Kiwi retail workers speak out about abuse in wake of Dunedin Countdown stabbing attack

The abuse retail workers face in New Zealand was laid bare on Tuesday morning, with many Kiwis telling The AM Show about how they've been mistreated by customers. 

Countdown is considering trialling body cameras on staff after four people were stabbed at a Dunedin store on Monday afternoon. The supermarket chain's general manager of safety Kiri Hannifin says issues have escalated over the last year. 

"We would have assaults against our team every day in our business. It has got significantly worse since the level 4 lockdown last year where we saw, during those few weeks, a 600 percent increase in violence towards our team," she said. 

"[There have been] threats to kill, threats of abuse, terrible, terrible abuse, every day. It's been a very, very tough 18 months for our team in New Zealand." 

That's echoed by Tali Williams, the secretary of First Union's Retail, Finance and Commerce Division. She told Newshub the abuse levelled at staff across the retail sector got worse during lockdown and hasn't subsided since. 

"We have heard accounts of increasing customer aggression or abuse towards staff. We have heard that from different stores across the country and brands," she said. 

"People have been raising in various ways the type of concerns they have and I think that is evident in what Countdown is saying."

Williams has heard of checkout operators being screamed at because not enough staff are working and others having food thrown at them because the customer has an issue with a product. 

The AM Show asked viewers and listeners on Tuesday morning if they had ever had issues working in retail - and the response was overwhelming. 

One person messaged to say they had "been abused by countless customers". 

"Usually it's because we don't have what they want so they call me and the store 'useless, or f***ing useless', even from older customers you wouldn't expect it from," the worker said.

Another said they had worked in retail for more than 20 years, and the level of abuse is worse than ever. 

"Where I work we are all completely burnt out and getting it from both ends," they said. "By this, I mean the customers love being rude and disrespectful to us."

"They regularly think they are above us and then we have [a] head office that cut staff during COVID and have not replaced them and not replaced retail hours removed from remaining staff."

The person said they have little support, are missing lunch breaks and are very stressed "while those in head office reap the benefits of retail staff and their efforts".

"We are not appreciated by anyone these days."

The mother of a woman who worked at a supermarket agreed with having employees wear body cams. 

"On her second day, she got verbally abused by a couple of customers," the mother told The AM Show. "She didn't know what zig-zag papers and filters were because she doesn't smoke."

"One person was having a bad day and was putting my daughter down and commenting on her appearance. It's upsetting that people take their frustrations out on others, especially when that person is not the cause of it."

"My daughter quit after one week. Here we are trying to get our youths out there and become independent and then fail because of others behaviours."

Linda, who works in a pharmacy, told The AM Show that some of the things people say, especially men, are "terrible".

"There is a lot of abuse in retail from the public."

A man has been charged over Monday's stabbing.
A man has been charged over Monday's stabbing. Photo credit: Newshub.

Speaking about the issue on The AM Show, sports presenter Mark Richardson said some customers take the saying 'the customer is always right' too far.

"You do get these losers who know they have this legitimate authority or standpoint bestowed upon them because they are the customer," he said. "They will come in there and they will be complete pork chops because they know they can get away with it."

"It makes them feel better about themselves because this poor retail assistant is doing a job and has to pander to them."

Williams says there are a lot of measures businesses can take to improve staff safety. Among them is increasing staffing levels as customers are less likely to abuse an individual worker if others are around. More security guards would deter abusers, while stores should also have up-to-date CCTV systems and lighting in car parks, Williams said. 

The motive behind Monday's attack is currently unclear, but authorities are not considering it a domestic terror attack. The man alleged to be responsible has been charged with four counts of attempted murder and will appear in court on Tuesday afternoon. 

Hannifin told The AM Show that two staff caught up in the attack are in hospital and doing "okay". 

Williams said the event was "shocking, terrifying and upsetting" and that every worker deserved to be able to go to work each day expecting to return home safely.