Australian Retailers Association (ARA) chief executive officer Paul Zahra has penned a letter to Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews highlighting "elevated customer aggression levels" in the state, and has called for improved consultation around vaccination protocols which have become "extremely challenging" for retailers to manage at short notice.
"Our members have reported thousands of incidences of customer aggression including many acts of significant violence towards retail staff – such as staff being beaten up, an instance of a boiling cup of coffee being thrown over a frontline worker and a shopping trolley being thrown at another," Zahra wrote yesterday.
"The reports of customer aggression are coming from a broad range of retailers – from department stores to hardware stores, along with small businesses and even charity shops, many of which have had to put security guards at their doors.
"The timing and the stop-start nature of the vaccine checking requirement, following freedoms experienced by unvaccinated Victorians, has been extremely challenging for retailers to manage."
Zahra noted while customer aggression has remained a problem throughout the pandemic, the behaviour exhibited by customers during the past week reached peak levels, resulting in many retail staff becoming fearful to return to work.
"As you can appreciate, not only does this pose serious mental health risks, it also makes it extremely difficult for retailers to operate during the busiest shopping season of the year," he explained.
"The current skills crisis has already seen many retail and hospitality outlets close due to lack of available staff. This, coupled with the enormous pressure retailers are already under due to supply chain issues and the intensity of Christmas and Black Friday trade, it is creating unprecedented levels of anxiety."
He said the Victorian Government only gave retailers a few hours' notice of their requirements to pivot their business focus on the immediate requirement for vaccine checking.
"For many retailers, this entailed recruitment or rostering of Covid marshalls for one or several entrances," Zahra said.
"Not only was this at great cost to retail, it also meant finding additional staff with limited preparation time. Retail rostering happens days and usually weeks in advance – in many instances required by law."
Zahra said the inclusion of children in the customer vaccination requirements was also a surprise move which was introduced without adequate communication, training materials or signage to assist staff and customers in navigating this change.
"Naturally customers were also taken by surprise with this new requirement," he said.
"Retailers were further blindsided by the bringing forward of staff vaccination requirements from the previously legislated date of 26 November for a second dose to 19 November – without any warning.
"There was the added complexity of the published public health orders contradicting each other around the required dates for staff vaccinations in ‘non-essential’ retail."
He said larger retailers may have had the benefit of a lawyer to interpret these public health directions, but small businesses didn’t stand a chance navigating this confusing legislation the day it came into effect.
"Despite our best efforts at the ARA, we were unable to get clarity from your office or the Department on this staff vaccination matter until the evening of 19 November," he said.
"We believe many of these challenges could have been minimised or avoided entirely with appropriate consultation and planning with the retail community.
"We can only repeat our request for improved consultation, accurate and timely communications and the urgent provision of the final phase plan so retailers can understand and prepare for next steps – avoiding clumsy staff and customer communication and ensuring we maintain the highest levels of staff and customer safety."
Zahra reiterated the ARA's strong recommendation that vaccination checking in VIC is brought into line with the restrictions in place within NSW, which lift on 15 December.
"As borders ease domestically and internationally, it makes no sense to have Australia’s two biggest states at odds around these matters causing unnecessary cost and confusion to business and customers," he said.
"In closing, the Christmas trading period is when most discretionary retailers make up to two-thirds of their profits. These retailers alongside hair and beauty operators, CBD and travel retailers and small business have been the most affected by lockdowns.
"Anything we can do to understand and ease their pressures will go a long way towards a business recovery. In doing so, we will also be relieving stress and mental health challenges for one in ten Victorian workers."
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