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Restrictions are only just being lifted, so why are we already being mean to retail workers?

PHOTOGRAPHY BY IOLO LEWIS EDWARDS
WORDS BY EMMA MAIDENS

If you can’t be kind, please, just stay home.

Not that long ago we were “all in this together”. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia, this message was everywhere. Spouted by politicians, celebrities and across media outlets, the sentiment was clear: we’re all human, we’re all having a tough time, but we must consider how our actions might affect others.

Flouting social distancing laws became taboo, community spirit was at an all-time high and hostile behaviour, like hoarding food and abusing supermarket staff, was labelled ‘un-Australian’ by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Since then, cases in Australia have dropped significantly and we’ve been rewarded with a step-by-step plan to slowly ease restrictions across the country. The first concession was that nonessential shopping was given the green light. Shopaholics rejoice!

We were suddenly no longer limited to browsing the aisles of Coles or Kmart in a desperate attempt to satisfy our shopping addictions. Venturing out on the first weekend of the eased restrictions I was greeted by crowds reminiscent of the annual pre-Christmas frenzy. Due to customer limits based on square footage, almost every open store had a socially distanced line out the front.

Now, I don’t like lining up for things at the best of times. I’ll skip trendy hot spots for a bar where I can forgo waiting 15 minutes for one drink. When everyone hops aboard the latest-popular-restaurant-train and is happy to wait hours for a table, I can’t understand it, and to be quite honest, I’d rather pay full price than leave my house on Boxing Day.

I know not everyone shares this aversion to practising patience, but I was still taken aback by the sheer number of people willing to stand in line for a shop they could just as easily browse online.

I watched in awe as the queue outside Peter Alexander continued to grow – the excitement at the prospect of buying over-priced pyjamas was palpable. I thought to myself, “If people are willing to line up just because they missed in-person shopping so much, perhaps they’ll stop taking retail workers for granted.”

I hoped, optimistically, that the public’s new-found respect for the boots-on-the-ground professions that keep our economy flowing might be reflected in our attitude towards all people employed to assist us. Perhaps the recent outpouring of gratitude for essential workers might flow over into other roles.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that this has been the case. Recounts from those employed in the retail sector have sadly seemed to confirm that all sense of camaraderie has been promptly left at Westfield’s sliding doors.

Here’s what it’s like to be a retail worker right now

While shoppers aggressively confronting supermarket workers over product shortages inspired outrage during the height of the pandemic, little of the same respect has been shown towards workers in non-essential retail.

Despite the fact the products on offer are, by government decree, not essential to survival, (although this may be debatable for some) some customers continue to forgo common decency to get their hands on anything from nail polish to a fresh pair of Nikes.

Having worked in retail myself for close to a decade, I asked friends who are still in the industry if the post-COVID retail environment had improved the way customers interacted with retail staff.

The answers I received made one thing clear; in customers eyes, we’re no longer all in this together. Customers refusing to practice social distancing and being outraged at cashiers not accepting cash was common, but sadly that’s just the beginning. This is just a small sample of what they told me.

“I’ve been blamed for online orders that have been delayed and was yelled at by a bride shopping for bridesmaids dresses when she saw that all of our stock was last season and reduced.”

“Customers demand to know when we’ll restock their favourite items, but can’t comprehend why we can’t give them an exact date.”

“To comply with social distancing legislation, only every second change room can be used. A lot of customers complain about having to wait to try on clothes, even though the rules in place are for their own safety.”

Things aren’t back to normal yet, so be considerate and patient

Examples like these provide a sobering perspective on a day in the life of post-COVID retail work. As stores attempt to operate in a way that adheres to the strict rules in place by the government, they’re also functioning with less staff. Supply chains haven’t returned to normal and won’t for some time.

International travel is still massively restricted and Australia Post is facing unprecedented delivery demands so, yes, online orders may be delayed and stock levels may take a little longer to be replenished.

While life in Australia is slowly regaining a sense of normality, it’s necessary to remember that the virus is still rampant in other countries across the globe. Many industries essential to feeding our shopping habits came to a grinding halt in the wake of the outbreak and are yet to return to their previous capacity.

Just because the Australian government has trusted us to splash our cash IRL again doesn’t mean things are back to normal, and even if they were, have we learnt nothing? While a trip to the shops is fun, self-isolation taught me that it’s not tapping my card that I missed most.

Non-essential shopping has been the first sector to re-open to near pre-COVID capacity and retail workers are doing the best they can to navigate a shopping environment that’s completely new to them, balancing customer expectations and new government legislation.

As restaurants, cafes and bars also begin attempting to adapt to the new normal, take a second to acknowledge that we’re still all in this together, we always have been and we always will be. The time we spent in isolation reflecting and practising gratitude for essential workers is a lesson we can apply to all industries and aspects of our lives.

As you sit down for your first meal out or your tenth, remember that a forgotten appetiser isn’t the end of the world. And the next time I’m asked to wait in line, I’ll simply take a breath and count my blessings that I’m wearing something other than tie-dye sweats and have finally managed to escape the hell-zone of my lounge room.

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