and stopped making you and other customers feel uncomfortable, was the main aim, she said.

‘‘Stick with your facts. You have to face the fact sometimes you have to let someone go.’’